WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Monday the United States has done “too good a job” on testing for cases of COVID-19, even as his staff insisted the president was only joking when he said over the weekend that he had instructed aides to “slow the testing down, please.”
The president’s comments at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday brought quick rebukes from the campaign of likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as well as scores of Democratic lawmakers.
In an interview with Scripps for its local TV stations, Trump was asked Monday whether he did indeed tell aides to “slow it down.” He did not directly answer the question.
“If it did slow down, frankly, I think we’re way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. “We’ve done too good a job,” adding that the reason the United States has more coronavirus cases is that it does more testing.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact, saying Trump made the slow-it-down comment “in jest.”
She said that Trump’s comments were an effort to criticize the media for its coverage of the coronavirus and its “failure” to understand that “when you test more, you also find more cases.”
However, the U.S. is seeing disturbing trends in several benchmarks, including the percentage of tests that prove positive for the virus.
Health officials say that testing in the United States early on was insufficient for optimal containment. In early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, testified that the nation’s testing system was “not really geared to what we need right now” and added, “it is a failing. Let’s admit it.”
But now, about a half-million people per day are being tested, and the president and his aides have been repeatedly touting the United States as leading the world in testing.
Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada told Vice-President Mike Pence in a conference call with governors on Monday that the president’s comments were not helpful and wanted assurances there is not a federal mandate to slow down testing. Pence told Sisolak and other governors on the call that the administration looked forward to continuing to partner with them on testing.
The administration also stressed to governors on the call that states should be focusing resources on “hard to test” communities and that counties with high positivity rates should be saturated with more testing.
Lawmakers are expected to have several questions about testing and the president’s comments on Tuesday when members of the administration’s coronavirus task force testify at a House hearing.
“The American people are owed answers about why President Trump wants less testing when experts say much more is needed,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Trump’s rally remarks on discouraging testing “somewhat of a flippant comment” and said it’s not in line with what he’s heard from the administration.
“It’s clear the national policy is to expand testing,” said Hutchinson, a Republican. “There again, you have to look at what is the action, what is the true policy versus just what the words are.”
The United States has confirmed nearly 2.3 million COVID-19 cases, which represents about a quarter of the world’s cases. More than 120,000 people in the U.S. with COVID-19 have died. The next closest nation is Brazil, with 50,600 deaths.
Associated Press staff writers Michelle Price in Las Vegas, Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.
Kevin Freking, The Associated Press