Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday was asked to respond to comments by Donald Trump Jr. and other conservatives claiming that Democrats actually support the coronavirus insofar as it could politically damage President Donald Trump.
Pence, 60, was appearing on Meet the Press to discuss the government’s coronavirus response. Trump put him in charge of addressing the respiratory virus last week.
Host Chuck Todd asked Pence about comments by Trump allies, including the president’s oldest son, that contended the Democrats wanted this to become a political issue. Todd pressed Pence to point to specific examples of this, while stressing that Pence himself had not politicized the virus.
Pence avoided directly commenting on Don Jr.’s argument, who had said “for them [Democrats] to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they can end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness.”
“None of this seems to match the facts,” Todd told Pence. “What facts are there that Democrats are doing this? Seems like people are asking questions and they’re concerned about the virus. This implies some sort of political motivation, which is kind of gross.”
“There’s been a lot of irresponsible rhetoric among Democrats and commentators on the left,” Pence responded.
Asked for examples, he pointed to a recent column in The New York Times titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus.” Todd said back that that did not seem representative of Democrats broadly, as Don Jr. had contended.
“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,” Pence said.
Last week, President Trump told a crowd of supporters that the coronavirus was being politicized by Democrats as their “new hoax,” prompting responses from Democratic lawmakers.
“Some of the stuff he says is so bizarre that you can laugh at it,” former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running to challenge Trump in November, told reporters on Saturday. “The president of the United States says it’s a hoax? It’s hard to believe. Even for him, it’s hard to believe.”
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The coronavirus has spread to some 60 countries around the world, infecting more than 89,000 people and killing more than 3,000. Still, health officials have stressed that the average risk to Americans from the virus is low.
The first two deaths in the United States were reported this weekend, in Washington.
“This is about the lives of American people,” Pence told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday. “This is no time for politics.”
The vice president declined to specifically comment on what both Don Jr. and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh had said about coronavirus, but he said he had “great respect” for Limbaugh.
Instead, Pence said these remarks were part of a larger, and justified, response by conservatives to rhetoric elsewhere.
“And that’s why my friends that you just played clips of are pushing back as hard as they’re pushing,” he told Todd. “It’s time for the other side to turn down the volume.”
Democrats were critical of Pence being named in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, citing what they said was his mishandling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana when he was the state’s governor.
“It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter following the announcement. “This decision could cost people their lives. Pence’s past decisions already have.”
Pence will oversee and coordinate communications between the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Departments of Transportation and the State Department, while staying in touch with governors and state officials to monitor the outbreak around the country.
Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a leading voice on global health outbreaks, told PEOPLE: “It’s going to be more than a full-time job, so I guess that’s the question: Will he be allowed to walk away from his other responsibilities as vice president in order to focus on this?”