Washington: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says President Donald Trump's impeachment trial distracted the federal government from the novel coronavirus as it reached the United States in January, despite warnings at the time from public health experts and members of Congress about the spread of the deadly virus.
The outbreak "came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment,'' McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday.
The Trump administration has been severely criticised for its slow response to the pandemic, especially for the shortage of coronavirus testing kits when the infection first spread to the US from China.
Trump initially downplayed the virus, comparing it to the seasonal flu and declaring it may go away on its own. The administration also has been criticised for not supplying needed protective medical gear for health care workers.
McConnell's argument breaks sharply with assurances that the Trump administration made early on about the virus. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who declared a public health emergency January 31, said at the time that the public "can be assured the full weight of the US government is working to safeguard the health and safety of the American people.
And weeks after his February 5 acquittal in the impeachment trial, Trump continued to minimise fears as he insisted the US was very, very ready for whatever the outbreak brings.
On February 25, he told business leaders in India: "I think that's a problem that's going to go away." I think it's going to work out fine,'' Trump added. I hope so. We're working very hard. ... We just asked for two and a half-billion dollars on getting everything ready just in case something should happen.'' Congress later approved three separate bills responding to the outbreak, including an unprecedented USD 2.2 trillion package Trump signed last week.
McConnell said Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was among the first in Congress to raise an alarm. Cotton, an outspoken critic of China's communist government, has said he does not trust China to act truthfully about the virus.
"He was first, and I think Tom was right on the mark,'' McConnell said. Tom figured this out early, and he was absolutely right." Cotton, in a separate interview with Hewitt on Tuesday, said he had been studying the virus since mid-January. "Unfortunately, Washington, especially the Congress, was consumed with another matter ... the partisan impeachment of the president,'' he said.
"I was focused at the time on what I thought was going to be a growing crisis coming out Wuhan. And unfortunately, it's been proven correct,'' Cotton said. The virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The US death toll from the coronavirus has climbed past 3,500, eclipsing China's official count.
The Trump administration briefed the Senate on January 24 during the impeachment trial and again on February 5, the day Trump was acquitted.
Still, the threat posed by the virus was not widely understood, and some lawmakers complained that Trump wasn't taking a growing threat seriously. For weeks after the first US case of the coronavirus was confirmed in January, government missteps caused a shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, leading to delays in diagnoses.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate health and foreign relations committees issued a joint statement after the January 24 briefing, declaring, We are 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."
The statement said China "has taken steps to share information with international health experts'' and thanked administration officials for providing an update.
Two days later, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on the administration to declare coronavirus a public health emergency, freeing up $85 million for federal agencies.
Azar, in declaring the public health emergency for the entire US on January 31, said: "While this virus poses a serious public health threat, the risk to the American public remains low at this time, and we are working to keep this risk low.
That same day, Trump imposed travel restrictions on China in response to the outbreak. Most major airlines had already suspended flights to China, following the lead of several major international carriers. An earlier State Department advisory told Americans not to travel to China because of the outbreak.
Despite those actions, the administration and Trump himself downplayed the virus for weeks before taking more drastic steps this month. Trump speculated last week that the country could be opened up' by Easter, April 12, but has since said social distancing" guidelines should remain in place through April 30 at least.
Cotton called Trump's decision to impose travel restrictions on China probably the single most important thing the US government has done over the last two months.''
But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Trump has been slow to respond from the start. "Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren't taking this seriously enough,'' he tweeted February 5.