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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Mitch McConnell (Image source: Public Domain)
Much of the country was begging Donald Trump for a more appropriate response to the coronavirus pandemic. He refused to treat it seriously until last month, and only this week did it all seem to really sink in. Yet, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remembers things differently: he said Tuesday the impeachment process distracted the administration's attention from the pandemic.
McConnell was interviewed by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, blaming the impeachment effort that ended with Trump's acquittal by the Senate on February 5 for the delay in Trump's actions. It wasn't until three weeks later that the United States experienced the first death from COVID-19.
The House announced it was launching an impeachment trial last September, and impeached the president in December. This moved it on to the Senate, who refused, in January, to hear witnesses or admit evidence.
"It came up while we were, you know, tied down in the impeachment trial," recalled McConnell. "And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything, every day, was all about impeachment."
But the White House was not participating in the impeachment, despite being invited to.
Additionally, McConnell can't take away Trump's own words and actions as he dealt with the threat of coronavirus. He repeatedly downplayed it even after there were a few people infected in the U.S.
It's been suggested that because he downplayed it and insisted it was comparable to the flu, that significant testing was not being developed. Once the country became overrun with sick people, there weren't enough tests, and it took too long to get results back.
When the first person to be tested in the U.S. was identified as testing positive in January, Trump said, "We have it totally under control. ... It's going to be just fine." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who was deeply involved in the impeachment process, was asking the federal government to declare the coronavirus threat a public health emergency.
The Trump administration was criticized by Democrats in early February for not taking the threat seriously enough. Some warned that additional staff and supplies were desperately needed at hospitals.
Once there were signs of community transmission of COVID-19, Trump continued to downplay the risk. "It's going to disappear," he said of the virus. "One day, it's like a miracle: it will disappear."
Trump was able to find other things to occupy his time in January and February. He held many campaign rallies and fundraisers across the country, even holding them after the Democratic candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), had canceled theirs.
The president had lawyers defending him and making his case to the Senate in January. The government agencies that are involved with the White House's response to the coronavirus threat — namely the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services — were not involved in the impeachment, so they were not being held back from working on the coronavirus threat to the U.S.
The coronavirus task force was not developed until January 29 when Trump put Vice President Mike Pence, who was not involved in the impeachment, in charge.
In late January Trump did enact travel and quarantines. In early March he signed the first coronavirus spending bill. Yet, he was still playing it off as if it was not much to be worried about.
The World Health Organization declared coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic in March, and at that point, Trump finally stopped saying it was a hoax but started blaming it on China. He also suggested the country follow social distancing guidelines until the end of the month.
With many governors enforcing stay-at-home orders in their state, Trump then wanted to open up the country again by Easter to help the economy. He changed to suggesting maybe parts of the country could be opened up again, and by this weekend, instead of lifting the guidelines in part, he extended social distancing until the end of April.
McConnell said in the interview Trump has been doing "very, very well" in handling the pandemic and leading the country through it. He mentioned a recent poll that showed 60 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump has been handling the crisis.
"I think he'll keep it up, and I'm proud of the way he's been handling it," he said.
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