President Donald Trump's top aides are stepping up blame-game tactics against the states, saying coronavirus testing problems and rising cases are not his fault as they try to counter new polls suggesting that his leadership failings could cost him reelection.
The move comes as Republicans on Capitol Hill haggle over a measure that would replace, with smaller benefits, $600 a week in federal aid to millions of workers that has already paid out for the last time, even as out-of-control virus spikes cause some states to slow or reverse opening plans.
The new administration drive to absolve Trump of responsibility and to speed up economic activity by encouraging people to go back to work follow the President's previously misjudged gamble to goad states that are now suffering terribly from the pandemic to open before they had properly suppressed the virus. It also coincides with his demands that all schools open while ignoring concerns of parents and teachers.
With many states complaining that delays in processing coronavirus tests are making it impossible to check the spread of the disease, the administration claimed again on Sunday that its 'Manhattan Project' on testing is sufficient.
'We have enough tests right now, if we use them in the right way, to achieve the goals that we need to achieve,' Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration's testing czar said on CNN's 'State of the Union.'
Giroir, who did allow that turnaround times for tests needed to improve, said states had not claimed all of the money allocated to build up test and tracing networks seen as critical to quelling the pandemic.
But Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told CNN's Jake Tapper on the same show that Trump's claims that every governor had what they needed from Washington were false. 'That's not the case here in my state of Maryland, and it's not what I'm hearing from all of the other governors,' he said.
Last week, Trump gave a qualified endorsement to mask wearing and warned that the pandemic would likely get worse before it got better. But he also tried to distract from the raging epicenter of the pandemic in southern and western states and claimed inaccurately that the US was doing far better than many European countries that mandated longer lockdowns to fight the virus.
Trump launched the new PR push after some aides pleaded with him to show he was taking the virus seriously amid plunging poll numbers. New CNN/SSRS polling in Florida, Arizona and Michigan shows the President trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a state-of-play that would prove disastrous to Trump's reelection hopes if it is repeated in November.
The President tweeted Sunday that he would not now throw out the first pitch in a game at Yankee Stadium next month because he was concentrating on managing the virus crisis. Trump, however, found time to visit his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort all weekend and was pictured during a round with NFL great Brett Favre.
As part of its aggressive new strategy, the administration also sought Sunday to leverage a fourth phase pandemic stimulus plan to incentivize people to return to work, even as the virus chalks up daily records in new infections.
The White House and Senate Republicans want to replace a weekly payment of $600 in enhanced federal unemployment benefits to workers who lost jobs during lockdowns with a payment equal to 70% of prior income.
The move would cut the federal benefit for many workers but many Republicans argue that such payments act as a disincentive to return to work. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday she would prefer to keep the benefit, which officially expires at the end of the week, the same. The discord on Capitol Hill, and between the GOP and the White House that has delayed the package, is raising fears laid-off workers could be left high and dry with only more meager state unemployment benefits for support.
Multiple aides told CNN on Sunday night that moving forward on a less expansive version of the $1 trillion plan has become a leading option. Such a package could include unemployment insurance and money for schools that the administration is pushing to open. But Pelosi has warned she is not open to 'piecemeal' legislation.
Giroir hits out at testing complaints
In his 'State of the Union' interview, Giroir tried to counter widespread reports that testing is inadequate, that the administration has failed to set up a national testing and tracing operation needed to beat the pandemic, and dismissed warnings by academic experts about the volume of testing.
'Let me assure you that we are not going to stop our efforts until testing is exactly where we want it to be, with rapid turnaround times,' Giroir told Tapper while boasting about 54 million tests conducted. That figure is less impressive over the five-month span of the crisis and given that health experts say several million tests a day may be needed to get it under control.
'We're not going to have 300 million tests per day,' he said, even though no expert has suggested such a volume would be possible or needed. He also claimed that half the tests — those processed in large commercial labs, came back at an average of 4.27 days, a figure he pledged to improve this week.
But Giroir also warned that states had used only $50 million of $10.25 billion allocated to them to hire contact tracers. 'There is money there for them to do it,' he insisted. 'We are supplying the technical assistance. The money is there. The state plans have to meet requirements.'
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar claimed that states had not used $11 billion in allocated financing for next-generation diagnostics.
'We're meeting every need they've got for supplies, for testing,' Azar said on CBS' 'Face the Nation.' 'But at the end of the day, our governors have to take that initiative and get their public health labs fully up and running even as we improve testing through, say, our commercial labs.'
While the blame gets handed out in Washington, some physicians overwhelmed by a wave of sickness and death say they simply do not have the testing capability they need to beat back the pandemic.
'We're living it here right now,' said Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, a primary care physician and pediatrician in Austin, Texas, one of the hottest of viral hotspots.
'We have test results that take 12, 13, to even 14 days to return,' Gandhi said on CNN on Saturday, warning that the lack of sufficient testing and a profit motive made it impossible to beef up diagnostics to halt the asymptomatic spread driving the pandemic.
'We can't scale basic community testing particularly in communities of color, especially where essential workers are working ... The government should step in,' Gandhi said.
A cut in benefits, but a $1,200 check
The new stimulus package due to be unveiled Monday after stop-start negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House would include another round of $1,200 checks payments for many Americans despite failing to renew full weekly unemployment payments.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on 'State of the Union' that the measure would also extend an expiring federal eviction moratorium.
Kudlow said that the unemployment enhancement was meant to keep people at home during lockdowns but was now harming the hopes of economic recovery.
'We have had a flood of inquiries and phone calls and complaints that small stores and businesses and restaurants can't hire people back.' Kudlow said.
But his comments, and an exceedingly rosy view of a crisis killing 1,000 Americans a day, raise the possibility that the administration is trying to force people to return before it is safe.
'There are more states that are reopening and doing very well. There are some key states, yes. California and Texas and Florida, right now that are having hot spot difficulties. But it's nothing like it was last winter,' Kudlow said.
Kudlow spoke the day after Florida, one of the states that enthusiastically embraced Trump's economic opening push, overtook New York to stand second in total US Covid-19 cases behind California.
When Tapper pointed out that many workers didn't find it safe to return to work because of the spike in the virus, Kudlow emulated his colleagues and put the blame on states for not doing enough.
'It's a more optimistic picture than the one you are painting. And I think that we have made great strides. I mean, federal government doesn't control this. We are leaders, hopefully, in encouraging people to be safe and secure and accept our guidelines. The states are in charge of this. Each state has a different story.'
Kudlow's comment about guidelines is undermined by Trump's disregard of state opening suggestions written by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the President's push for all schools to reopen even as the situation worsens and his refusal until last week to endorse mask wearing.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo meanwhile blamed states that are now facing the same kind of coronavirus crisis endured by New Yorkers earlier this year for heeding conservative media commentary that supports Trump's position on aggressive reopening of the economy.
'Florida listened to the New York Post, Texas listened to the Wall Street Journal, Arizona listened to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, that was wrong, that was wrong,' Cuomo told reporters.
'We have a phased modulated reopening, and that is right.'