Donald Trump has said the White House coronavirus task force will “continue on indefinitely”, reversing course from a day earlier as he described the Covid-19 crisis as “worse” than the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mike Pence, the US vice-president who chairs the task force, told reporters on Tuesday that the task force could be disbanded as soon as Memorial day, on May 25, saying the decision was a “reflection of the tremendous progress we have made as a country”.
Speaking hours later at a Honeywell plant that manufactures respiratory masks in Arizona, Mr Trump defended the plans, saying the US “could not be closed for the next five years”.
But on Wednesday morning, the president switched course, saying on Twitter that the task force, which counts Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci among its most high-profile members, would continue “indefinitely” with a “focus on safety and opening up our country again”.
“The White House coronavirus task force, headed by vice-president Mike Pence, has done a fantastic job of bringing together vast highly complex resources that have set a high standard for others to follow in the future,” Mr Trump said. “The task force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on safety and opening up our country again . . . We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate.”
Later on Wednesday, Mr Trump told reporters at a White House event for National Nurses Week that “two or three” people would be added to the task force by next week.
When asked why he changed his position on the task force, Mr Trump said he had “no idea how the popular the task force is” until he talked about winding it down.
“It is appreciated by the public,” the president added.
Mr Trump later claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic was the “worst attack” in US history, saying: “We went through the worst attack we’ve ever had on our country. This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had
“This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this,” the president added. “And it should have never happened. It could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped in China.”
The White House set up the coronavirus task force in January. Since then, Dr Birx, an immunologist and army colonel, and Dr Fauci, the longtime director of the non-partisan National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have become among the most-trusted members of the Trump administration, according to public opinion polling.
Last month, Mr Trump retweeted a post by a Republican former congressional candidate who called for Dr Fauci to be fired, raising concerns that the plain-speaking doctor who makes regular media appearances could be let go.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday that both Drs Birx and Fauci would continue to be involved in the federal government’s Covid-19 response.
Separately on Tuesday, Rick Bright, the former head of the US biomedical research agency, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was removed from his job after pushing for robust scientific evidence and a more aggressive response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Mr Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until earlier this year, alleged he was removed in part because of his reluctance to push chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, antimalarial drugs championed by Mr Trump as coronavirus treatments.
He is expected to testify before a congressional panel next week.
The president’s plans to disband the task force had attracted the ire of Democrats and public health experts on Tuesday, with Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, saying the president was taking “exactly the wrong approach”.
The US death toll surpassed 65,000 on Tuesday after the country reported 2,527 fatalities, its third-highest daily tally. There have been nearly 1.2m confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US since the start of the year.