Former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday accused President Trump of dithering in the early days of the coronavirus, saying that a “failure of planning and preparation” by the White House has worsened the health and economic crises the nation faces.
Speaking from a makeshift studio at his home in Delaware, Biden made his first public remarks about the coronavirus in nearly a week, addressing concerns from some on the left that he has been ceding the spotlight to Trump.
The former vice president accused the Trump administration of ignoring early warning signs about the pandemic and of downplaying the disease at critical points when the virus was primarily concentrated in China.
“For too long, the warning signs were ignored,” Biden said. “For too long, the administration said the threats were under control, contained, or like the flu. The president said no one saw this coming. That’s just not accurate. Our intelligence officials were warning about the coronavirus threat in January. Just based on public information I had, I warned the threat was getting worse way back on January 27.”
"The president says no one saw this coming," Joe Biden says. "Well that's just not accurate…Just based on public information that I had, I warned the threat was getting worse way back on January 27." https://t.co/Z3azdNU1nk pic.twitter.com/UXgmGwNMr4— ABC News (@ABC) March 23, 2020
“My point is not simply that the president was wrong,” Biden continued. “My point is that the mindset that was slow to recognize the problem in the first place, to treat it with a seriousness it deserved, is still too much a part of how the president is addressing the problem.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared the coronavirus a public health emergency on Jan. 31, 10 days after the first case appeared in the U.S.
The president initially said that the spread was “under control” in the U.S. and that the warmer spring weather might help to curb the spread before launching a task force headed by Vice President Pence on Feb. 26 to lead the government’s response.
A shortage of test kits has been among the most glaring shortfalls of the government response, and Biden pointed to South Korea, where testing has been free and easy and the country appears to be on the right trajectory despite identifying its first case on the same day the U.S. did.
“We had none of that, so we’re left with only the extreme social distancing measure in place,” Biden said. “That’s a failure of planning and preparation by the White House.”
The Trump campaign swung back, saying that Biden should “answer for his own failed record on public health.” The Trump campaign accused Biden of mishandling the H1N1 swine flu pandemic from 2009, saying that at the time the administration failed to stockpile respirators.
The campaign also pointed to a 2009 White House briefing in which then-White House spokesman Robert Gibbs walked back remarks Biden made that the travel industry described as “fear mongering.”
“Biden has already proven he has nothing new to add to the public discourse around the coronavirus, nor can he explain why he sided with the Chinese in opposing President Trump’s life-saving China travel restrictions,” said Trump campaign spokesman Andrew Clark. “In his rush to politicize the pandemic, Biden is displaying his poor judgement when it comes to protecting America’s public health.”
The former vice president on Monday also laid out four points of action he wants to see the government take.
Biden said Trump must authorize the Defense Production Act to order companies to make critical health care supplies, such face masks.
“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president, well start to act like one,” Biden said.
Trump has been resistant to ordering companies to make certain items, saying the companies know what they do best and are reacting to market pressures to produce the goods that need to be made.
Biden also said the president must employ the armed forces and National Guard to expand hospital capacity; that Trump must “end the infighting and bickering” between political officials and health experts in his administration; and that he must “set the right priorities for the economic response” by directing cash to average workers, rather than big companies and their executives.
A massive spending bill stalled in the Senate on Sunday night amid allegations from Democrats that it was a “slush fund” for large corporations that could be used for executive bonuses and stock buybacks.
“As of last night, President Trump and Mitch McConnell were offering a plan to let big corporations off the hook,” Biden said. “They proposed a $500 billion slush fund for corporations with almost no conditions.”
Republicans are furious over the allegations, noting that the spending package includes direct payments to low-earning Americans and that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had praised the package as a bipartisan achievement as recently as Saturday.
Biden’s address comes as some Democrats have expressed frustration that he’s allowing Trump to take center stage in a time of crisis.
The president’s approval rating has been rising over the past week, even as many in Washington have criticized his handling of the government’s response.
Biden has been taken off the campaign trail due to orders from officials that people stay indoors. He had not spoken in front of cameras since last Tuesday, as his team outfitted his home with a television studio so that he could address the public from there.
Biden says he expects to make regular on-camera appearances going forward, although the first one was not seamless.
The former vice president appeared to run into an issue with his script at one point. He waved at a staffer to move along before abandoning one of his talking points.
Still, the address should quell some concerns that he’s been absent at a critical moment.
“I hope today and in the days ahead the president will give us the unvarnished truth,” Biden said. “I hope he lets the medical experts and FEMA leaders take center stage, to hear from them directly. And I hope we hear less talk and see more evidence of fast action.”
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