Shortly after confirmation of the first coronavirus death in the US, Donald Trump rebuffed criticism for using the word “hoax” in describing the outbreak. The president also touted his administration’s response as “the most aggressive action in modern history to confront this disease”.
“The Democrats are politicising the coronavirus,” Trump said. “They’re politicising it. One of my people came up to me and said: ‘Mr President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.
“This is their new hoax.”
Washington state governor Jay Inslee confirmed the death on Saturday.
“It is a sad day in our state as we learn a Washingtonian has died from Covid-19,” Inslee said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to his family and friends. We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus.”
According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) situation report, 83,652 cases of coronavirus and nearly 2,800 deaths have been reported worldwide. The vast majority of cases are in China but the virus has caused havoc with stock markets and international travel and sporting and business events.
Before news of the Washington state death, US authorities reported three new cases in the Pacific north-west overnight, bringing the total to 62.
At the White House on Saturday, Trump was asked if he regretted using “hoax” now that someone had died.
His use of the word referred to “the action they [Democrats] tried to take to try to pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job”, he said.
“The hoax is on them. I’m not talking about what’s happening here,” Trump added, also saying he was “certainly not referring to this … I don’t like it when they are criticizing these people, and that’s the hoax.”
Trump was also asked if his use of “hoax” could deter people from taking cautionary steps against the coronavirus. He insisted again the word was used “with regard to Democrats and what they were saying”.
Regarding the White House’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Trump said he would meet with pharmaceutical companies on Monday to discuss expedited vaccine development.
Vice-President Mike Pence, heading the coronavirus task force, described four new initiatives to combat the virus. They included expanding the federal ban on travel from Iran, barring foreign nationals who have visited the country within 14 days from entering the US.
Pence said US officials would also increase to “the highest level” an advisory warning Americans not to visit areas of Italy and South Korea most impacted by coronavirus, and said the state department would work with these countries to screen individuals.
Pence also said the administration had contracted with 3M to produce an additional 35 million face masks per month.
Trump’s comments about a supposed hoax were condemned by Democrats seeking the nomination to face him in the presidential election.
“For him to … start talking about being a hoax is absolutely dangerous,” Biden said in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday. “It’s just not a decent way to act.”
Biden added: “Some of the stuff he says is so bizarre that you can laugh at it. It just so diminishes the faith that people around the world have in the United States.”
Trump repeatedly called Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference a hoax. The former special counsel did not establish a criminal conspiracy but did lay out extensive evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians and numerous instances of potential obstruction of justice.
“Look, this is a serious, serious, serious problem,” Biden said. “It’s able to be solved, but it requires us to be absolutely levelheaded and let the scientists have the lead in all of this.
“But for [Trump] to … start talking about being a hoax is absolutely dangerous. It’s just not a decent way to act.”
Other Democratic candidates weighed in. Sanders asked why Trump “repeatedly think[s] that scientific facts are hoaxes” and said “the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country” was “putting our people’s lives at risk”.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told NBC News: “It’s critically important that the administration and the White House handle this in a way that’s based on science and not on politics. I was particularly disturbed to hear the word ‘hoax’ used by the president.”
American lives, Buttigieg added, “depend on the wisdom and the judgement of the president at a time like this”.
Amid criticism for previous budget cuts to epidemic defences as his administration asked Congress for funding to address the coronavirus outbreak, Trump’s decision to put Pence in charge of US response has also met with widespread criticism.
Republicans and supporters of Trump have fired back, accusing the president’s opponents and the media of seeking political gain from the outbreak. On Friday the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, told Fox News Democrats had reached a “new level of sickness” and wanted to see coronavirus kill “millions of people”.
On Friday night, the president said: “We are doing everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering the country. We have no choice.” He also sought without offering evidence to tie coronavirus cases in the US to the southern border, the focus of his hardline immigration policy.
“Whether it’s the virus that we’re talking about,” Trump said, “or the many other public health threats, the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans.”
At the White House on Saturday Trump said the administration was not seriously considering closing the border with Mexico.