Pence Says He’s in Charge of U.S. Virus Response, Not HHS’s Azar

Jennifer Jacobs, Jordan Fabian and Ryan Beene
Pence Says He’s in Charge of U.S. Virus Response, Not HHS’s Azar

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence said he is now leading the government’s coronavirus task force instead of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“I’m leading the task force,” Pence said Thursday at a meeting on the virus at HHS headquarters. “We’ll continue to rely on the secretary’s role as chairman of the task force and the leader of Health and Human Services.”

President Donald Trump initially appointed Azar to lead the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, but on Wednesday, he named Pence to the role at a news conference. The Washington Post reported that Azar was blindsided by the decision, though Azar said he had been consulted and told lawmakers he thought Pence’s appointment was “genius.”

“The president has every confidence in the secretary, as I do,” Pence said in response to a reporter’s question about who is in charge. “The President wanted to make it clear to the American people that we’re going to bring a whole-of-government approach to this.”

Financial markets were not reassured. The S&P 500 fell 4.4% on Thursday, the biggest plunge since 2011, turning lower after California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state is monitoring about 8,400 people for signs of the disease after they traveled to Asia.

Pence added another layer to the government’s management of the virus response on Thursday by appointing the State Department’s top AIDS official, Deborah Birx, to temporarily join his team.

Former Obama Official

Birx is a career government official who was nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator responsible for overseeing humanitarian aid programs combating the epidemic. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was a top research official at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Trump announced Wednesday during a news conference that Pence would take over the administration’s response to the coronavirus, which has now spread to more than 80,000 people worldwide and sparked a major sell-off on Wall Street.

Pence and Azar announced earlier Thursday that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, would join the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Pence said in a speech to conservative activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Maryland that it’s not a time for partisanship.

“We’re ready,” he said. “We’re ready for anything.”

The president sought to calm U.S. fears by appearing Wednesday with public health officials at a news conference, where he said the risk to Americans remains low. But health officials said there are likely to be more cases in the U.S., and Trump acknowledged that the outbreak could become “substantially worse.”

“But nothing’s inevitable,” he said.

Market Tumble

During the news conference, he took jabs at Democrats who had criticized his request for $2.5 billion to fight the virus as insufficient. He said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “is trying to create a panic and there’s no reason to panic because we have done so good, these professionals behind me, and over here, and over there, and back here, and in some conference rooms.”

Global stocks tumbled to four-month lows on Thursday, government debt yields sunk and crude oil extended declines as anxiety over the spread of the coronavirus surged.

Pence’s selection of Birx comes at a time when Trump has focused on rooting out political appointees from government whom he considers disloyal in the aftermath of his impeachment acquittal. Trump allies outside the administration have called for a purge of so-called “deep state” career national security officials.

Investors anxious about the spread of the coronavirus from its origins in China have sought assurances that the Trump administration is prepared to confront a potential public health crisis. Trump, who in the past has called for budget cuts at the CDC and other health agencies, said Wednesday he would bring in officials from within the government to help with the virus response.

(Updates with market plunge in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net;Jordan Fabian in Washington at jfabian6@bloomberg.net;Ryan Beene in Washington at rbeene@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum

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