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Democrats distracted by impeachment as coronavirus crept into U.S., Republicans say

Democrats distracted by impeachment as coronavirus crept into U.S., Republicans say

President Trump and his allies are increasingly blaming the Democrats’ failed impeachment drive for distracting Washington’s attention from the coronavirus outbreak this winter.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that impeachment was a needless preoccupation while the pandemic was unfolding.

“It came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial,” the Kentucky Republican told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment.”

He said the Senate nevertheless “pivoted from the most partisan thing you could possibly be involved in, the impeachment of a president, to a unanimous vote on a $2 trillion package all within a couple of months.”

Asked Tuesday whether impeachment diverted his attention or his team’s attention from the coronavirus, the president agreed that it had.



“I don’t like to think I did. I think I handled it very well, but I guess it probably did,” Mr. Trump said at the daily press conference of his coronavirus task force. “I mean, I got impeached. I certainly devoted a little time to thinking about it. I don’t think I would have acted any differently [on the virus], or I don’t think I would have acted any faster.”

Mr. McConnell credited Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, with sounding the alarm to the administration and Congress.

COVID-19 entered the U.S. on Jan. 15 when an infected person traveled to Seattle from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated.

It was the same day Mr. Trump was signing a trade deal with Chinese officials at the White House.

Six days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted the public to the first confirmed case of COVID-19 and said it had deployed a team to Washington state to help investigate. The agency said investigators could trace close contacts to determine whether anyone else had become ill.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation. CDC will continue to update the public as circumstances warrant,” the agency said.

On Jan. 29, the president formed the White House Coronavirus Task Force and appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead it. The president banned most travel from China on Jan. 31 as the administration declared a public health emergency.

The U.S. death toll climbed Tuesday to more than 3,800, with more than 186,000 confirmed cases of infection, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Hospitals and some governors have complained about a lack of medical supplies, and Mr. Trump has been criticized for leading a slow response. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, on Sunday accused Mr. Trump of fiddling while people were dying.

Ron Klain, who served as the Obama administration’s Ebola response coordinator and now is advising the presidential campaign of Democratic front-runner Joseph R. Biden, tweeted that Mr. Trump “found time to do a trade deal with China during impeachment and to praise [Chinese President] Xi for his handling of coronavirus — but not enough time to get us ready.”

Mr. Obama weighed in Tuesday by criticizing the Trump administration for its response to the pandemic and for easing fuel economy standards.

“We’ve seen all too terribly the consequences of those who denied warnings of a pandemic,” Mr. Obama tweeted. “We can’t afford any more consequences of climate denial. All of us, especially young people, have to demand better of our government at every level and vote this fall.”

Mr. Trump has forcefully defended his administration’s response and said Mrs. Pelosi’s obsession with his impeachment distracted her from the coronavirus outbreak.

“Don’t forget, she was playing the impeachment game, her game where she ended up looking like a fool,” Mr. Trump said Monday on “Fox & Friends.” “All she did was focus on impeachment. She didn’t focus on anything having to do with pandemics. She focused on impeachment, and she lost. And she looked like a fool.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, also blamed Mrs. Pelosi for focusing attention on Mr. Trump’s impeachment in December and January while the coronavirus was spreading rapidly in China.

He reminded the Senate that Mrs. Pelosi delayed sending the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber for four weeks.

“As we were dealing with this impeachment garbage, China was on fire,” Mr. Graham said last week on the Senate floor. “You’ll hear more about that later in the year.”

Mr. Trump initially downplayed the outbreak. On Jan. 22, the day his impeachment trial opened in the Senate, he said “we have it totally under control.”

“It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” he said. “It’s going to be just fine.”

Even as late as Feb. 26, Mr. Trump was saying the U.S. had only 15 cases and the number would soon be “down to close to zero.”

Administration officials held a briefing on the coronavirus for the Senate on Jan. 24 at the request of Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.

Politico reported that the classified session was sparsely attended. Mr. Alexander and three colleagues said later that they were “monitoring the outbreak of a novel coronavirus closely and are in close communication with United States government agencies on actions and precautions needed to prevent further spread of this virus.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called on the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 26 to declare a public health emergency. Secretary Alex Azar declared an emergency five days later.

On Feb. 5, lawmakers attended another administration briefing on the virus. Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a frequent Trump critic, said afterward that the administration wasn’t “taking this seriously enough.”

“Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake,” he tweeted at the time. “Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.”

It was the same day that the Senate acquitted Mr. Trump of both charges in his impeachment trial.

Mrs. Pelosi held a weekly news conference Feb. 6 but never mentioned the coronavirus. The House adjourned Feb. 13 and didn’t return to Capitol Hill until Feb. 25.

On that day, Mr. Trump asked Congress for $2.5 billion to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Congress approved $8.3 billion.

That legislation was followed by a roughly $100 billion measure to pay for free testing and medical leave from work. That was followed last week by the $2.2 trillion disaster relief bill — the biggest in U.S. history — for workers and businesses.

A close friend of Mr. Trump, Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy, said Tuesday that the attacks on the president over his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak “are akin to a ‘blood libel’ and demonstrate a degree of political depravity unseen in our politics.”

Writing for his outlet, Mr. Ruddy said neither Mrs. Pelosi nor Trump media detractors such as NBC’s Chuck Todd “were sounding any virus alarm” in January or February.

He also noted that Mr. Biden first criticized Mr. Trump for closing most travel from China and said the president had a history of “hysteria and xenophobia.” Many liberal lawmakers and media outlets took a similar tack at the time about the travel bans.

Mr. Biden said Tuesday that Mr. Trump isn’t responsible for the COVID-19 coronavirus but is responsible for using all of the powers at his disposal to deal with it.

“He’s been very slow to act, for whatever the reason has been,” Mr. Biden said on CNN. “He still hasn’t fully invoked the Defense Production Act.

“What about the masks?” Mr. Biden said. “What about the gowns those doctors and nurses need?”

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

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