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Gov. Jay Inslee’s blunt advice to Pence on coronavirus: Stick to the science

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, during the AP Legislative Preview at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, during the AP Legislative Preview at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Hannah Knowles Washington Post

The governor of Washington said the vice president called to thank his state for their efforts against the novel coronavirus – and got a blunt message back.

“I told him our work would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth,” Jay Inslee, a former Democratic presidential candidate, told his Twitter followers Thursday night, as critics worried that Vice President Mike Pence’s new role leading the U.S. response to a global health crisis could politicize a life-or-death matter of science. The novel coronavirus that causes the disease named COVID-19 has killed more than 2,700 in mainland China, and deaths have been reported in other countries.

With health officials warning that the coronavirus’s spread in the United States is just a matter of when, Democrats long dismayed by the president’s disdain for scientific expertise are wary of what’s coming. Two senior administration officials told the Washington Post that Pence has required Cabinet officials and government experts to get his office’s clearance on public remarks about the virus, a move that swiftly sparked concerns from lawmakers who fear important information being suppressed.

“It is essential in times like these that experts are allowed to tell us what’s really going on in their own words,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed to Pence’s handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana, which critics said he exacerbated as governor when he delayed approval of a needle-exchange program.

A spokeswoman for Pence accused Inslee of playing politics Friday, though. Supporters of the Trump administration have criticized Democrats’ vocal doubts about the coronavirus response as motivated by their dislike of the president.

Pence’s calls to governors offering the federal government’s support in combating the virus were “all very productive,” press secretary Katie Miller told the Washington Post in an email. But “sadly Gov. Inslee chose to politicize it,” she said.

Despite the disagreement that became public, a spokeswoman for Inslee said the call with Pence was “productive.” “The governor felt that since he had the vice president’s ear that he should make a case for science,” Tara Lee told the Post.

Pence, who has said he had “good conversations” with Democrats about the coronavirus response and wants to “push politics aside,” also called the governors of New York, Texas, Maryland, Nebraska and California on Thursday, Miller said. The vice president is set to meet Friday afternoon with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Some state officials have praised Pence’s efforts, with Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan tweeting that “as a former governor, he understands the importance of a coordinated response.” Hogan said he and Pence agreed during their call to keep in “close contact.”

Then there was Inslee, who has tangled with the Trump administration before on another scientific matter: climate change, the issue Inslee put front-and-center in his short-lived bid for president. He has called Trump’s aversion to the wider use of wind energy “moronic,” blasted the administration’s “climate denial” and joined a host of liberal states who say they’ll work to uphold the Paris climate agreement Trump backed out of.

Democrats’ anxiety over Pence’s leadership role on the coronavirus response feeds into broader worries about the Trump administration’s long-standing approach to research at odds with its statements and agenda. The president has thinned the ranks of government scientists, helped fuel anti-vaccine sentiment (although he did urge measles vaccinations) and rebuked his own officials’ nods to the threat of climate change while opposing many efforts to combat it.

One especially infamous clash with experts came when Trump showed a doctored hurricane chart in an apparent attempt to justify his tweet falsely warning that a storm was coming for Alabama. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration also issued an unsigned statement rebuking the local weather office that had corrected the record after Trump’s erroneous prediction. Career scientists were dismayed.

“If somebody had told me to issue this statement, I would have quit,” Monica Medina, a former NOAA official, told the Post.

Inslee’s tweet Thursday about the call with Pence drew praise from supporters who saw someone speaking “truth to power.” Some recalled the Democrat’s willingness to confront the president directly on the issue of arming teachers during a 2018 meeting with governors, when Inslee said to Trump that “we need a little less tweeting here and a little more listening.”

The president had protested that he only wanted to arm a small portion of “gun adept” teachers. Inslee said he was still concerned.

“I just think this is a circumstance where we need to listen that educators should educate, and they should not be foisted upon this responsibility of packing heat in first-grade classes,” the governor told Trump.

While some saw bravery in Inslee’s latest rebuke to the administration, others saw rudeness. The comments that unfolded below Inslee’s Thursday tweet were sharply divided between thanks for his honesty and disdain.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump adviser, called Inslee a “contemptible chump,” while Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said the tweet showed that “Pence is a leader and class act. Gov. Inslee not so much.”

Although the president was combative in a tweet just after midnight Friday, saying he has been unfairly scrutinized, Pence has used his public remarks to call for unity amid fears of the coronavirus, which sent global stocks tumbling Friday and which experts warn could soon become a pandemic.

“It’s important to remember we are all in this together,” he said Thursday. “This is not the time for partisanship. The American people expect us to work together, and I promise you, this president, this administration, is going to work with leaders in both parties.”

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