The Jolt: What President Trump said at the CDC in Atlanta

President Donald Trump’s off-then-on trip to Atlanta late Friday, intended as a morale booster for a nation made jittery by the rapid spread of the coronavirus, could become one of those unexpected, landmark moments in Georgia politics.

It was an awkward day throughout. Above is a photo of Trump at the CDC, with the state’s two U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, chatting in the background while U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is out for Loeffler’s job, stares ahead.

Collins was supposed to fly on Air Force One with both Perdue and Loeffler, but he booked a Delta flight home when it appeared the event was canceled because of a CDC employee who, it was feared, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

By the time Collins found out the trip was back on, it was too late to hop the flight with Trump. The Gainesville congressman flew commercial instead, then hustled to Dobbins Air Reserve Base when he landed to meet the president and his entourage.

Standing beside Gov. Brian Kemp in the receiving line, Collins and Loeffler shared one of the more strained handshakes we’ve witnessed when she deplaned. Then, as Kemp, Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue hopped in the president’s limo, Collins was required to trail behind in an SUV.

Once the caravan arrived at the CDC, reporters had to race through a labyrinth of narrow halls and up a few flights of stairs to be in position by the time Trump arrived.

As the president spoke in a lab before a bank of waiting TV cameras, Collins, Perdue and Loeffler stood behind him.

That tenuous positioning lasted for about 15 minutes, until Collins and Perdue faded to the sidelines -- and Loeffler inserted herself directly behind Kemp. It was a power move, and it delivered an image of her squarely in Trump’s frame.

March 6, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

***

In addition to the economic strain, the political impact of the coronavirus is now being felt, too. On Sunday, two members of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., announced that they had had direct contact with a diagnosed individual at the recent CPAC convention, and would voluntarily self-quarantine.

A health care conference in Orlando, at which Trump was to speak today, has been cancelled – even as Trump, via Twitter, accused Democrats of trying to “inflame” the situation.

And so it’s worthwhile to examine precisely what was said before reporters in Atlanta, via the official White House transcript that was released on Saturday. Read through the entire document here.

Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, was among the first to speak – and in praise of the president:

“Well, I think I — first, I want to thank you for your decisive leadership in helping us, you know, put public health first. I also want to thank you for coming here today and — and sort of encouraging and bringing energy to the men and women that you see that work every day to try to keep America safe. So I think that’s the most important thing I want to say, sir…”

Likewise, Alex Azar, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assured Trump that he was right when he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he had “a hunch” that the World Health Organization’s 3.4% casualty rate from the coronavirus was too high. Said Azar:

“Mr. President, you wouldn’t — you wouldn’t have seen this but actually today, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci published, in the New England Journal of Medicine, a revised estimate of fatality counts very much consistent with what the President was saying, which is the WHO numbers are just a math problem: This many people died. This many were diagnosed.

“But if you then extrapolate to — from the number of diagnosed to how many likely cases there are that never came to the doctor or hospital or got tested, Dr. Fauci’s paper in the New England Journal says he thinks it’s less than 1 percent, which is, I think, word for word, Mr. President, what you were saying.”

A journalist asked President Trump how he would deal with the economic impact of the virus. Here’s the exchange:

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’re considering different things. But we’re also considering the fact that last year we had approximately 36,000 deaths due to what’s called the flu. And I was — when I first heard this four, five, six weeks ago — when I was hearing the amount of people that died with flu, I was shocked to hear it. Anywhere from 27,000 to 70,000 or 77,000. And I guess they said, in 1990, that was in particular very bad; it was higher than that.

As of the time I left the plane with you, we had 240 cases. That’s at least what was on a very fine network known as Fox News. And you love it. But that’s what I happened to be watching.

And how was the show last night? Did it get good ratings, by the way?

Q: I — I don’t, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, really? I heard it broke all ratings records, but maybe that’s wrong. That’s what they told me. I don’t know. I can’t imagine that.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, the White House confirmed that the trip to Atlanta had been dropped, citing Trump’s concern that he would just be in the way of an agency with much to do. So this question mattered:

Q: Are you going to tell us what happened here last night and today that at one point you cancelled the trip and then put it back on? What happened here in the last —

THE PRESIDENT: I was told that one person, maybe, that works someplace in the building, at I’m not even sure what level — but that one person may have had the virus. And therefore, they said, “Sir, because of the fact that one person may have had the…” Because this is a big building with a lot of great scientists, frankly. One person had the virus. And that turned out to be a negative report. That turned out to be negative. And so they called me. But it was already cancelled.

But this morning, I said, “Wait a minute.” I’m going to Tennessee. We’re going down to Florida. I have a meeting on Monday, as you know. And so we’re going to Florida. I’d love to stop at the CDC. That was a big deal with Secret Service, but they’re fantastic and they worked it out. So we stopped.

But it was a report and the person — it was a negative diagnosis.

The number of people being tested for the coronavirus has been an issue. Below is an exchange that had to be cleaned up on several Sunday morning news programs:

REDFIELD: I’ll stand right here. We continue — our first responsibility — CDC — as I said, was to develop the eyes — the lab test. The second responsibility is to get that out to the public health community. And we have now shipped out — I think it was enough to test 75,000 people into the public health labs now.

THE PRESIDENT: Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is….

More:

THE PRESIDENT: But — but I think — I think, importantly: Anybody right now and yesterday — anybody that needs a test gets a test. We — they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.

If there’s a doctor that wants to test, if there’s somebody coming off a ship — like the big monster ship that’s out there right now, which, you know — again, that’s a big decision. Do I want to bring all those people on? People would like me to do that. I don’t like the idea of doing it.

But anybody that needs a test can have a test. They’re all set. They have them out there.

In addition to that, they’re making millions of more as we speak. But as of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test — that’s the important thing — and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.

More on the cruise ship, whose 34 Georgia passengers will be sent to Dobbins Air Reserve Base for quarantine:

Q: And are you the final decider?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. From my standpoint, I want to rely on people. I have great experts, including our Vice President, who is working 24 hours a day on this stuff. They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay, but I’d go with them. I told them to make the final decision. I would rather — because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.

That wasn’t our fault, and it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship, either. Okay? It wasn’t their fault either. And they’re mostly Americans, so I can live either way with it.

I’d rather have them stay on, personally. But I fully understand if they want to take them off. I gave them the authority to make the decision.

Q: But isn’t that putting the preference over not having more attractive numbers over having the people be treated?

THE PRESIDENT: No. No. No. I’m saying whatever it is that takes precedence over the numbers. No, I like the numbers. I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 will be a higher number, too.

Q: There must be some risk in leaving them on the ship though, right, in terms of community spread?

THE PRESIDENT: There’s probably risk to both. Probably risk to both. You know, ah —

On the general topic of community preparedness:

THE PRESIDENT: And, by the way, NIH, what they’ve done — I spent time over there — and I like this stuff.

You know, my uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for, I think, like a record number of years. He was a great super genius. Dr. John Trump.

I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, “How do you know so much about this?” Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.

But you know what? What they’ve done is very incredible. I understand that whole world. I love that world. I really do. I love that world. And they should be given tremendous credit. And the whole world is relying on us.

One reporter asked Trump about a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Washington state, where he met with Gov. Jay. Inslee:

Q: [Inslee] was very complimentary of Washington’s response. The governor was a little less complimentary of your response.

THE PRESIDENT: So I told Mike not to be complimentary to the governor because that governor is a snake. Okay? Inslee. And I said, “If you’re nice to him, he’s — he will take advantage.” And I would have said “no.”

Let me just tell you, we have a lot of problems with the governor and — the governor of Washington. That’s where you have many of your problems. Okay? So Mike may be happy with him, but I’m not. Okay?

***

Contrast the above with a five-minute YouTube video quickly put out by Cobb County, after Gov. Brian Kemp announced that Dobbins Air Reserve Base would be taking in quarantined passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship that has been held off the California coast. It features Mike Boyce, the commission chairman, and a local health official.

***

Over in the dead-tree editionwe explore why the surge in Democratic candidates - and the hyper-competitive congressional contests - will reshape the November election. But a few other tidbits caught our eye.

-- U.S. Sen. David Perdue drew seven Democratic challengers - but not a single Republican. That means he gets a free ride to his party’s nomination, six years after a grueling fight for the nod. 

-- State Rep. Mack Jackson of Sandersville, the only Democrat who voted for the anti-abortion law last year, attracted a primary challenge from Danny Thomas Jr. 

-- A host of candidates who lost bids two years ago are back at it. They include former state Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, and former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, of the same party and city.

-- Democratic state Rep. Valencia Stovall surprised many in the party by qualifying to run against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler -- as an independent. Two Democrats have signed up to run for her Atlanta-based seat. 

-- State Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Legislature, drew a challenge from state Rep. Colton Moore, a first-term lawmaker who had recently flirted with a bid for Congress and recently sent a press release announcing his plans to leave public office.

-- Former state Rep. Buddy DeLoach, a Republican and former mayor of Hinesville, challenged fellow GOP state Rep. Jeff Jones of Brunswick.

-- John Barge, the former school superintendent who launched an ill-fated challenge to Gov. Nathan Deal, is one of 10 candidates sparring for Georgia’s 14th District, which is vacated by Rep. Tom Graves. 

***

Heads up: House Speaker David Ralston will address the Atlanta Press Club at lunch today. His remarks will include details about his budget priorities and - this is big - a comprehensive income tax package. 

***

In endorsement news: U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, has joined Team Biden.

Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, also endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential bid. Which means U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, is probably not far behind.

***

Democrats announced over the weekend that they had settled one of the lawsuits filed during the 2018 election pertaining to rejected ballots.

The settlement, filed in federal court, requires the state to notify voters when their absentee ballots have been thrown out in enough time for the problem to be corrected and the vote counted.

About 3% of all absentee ballots returned during the 2018 general election were rejected, the AJC’s Mark Niesse wrote, usually because local elected officials determined there was not a signature match or because certain information requested on the envelope wasn’t provided. Many of those rejected ballots were mailed in to Gwinnett County.

The settlement between the Democratic Party of Georgia, national Democratic groups, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and Gwinnett elections officials also also requires the county to redesign its absentee ballot by November’s election.

***

The State Board of Elections has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday in Athens, one week after elections officials there scrapped use of the state’s new voting touchscreen system.

The Clarke-Athens Board of Election voted last week to use paper ballots during early voting after members aired their concerns over ballot secrecy. So far, the Athens-Clarke board is the only county in Georgia not to use the state’s new electronic voting system.

***

U.S. Rep. John Lewis was back in Selma over the weekend, this time leading a delegation of House members on the actual 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Here is what Lewis posted on Twitter to mark the occasion:

“55 years ago today, we were beaten, tear gassed, and trampled by horses. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I don't know how I made it back, but I know we cannot rest. We cannot become weary. We must keep pushing and pulling and find a way to get in the way.”

It was the second weekend in a row that Lewis participated in a re-enactment of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that resulted in his severe injury but also pushed forward the civil rights movement. On Saturday, he walked arm-in-arm with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

***

Finally, we have some troubling news to report. U.S. Rep. Tom Graves’ son, John, was critically injured in a cycling accident on Sunday.

Graves, a Republican from Ranger, put out a statement this morning that said John was competing in a road race in Calhoun with Georgia Tech’s club cycling team when the incident occurred. He was flown to a trauma unit, where he remains in intensive care, the congressman said.

“He’s a strong boy and is showing signs of responsiveness,” Graves said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X