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Trump Visits CDC After Coronavirus Fears Throw Schedule Into Chaos

At the CDC, President Trump holds a picture of the coronavirus as top health officials take him on a tour of a lab where tests are developed.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
At the CDC, President Trump holds a picture of the coronavirus as top health officials take him on a tour of a lab where tests are developed.

Updated at 7 p.m. ET

President Trump on Friday stopped in at the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency marshaling the response to coronavirus — a major political test for his administration.

The trip itself was almost derailed by coronavirus fears, and mixed signals about what was happening created an on-again, off-again drama that played out in front of television cameras. The chaotic impression clashed with the White House quest to show that the public health crisis is under control.

"It will end. People have to remain calm," Trump said.

Trump and his officials did a 47-minute impromptu news conference, answering questions both scientific — and very political.

Trump slammed Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor grappling with an outbreak in his state. Vice President Pence had spent time with Inslee on Thursday and praised his work.

"That governor is a snake," Trump said, grousing that he expected Inslee would be critical of the job his administration is doing on coronavirus. "Mike may be happy with him, but I'm not.

And moments before Pence, at a White House briefing, somberly announced that some 2,500 passengers stranded on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the California coast would be brought to land to be tested and quarantined — Trump said he would rather they stay on the ship.

"Our numbers are going to go up," he complained, referring the number of cases of coronavirus. Pence said of 46 tests done so far, 19 crew and two passengers have tested positive. (The crew will remain in quarantine on the ship.)

The White House carefully staged a series of events this week to try to show that it had taken charge of the coronavirus response: meetings with Congress and industry leaders, a tour of a vaccine lab at the National Institutes of Health, and Vice President Mike Pence's trip to Washington State to meet local leaders grappling with the outbreak.

To cap off the week, Trump was supposed to sign the $8 billion emergency funding package for the response into law in Atlanta at the CDC. Pence even mentioned it in remarks during his Washington visit.

But late Thursday night, when the White House issued Trump's daily public schedule, it surprisingly did not include a stop in Atlanta. It took some time for the White House to explain the change.

"The president is no longer traveling to Atlanta today. The CDC has been proactive and prepared since the very beginning and the president does not want to interfere with the CDC's mission to protect the health and welfare of their people and the agency," a White House official first explained, in a statement.

President Trump signs the $8 billion emergency funding bill for coronavirus at the White House on Friday.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Trump signs the $8 billion emergency funding bill for coronavirus at the White House on Friday.

Trump was still slated to fly to Tennessee to survey tornado damage. Before he left, the White House hastily arranged a bill-signing ceremony.

That's when Trump revealed a different explanation for the scheduling snafus.

Trump said a CDC employee had showed symptoms of the virus. The White House learned about the suspected case on Thursday.

"They had one person who was potentially infected," Trump told reporters. The staffer was tested, then cleared. "It turned out negative, so we'll see if we can do it," he said of the visit.

"We're going to try to go," he told reporters before leaving for Nashville. "I may be going, we're going to see if we can turn it around."

Trump later said it made sense for him to stop in Atlanta, given that he was on his way from Nashville to Palm Beach, Fla., where he plans to spend the weekend. "It was a big deal with the Secret Service, but they're fantastic and they worked it out," he said.

There were no immediate details from the CDC about the suspected case.

During the flight to Nashville, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told reporters on Air Force One that the Atlanta stop was back on the schedule. "What the president said is true," Grisham said, referring to the suspected case.

A CDC staffer was suspected of having contracted the virus, so the White House canceled the stop "out of an abundance of caution," Grisham said.

A spokeswoman for the CDC did not go into specifics. "CDC has many employees who have deployed in support of the nation's response to COVID-19, some of whom are returning from areas where COVID-19 may be present," Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.

"CDC has issued guidance to these employees, including self-quarantine for 14 days after they have returned to their duty stations for those returning from certain areas. They will also undergo daily, active monitoring. No CDC employees have tested positive," Nordlund said.

Asked why the initial White House statement had provided a different explanation than the president, Grisham said it had been carefully worded so that it was accurate — including language about the CDC keeping its people safe — without revealing the concern about the possibly infected CDC employee.

"Thankfully she's negative, the person," Grisham said.

NPR's Miles Parks and Joe Neel contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.