'He was confused': Trump says health chief 'mistaken' to say vaccine won't be widely available until mid-2021

Robert Redfield sticks to his guns over president’s criticism of his stance on masks, saying they are ‘the best defence we currently have against this vaccine’

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Thursday 17 September 2020 00:05
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Trump says health chief 'mistaken' to say vaccine won't be widely available until mid-2021

Donald Trump said his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director “made a mistake” because he was “confused” when he told lawmakers on Wednesday that a coronavirus vaccine won’t be widely distributed until next spring.

"He misunderstood the question, probably,” the president told reporters at the White House, of Robert Redfield’s Senate testimony.

Mr Trump said he “got the impression” that Mr Redfield did not mean to say what he said earlier in the day on a call with his CDC boss. Mr Redfield also told senators that wearing a mask, at this point, is more effective than a not-yet-deployed vaccine. Mr Trump pushed back on that when asked on Wednesday evening, saying, “I think there are a lot of problems with masks,” contending a vaccine would be much more effective in defeating the disease. But then he added: “Perhaps the mask helps.”

Scott Atlas, a White House pandemic adviser, told reporters alongside the president that 200m doses could be ready this year for the most vulnerable, like elderly Americans.

“We will be ready at a faster pace than he said,” Mr Trump said of Mr Redfield’s estimate. “Base on what I’m hearing, results are very good.”

Despite them publicly contradicting one another, Mr Trump said he still has confidence in his CDC director.

Mr Redfield himself responded by sticking to his guns, at least on the masks issue, tweeting: “The best defence we currently have against this virus are the important mitigation efforts of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and being careful about crowds.”

He added: “I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines and the importance in particular of a #COVID19 vaccine. A COVID-19 vaccine is the thing that will get Americans back to normal everyday life.”

Mr Trump at times warned about the virus being severe and deadly, but at others urged governors to open their states.

“Open them,” he said of states still under economic restrictions.

Minutes later, however, he said this: “This is the most contagious flu or virus anyone has seen.”

The president used part of his opening remarks to first congratulate the Big Ten college football conference for announcing it plans to start its 2020 season in late October, then to pressure them on what to do inside their stadiums.

He suggested 25 per cent fan capacity, then said: “I think they could have fans go.”

Playing the role of college football commissioner, a position that does not exist, Mr Trump pressed Pac-12 Conference officials to also get their season going this fall.

“There’s no reason why the Pac-12 shouldn’t be playing now,” he said, then referring to four of the so-called “Power Five” leagues playing or planning to this autumn. “They’re the only ones.”

He used parts of the briefing to tout the peace pacts his team helped broker among Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, and to make his baseless claim that Democratic governors plan to use mail-in voting to steal the election from him in November.

Mr Trump addressed reporters about an hour after Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, did so in yet another speech in Wilmington, Delaware, where he has mostly ridden out the coronavirus pandemic.

He mocked Mr Trump for criticising him for a remark the former VP made during the Democratic National Convention, when he endorsed a national mask mandate should the virus spread like wildfire again. Mr Biden lacks the authority, as a civilian, to require anyone to do anything, a point he made with a mocking whisper on Wednesday afternoon.  

“I’m not the president,” Mr Biden said, leaning into his mic for emphasis. “He’s the president.”

‘Trust the scientists’

But Mr Biden did not stop there.

“Scientific breakthroughs don’t care about calendars any more than the virus does. They certainly don’t adhere to election cycles,” he said. “And their timing, their approval, and their distribution should never, ever be distorted by political considerations.”

When a reporter asked Mr Biden, on a rare occasion on which he took questions, if he is saying Americans should not trust the current president, he responded: “No, I’m not. I’m saying trust the scientists. Trust the scientists. It’s one thing for Donald Trump to say the vaccine is safe. Okay, then give it to the Board of Scientists. Have total transparency.”

Mr Trump and his surrogates, however, continue to claim they will have a vaccine by year’s end. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated that projection during her own briefing earlier on Wednesday. For his part, the president earlier this week predicted one would be ready in “eight weeks.”

That flies in contradiction to what his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Robert Redfield, told lawmakers on Wednesday morning.

“If you're asking me when is it going to be available to the American public so we can begin … to get back to our regular life,” he told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, “I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

The president spoke to reporters before departing the White House for a GOP fundraiser across town. He got some good political news to start the day, with a new Washington Post-ABC News survey showing he has cut Mr Biden’s lead in Wisconsin in half.

That poll put the former VP’s lead among registered voters at just 4 percentage points (50 per cent to 46 per cent), and at 6 points among likely voters (52-46). RealClearPolitics’ average of several polls had Mr Biden up by 8 points on June 27. As the Post noted, neither margin is insurmountable for this president as the survey’s margin of error is 4.5 per cent.

That suggests Wisconsin, and other Rust Belt battlegrounds, are very much in play.

Both candidates will be on the campaign trail at the same time on Thursday: Mr Biden with an 8pm CNN town hall in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania; the president jets to Wisconsin, for a rally under the lights in Mosinee.

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