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Pence and Azar’s coronavirus media tour revealed that their main concern is protecting Trump

It was an exercise in spin.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen to US Secretary of Health Alex Azar during a news conference on the Covid-19 outbreak, at the White House on February 26, 2020.
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

There’s really no defending the attempts President Donald Trump and his eldest son made over the weekend to weaponize a pandemic outbreak against their political opponents, including the president dismissing Democratic concerns about the administration’s coronavirus response as “their new hoax.” Nonetheless, on Sunday, both Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar gave it their best shot.

Three-plus years into the Trump presidency, there’s a long tradition of administration officials defending everything from Trump’s absurd misinformation about how wind energy works to his juvenile attacks on political opponents. But that Pence and Azar — the top administration officials overseeing the coronavirus response — wouldn’t even disavow Trump’s use of the word “hoax” amid a possible pandemic is perhaps the strongest illustration yet that there’s nothing Trump’s top officials won’t defend.

During an appearance on CNN, Pence downplayed Donald Trump Jr.’s baseless accusation about Democrats hoping that Covid-19 (the disease caused by coronavirus) “kills millions of people,” characterizing his sentiment as “understandable.”

And on ABC, Azar defended President Trump’s comments about concerns about his administration’s handling of the outbreak being a “new hoax,” saying, “he’s talking about the partisan sniping that we’re seeing, and that’s just — it’s unnecessary.”

It should have been easy for Pence and Azar to distance themselves from those remarks. It is simply not the case that Democrats want people to die, and with five American deaths already reported, it’s clear that nothing about the coronavirus is a “hoax.” But the fact that Pence and Azar instead defended the remarks shows the degree of loyalty Trump expects from those working for him.

In that regard, Pence’s and Azar’s performances Sunday demonstrated why Trump refused to appoint someone from outside the administration to oversee the coronavirus response effort. He ultimately selected Pence, a choice that, according to a Washington Post report Saturday, was made as Trump was “wondering whether such a person would be loyal to him.” Hours later, Pence and Azar proved that they are.

There are already many legitimate reasons to criticize the administration’s coronavirus response

It is true that there has been some criticism of the administration’s response to the coronavirus, but it has been bipartisan and largely grounded in specific issues, such as GOP Sen. Richard Shelby and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s concerns about the amount of anti-coronavirus money the administration has allocated being inadequate. And as my colleague Matthew Yglesias detailed last week, there are good reasons for folks to be worried about whether the administration is up for the task.

Trump has systematically dismantled America’s pandemic response capabilities since taking office, including getting rid of the National Security Council’s Director of Global Health Security position in 2018 and proposing massive cuts to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health as recently as last month. So it’s not surprising that the administration’s response to the coronavirus has been dysfunctional at best.

On Sunday, Axios broke news about problems with government-made test kits for the coronavirus that have resulted in the US being far behind nations like China and South Korea when it comes to conducting large-scale testing. Those problems make the Trump administration’s refusal to take the World Health Organization (WHO) up on its offer to provide testing kits look extremely questionable.

Axios reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now says it has full confidence in the testing kids, but the delay in rolling them out has already had consequences, as “a slew of new cases announced over the weekend suggest the virus has spread throughout the country while the US government tested only a narrow subset of the population for it.”

As Dr. Matt McCarthy alluded to during a Monday morning appearance on CNBC, the Trump administration responded to the coronavirus threat by closing borders but was derelict about testing people within the country.

“In New York state, the person who tested positive was only the 32nd test we’ve done in this state. That is a national scandal,” McCarthy said. “They’re testing 10,000 a day in some countries, and we can’t get this off the ground. I’m a practitioner on the firing line, and I don’t have the tools to properly care for patients today.”

The CDC came under fresh scrutiny Monday following news it mistakenly released a patient from the Texas Center for Infectious Disease who later tested positive for Covid-19. And That may not be the only major mistake that’s already taken place: A whistleblower claims Health and Human Services (HHS) staffers received coronavirus patients from Wuhan without protective gear or training.

Trump’s choice to put Pence in charge of the coronavirus response has also drawn criticism. The vice president not only has no public health qualifications, but he turned a blind eye to an HIV outbreak in his home state of Indiana while he was governor. As Judd Legum reported, Pence wasted no time misleading people about the administration’s coronavirus response. During a Sunday morning appearance on Fox Business, Pence obfuscated the lack of Covid-19 testing that’s occurred in the US by conflating medical testing with the casual screening of people traveling through airports.

All of this is to say that pointing out legitimate concerns about the Trump administration’s response is not tantamount to politicizing a viral outbreak, despite the administration’s claims otherwise. And it is worth noting the administration has not been clear about the source of their outrage — for example, when Pence was asked on Meet the Press to cite examples of rhetoric that he thought crossed a line, he struggled to do so.

Trump doesn’t view coronavirus concerns solely as a public health issue

Trump, as always, is hypersensitive to criticism, and he seems to view the coronavirus as mainly a public relations issue.

There’s a particular irony in Trump officials attacking Democrats for allegedly politicizing a public health crisis, seeing as how Trump himself was arguably the worst offender in whipping up Ebola hysteria and using it as a cudgel to attack Democrats in the lead-up to the 2014 midterms.

Unlike Trump, Obama responded to that crisis by appointing a czar from outside government to coordinate the response effort. Ultimately, Ebola did not spread in the United States. There were only two deaths from the disease in the country, and both of them were people who contracted it in Africa. It’s hard to argue that the Obama administration’s response was anything but competent and effective.

Trump’s coronavirus response efforts, by contrast, have not gotten off to a great start. And instead of processing criticism constructively and using it to improve, Pence and Azar’s defense of the Trump family’s incendiary comments indicate that anybody who dares to point out problems will become a target for criticism themselves.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.