When Donald Trump Jr said Democrats hope coronavirus “kills millions of people” in the US because they want to bring his father down, he was merely “pushing back” at politicisation of the viral outbreak by Trump opponents, Mike Pence claimed in an interview broadcast on Sunday.
“It’s time for the other side to turn down the volume,” the vice-president told NBC’s Meet the Press.
At a White House press conference on Saturday, Trump was forced to defend his use of the word “hoax” in reference to the outbreak. Harshly criticised by contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, the president said he had been referring to politicisation of coronavirus, not the outbreak itself.
In the interview broadcast on Sunday, NBC host Chuck Todd played Pence clips of Trump allies discussing the outbreak which on Saturday claimed its first US death, a man in Washington state.
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative shock jock to whom Trump gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said: “The coronavirus is being weaponized, as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.”
Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said: “Democrats are using this for their political gain to try and stoke fear in the American people, which is shameful, wrong, and I think un-American.”
And Donald Trump Jr, appearing on Fox News, said: “For them to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness.”
On CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, host Jake Tapper twice asked Pence if he agreed with Trump Jr’s claim that Democrats want coronavirus to “kill millions of people”.
Pence avoided the question, instead saying people need to set politics aside in the response to the outbreak and insisting Trump, who at his Friday rally claimed “the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans”, was directing all sides to take politics out of the equation.
Pence is in charge of White House efforts in response to the outbreak. Saying he was leading “decisive action to protect the American people”, he told NBC: “And when you see voices on our side pushing back on outrageous and irresponsible rhetoric on the other side, I think that’s important, and I think it’s justified.”
Todd said: “It seems like people are taking nervousness and turning it into a political wedge issue.”
“Well,” Pence replied, “that’s why my friends that you just played clips of are pushing back as hard as they’re pushing. It is time for the other side to turn down the volume.”
Asked to cite instances of politicisation of the outbreak by Democrats or the media, Pence said: “There was a column in the New York Times by a prominent liberal journalist that said, ‘We should rename it the Trump virus.’”
“I mean, to have someone advocate that you rename the coronavirus the Trump virus is reckless and irresponsible.”
The column in question, by Gail Collins, ran on Wednesday under the headline “Let’s call it Trumpvirus” and with a standfirst which read: “If you’re feeling awful, you know who to blame.”
A critical take on Trump’s response to the virus, its first line read: “So, our Coronavirus Czar is going to be … Mike Pence. Feeling more secure?”
Pence has faced criticism for his record on public health while governor of Indiana, and for his view of science-based policy as a strict Christian.
On Saturday night, the Washington Post published a deeply reported account of what it called “the administration’s slapdash and often misleading attempts to contain not just the virus, but also potential political damage from the outbreak – which has tanked financial markets, slowed global commerce and killed some 3,000 people worldwide”.
On NBC, Pence was asked if the president was nervous that the outbreak was going to affect the US economy in an election year.
“The president’s concern is the health and safety of the American people,” Pence said. “I mean, the fundamentals of this economy are strong … and as the president said yesterday, we’re going to focus on the health of the American people and this economy and particularly the stock market that saw some downturns this week, it will come back.
“But our focus is going to remain on the health and well-being of the American people.”
A man in his 50s in Washington state is the first person known to have died from coronavirus in the US, but officials said on Saturday they did not know how he contracted the virus.
Twenty-two Americans have coronavirus that is either travel-related or was spread from another person, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of the Americans repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and Wuhan, China, 47 have tested positive for coronavirus.
According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) situation report, there have been reports of 83,652 cases of coronavirus and nearly 2,800 deaths worldwide.
The majority of cases are in China but severe outbreaks have been reported in Iran, South Korea and Italy. On Saturday, Pence announced measures including new travel restrictions on Iran and screening of passengers coming to the US from other countries.