The White House said Monday that President Donald Trump was speaking only in “jest” when he said at Saturday night’s rally that he told officials to slow down testing for the coronavirus and that he had not actually ordered anyone to do so.
"No, he has not directed that," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in an exchange with ABC News’ Ben Gittleson in Monday’s press briefing and added that "any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact."
"It was a comment that he made in jest," she also said.
Speaking to a crowd of some 6,200 supporters at an arena in Tulsa that the campaign had expected to fill to its capacity of 19,000 people, the president made the remark as he sought to blame the United States’ case count on testing.
"When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please,’” Trump said Saturday.
Pressed about the appropriateness of making light of the topic of the coronavirus that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, McEnany said he was "joking about the media and their failure to understand the fact that when you test more you also find more cases."
President Trump was asked directly in an interview on Scripps TV Monday morning whether he had ordered his staff to slow testing, which had drawn sharp criticism from health experts. Pausing before answering, the president did not directly answer or use the exchange as an opportunity to say he had just been joking, as McEnany now says.
“If it did slow down, frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job, because every time we go out with 25 million tests, you're gonna find more people,” Trump said in the interview.
Vice President Pence on Monday defended the comments as a “passing observation” when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak told him during a conference call that the president’s comments were “certainly not helpful."
“I think that the president's observation was, uh, a passing observation in his remarks,” Pence said and went on to say that the rate of testing nationally is “contributing to some of our numbers.”
Following his Saturday night rally, which was his first in some three months since campaigning came to a stop amid the pandemic, the president is set to again address another large, indoor crowd during a trip to Arizona Tuesday.
Arizona has recently seen an uptick in coronavirus cases, but the president said Monday he was not concerned about continuing to address large, indoor gatherings -- even though top government health officials have warned about the danger for the virus to spread in such gatherings.
“No, not at all. We watch it. We're very careful,” Trump said Monday.
McEnany also on Monday defended the president’s use of a racist term “Kung Flu” to refer to the coronavirus at this weekend’s rally, saying the president was simply linking it to the place of origin and sidestepped directly answering questions about its offensive nature.
“The president does not believe that it is offensive to note that this virus came from China,” McEnany said of the use of the phrase.
Asked if he has any regrets for using the phrase, she said “the president never regrets putting the onus back on China.”