WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence was at the January meeting at which President Donald Trump was warned about the severity of the novel coronavirus, he told Fox News Thursday.
“I was in the Oval Office the day that the team came in and briefed the president about what we perceived was happening in China,” Pence said, when asked if he had received the same briefing Trump had from National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. “The team came in and laid the facts as we knew them on the table to the president.”
The Jan. 28 briefing included a “jarring” warning that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat” of Trump’s presidency, according to a new book written by veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
Trump imposed restrictions on travel from China three days after the briefing. But he continued to assure the public that the virus was “under control” in the U.S. and would “go away.” He compared the coronavirus to the flu, arguing that cases and deaths from the coronavirus were far less than the flu. And he resisted wearing a mask in public after the CDC issued that recommendation in April.
The pandemic has caused nearly 190,000 deaths in the U.S. with cases totaling over 6 million.
“President Trump never downplayed the coronavirus to any of us,” Pence told an ABC affiliate during a campaign stop in Harrisburg Wednesday. “He never downplayed the coronavirus to any of us he tasked with marshaling a national response.”
Anthony Fauci, right, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, works with Vice President Mike Pence on the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic.
More: Bob Woodward defends keeping revelations about Trump and coronavirus quiet until book release
Trump put Pence in charge of the White House’s coronavirus task force at the end of February.
Pence told Fox News’ Sandra Smith on Thursday that “we were learning all along the way.”
“Our own health experts were not yet convinced about the level of contagion or how serious it was,” Pence said. “So, look, you know, hindsight is 20/20.”
White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci the nation’s top infectious disease expert, defended Trump in a Fox News interview Wednesday.
Fauci said he doesn’t recall Trump saying anything differently in their own discussions than what he said publicly.
“I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything,” Fauci told Fox News’ John Roberts.
Trump told Woodward in a March 19 interview that he “wanted to always play it down,” according to excerpts obtained by CNN.
“I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic,” he said.
Pence said Trump’s comment came “four days after we shut down the entire American economy to put the health of America first.”
But days after Trump told Woodward on April 13 that the virus is “so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it,” the White House released guidelines on how to start reopening the country.
Trump called the book “another political hit job” Wednesday, despite not having read it, and told reporters he sought to avoid national panic over the virus.
“I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic,” Trump said. “Certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”
Pence said Trump believes that “you can’t project weakness” in such times and he wanted to project “calm and confidence.”
“There is that old saying from World War II in Great Britain, that `Keep calm, carry on,'” and that was the presidential leadership that I saw.”
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Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vice President Mike Pence heard early warning about seriousness of coronavirus