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Pence walks fine line on coronavirus response

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – Vice President Mike Pence decided silence was the way to go.

Soon after President Donald Trump asked him to lead the U.S. government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, Pence was on the phone with Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state is at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.

Inslee told Pence that it would be best if the Trump administration “stuck to the science and told the truth” on the mounting public health crisis — and broadcast his prickly advice on Twitter.

But when the vice president traveled to Washington state Thursday, Pence opted not to punch back at Inslee — to the dismay of Trump. Instead, Pence heaped compliments on the governor for helping federal and state officials collaborate in a “seamless way.”

As the virus continues to spread through U.S. communities and ravage the stock market, Trump and Pence have been a study in contrasts in their public response.

Trump grumbles that Democrats and the news media are needlessly fueling panic and has a ready retort for any critic. Pence, for his part, walks a fine line — doling out frequent praise for the boss's performance, taking pains to avoid contradicting Trump's questionable public health pronouncements and trying to foster bipartisan cooperation for a “whole of America” approach to containing the virus.

It’s a huge moment for Pence — arguably the biggest since Trump picked him to be his vice presidential candidate.

If he can help Trump contain the outbreak and steady the stock market, it could have an immense impact not just on public health and the economy, but on the president's reelection bid, and in the process elevate his own standing for a potential 2024 run. A botched response, too, could have enormous implications for Trump and Pence politically and for the spread of the virus.

Pence has scaled back — but not ended — his political travel to deal with the virus. But Trump aides believe the vice president's task force role gives the president more leeway to maintain his own political travel during a crucial part of the election year, when he’s trying to take advantage of divisions in the Democratic field to boost his campaign in November.

Trump continues to play down concerns about the virus, advising Americans to “be calm” and that “it will go away." He also frequently takes credit for saving lives by acting early on to restrict travel to the U.S. from China.

Pence avoids publicly contradicting Trump but speaks more soberly about the impact as members of his coronavirus team caution that the virus could continue to spread in the U.S. before health officials are able to develop vaccines and therapies.

Pence's tight spot — wedged between the medical experts and the president — was fully evident Friday.

Trump, during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told reporters he had told Pence not to be complimentary of Inslee and called the governor “a snake." The president also pivoted from talk about a “perfect” test for the new coronavirus to his “perfect” phone call with Ukraine's president last summer that spurred his impeachment.

“We have a lot of problems with the governor, the governor of Washington," Trump said of Inslee. “So Mike may be happy with, him but I’m not.”

Pence, at a later White House briefing, had to fend off reporters' questions about whether Trump's comments about Inslee and impeachment reflected a lack of seriousness about combating the virus.

He delivered a straight-faced defense: “I promise you, President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety of the American people.”

After the latest salvo by Trump, Inslee snapped back on Twitter that he wished Trump and Pence “could get on the same page."

A day earlier the vice president also defended Trump’s rejection of the World Health Organization's 3.4% mortality rate estimate for those who contract the coronavirus. Pence said Trump's doubts were valid.

“I think the president’s point was the world is still discovering the scope of the coronavirus, because many people who contract the coronavirus have no symptoms,” Pence said. “I support the president’s judgment that we’re going to continue to learn more about this."

Since taking over as the virus point person, Pence has filled his schedule with meetings with top officials from nursing homes, medical labs, airlines and other industries to discuss the way forward.

On Thursday, he scrapped plans for a fundraiser in Wisconsin and a campaign rally in Minnesota to focus his travels instead on the virus. He set off on a grueling a 17-hour trip in which he visited the suburban Minneapolis headquarters of 3M, which manufactures surgical and healthcare masks, before flying to Washington state to meet with Inslee and state emergency response leaders.

His long hours have even caught the eye of Trump, who can be stingy with praise for subordinates.

“Mike Pence is working 20 hours a day or more on this,” Trump said Thursday.

But some Democrats remain skeptical that Pence is the right person for the task.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were among those who questioned the wisdom of picking Pence. They noted that as governor of Indiana, Pence faced criticism for being slow to authorize a needle exchange program in the southern part of the state when it saw a surge of people infected with HIV in 2015.

But Pence also appears to be winning over some Democrats.

During Pence's 3M visit, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said the vice president had shown a collaborative mindset in the early going that indicated he understood that governors and state public health officials were at the tip of the spear in battling the virus.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., was among Democrats who questioned picking Pence because of his track record. But this week, after a House briefing by Pence's team, Cicilline said, “It's clear to me that the administration is beginning to understand the gravity of this epidemic and this public health crisis.”

The first coronavirus case hit American shores in late January, a moment of peak partisanship as Trump’s impeachment trial edged to a close. As Republican and Democratic lawmakers began working on a spending bill for the coronavirus outbreak, mistrust of Trump among Democrats was still running high.

As a result, some even small gestures by Pence have taken Democrats by surprise. After Pence and his team of experts had finished briefing Republican senators at their regular weekly luncheon earlier this week, they trooped over to the Democrats' lunch to give a presentation and take questions.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said “it’s the first time I can remember” that Pence had come to the weekly Democratic luncheon.

The Capitol is well-trod ground for Pence, who served in the House for a dozen years during the Bush and Obama administrations.

Senators of both parties who met with him described his style in the coronavirus talks as credible and in control. He got high marks for ceding the microphone to the public health experts in his entourage.

During the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, former President Barack Obama faced some criticism from public health officials for being slow to respond initially. But the criticism eventually turned to praise as Obama nudged Congress to make a $5.4 billion emergency appropriation and sent 3,000 U.S. troops to West Africa to help with the international response.

Now Trump, with Pence’s help, is looking for the same kind of turnaround.

“Did we stumble out of the blocks?” observed Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat who served as health and human services secretary during the Clinton administration. “We always stumble out of the blocks.”

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Zeke Miller, Mary Clare Jalonick and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed reporting.