Washington: US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has refused to deny a conspiracy theory that the severity of the coronavirus outbreak is a “hoax”, after the White House tried to paint coverage of the disease’s spread as a conspiracy to undermine Donald Trump.
The president accused his opponents and the media of “politicising” the virus, adding, “This is their new hoax,” following the investigation over Russian interference in his election and his impeachment.
Challenged to dismiss the suggestions of a ruse, Mr Pompeo repeatedly refused to do so, saying: “The State Department is doing everything it can to protect American citizens around the world.
“I’m not going to comment on what others are saying … I’m just telling you what the secretary of state is doing.”
Mr Trump and his allies have been accused of increasingly trying to manage the public health crisis to benefit the president’s public image.
More than 85,000 people worldwide in nearly 60 countries have come down with the virus, leading to around 2,900 deaths. Sixty-five cases of the virus have been reported in the US.
During a hearing of the house foreign affairs committee, Mr Pompeo dismissed the questioning, from Ted Lieu, as “a gotcha moment”, adding: “It’s not useful.”
Asked again, Mr Pompeo said: “We’re taking it seriously.”
The exchange followed comments by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who played down the disease and accused the press of focusing on coronavirus because they thought it would “bring down” the president.
Mr Lieu later tweeted to the president: “The 63 Americans with #coronavirus and the families of the over 2,800 dead globally because of coronavirus would disagree with you that it’s a ‘new hoax’. This is not about you. It’s a public health crisis.”
He also accused Mr Pompeo of “being too scared to even say” coronavirus was not a hoax.
But the secretary of state posted that he was deeply concerned by its spread in Iran and the public health risk to the Iranian people and their neighbours.
“The US offers our humanitarian assistance to the people of Iran to help unmet needs in their response efforts,” he added.
Defending his administration’s handling of the outbreak, Mr Trump claimed the White House was “magnificently organised” in fighting it.
The World Health Organization has raised the risk of the global spread of the pathogen to “very high”.