WASHINGTON — Testifying on Capitol Hill on Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar faced questions about President Trump’s coronavirus illness and his refusal to compel his family and staff to wear face masks to Tuesday’s debate at Case Western University.
“The first family is a different situation than the rest of us,” Azar, who had not testified before Congress since February, said.
During his testimony before the House Oversight coronavirus subcommittee, Azar was at pains to defend not only the administration’s response, but the president’s behavior, which has included downplaying, misrepresenting and mocking the advice of his own public health experts. Carefully choosing his words, Azar urged people to exercise “individual responsibility,” including by wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Azar wore a face mask as he spoke, as did the subcommittee’s Democrats. Republicans in Congress have generally declined to do so, leading to clashes in committee hearings. Trump has maligned both social distancing and mask wearing, but Azar — who has been at odds with Trump over the pandemic response — tried to downplay that highly inconvenient fact.
Asked by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., about the president’s large campaign rallies, Azar reiterated generic advice on handwashing, social distancing and wearing face masks. “That applies to any setting,” the former pharmaceutical executive said.
Trump’s rallies routinely contravene that advice, and Trump has mocked his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, for following the guidance of public health officials.
Pressed by Waters, Azar stayed on message. “Our advice is always the same,” he replied, declining to say whether he had ever personally discussed safety precautions with the president.
A lawyer by training, Azar was circumspect in his answers, though he also sometimes showed irritation with Democrats who wanted to know about possible political influence by the White House over the administration’s scientific guidance on the pandemic response.
To coincide with the hearing, Democrats released a report that described 47 instances in which scientific action or advice was altered at the behest of the White House. The instances of alleged interference were, the Democrats’ report said, evidence of Trump “repeatedly overruling and sidelining top scientists and undermining Americans’ health to advance the President’s partisan agenda.”
The president’s illness, which Trump announced early Friday morning, cast an urgency over the proceedings. It was a development that could not be ignored, despite how much Republicans sought to talk about China or New York state.
Azar’s assertion that the first family was in a “different situation” than ordinary Americans was correct, to a degree. Members of the White House staff have recourse to rapid coronavirus tests. Most Americans must wait days to receive results of their coronavirus diagnostic tests. Given how quickly the virus spreads, that makes those results effectively useless.
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