WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's remark Saturday night that he asked officials to "slow the (coronavirus) testing down" led to rebukes from experts and frustration from his own staffers, who say it undercuts their efforts to reassure Americans as the disease surges across the country.
Trump's comment, which came on the same day that eight states reported their highest single-day case counts, drew criticism from congressional Democrats and public health officials.
"Looking at it as a scoreboard is the wrong way to think about it," said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "To think of it as something you can manipulate or slow down based on what the numbers look like speaks to a complete misunderstanding of what an infectious disease response should be."
In his first campaign appearance since the virus hit the U.S., Trump called testing-which public health experts say is a crucial part of controlling the pandemica "double-edged sword."
"Here's the bad part ... when you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to findmore cases," Trump told his supporters at the rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please."
On Sunday, Trump's chief trade adviser, Peter Navarro, called Trump's comments "tongue-incheek." Another White House official told the Washington Post that Trump was joking.
Acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf said during an appearance on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that the comments were rooted in Trump's frustration with the press.
"Instead of focusing on the actual progress that this administration has made in revamping an antiquated testing system and testing record millions of Americans, they're focused just on the rising case numbers," Wolfe said.
But behind the scenes, several senior administration officials involved in the coronavirus response expressed frustration with Trump's comments, given the administration's efforts to ramp up testing over the past few months.
One senior official described the coronavirus response as something of a political albatross. The person noted that administration officials and Vice President Mike Pence have been trying to convince the public that Trump is working tirelessly to stamp out the virus.
Trump's comment on Saturday undermined that message.
"The president, or no one else for the matter, has ever told anyone to slow down testing," said one person involved in the coronavirus efforts, who was not authorized to speak publicly about administration efforts. "He was joking, but it's not helpful."
Trump has expressed to other administration officials that cases are being overcounted, two senior administration officials said.
In recent weeks, the president has also made an effort to play down the virus and "move on" to other topics, such as the economy, the two officials said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., condemned Trump's remarks in a statement Sunday, saying the American people "are owed answers about why President Trump wants less testing."
"Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives," Pelosi said in a statement.
After a weeks-long shutdown cratered the economy and resulted in more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs, Trump has encouraged states to reopen.
Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, wrote an opinion article last week in the Wall Street Journal saying there was no coronavirus "second wave."
Experts have disputed that. "We're still really early in this pandemic, and it is not helpful to create a mindset that we're almost done," said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. "It's part of what we're seeing in terms of large outbreaks going on in Arizona, Texas and Florida, is people have gotten convinced the pandemic is over."
Public health experts widely agree that the pandemic is likely to surge again in the fall.