Trump defends HHS Secretary Azar amid coronavirus criticism

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media after signing a $7.8 billion emergency coronavirus spending bill in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, March 6, 2020. The amount of money provided in the legislation far exceeds Trumps original request — $1.25 billion in new funds and another $1.25 billion from other government social and health programs. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jim Lo Scalzo | EPA | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Friday defended Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as he faces mounting criticism for his response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak. 

“It is FAKE NEWS that @HHSGov @SecAzar is ‘sidelined’ from the great job he is doing on the CoronaVirus Task Force,” Trump tweeted Friday. “He has the total confidence of the @VP and myself, and is doing a fantastic job, as the numbers would indicate!”

The president’s remarks come after several news outlets reported that Azar had been kept from attending a press briefing addressing the virus. Azar had been on the front lines of the response from the U.S. for weeks, appearing in front of reporters and issuing updates on the status of the virus in the country, until this moment.

Trump’s Friday tweet in defense of Azar appears to include a caveat, however. The phrase “as the numbers would indicate” suggests that if contamination and death totals were to increase, as they have been since the virus was discovered, Azar would no longer be doing “a fantastic job.”

The president tweeted the remarks after he addressed reporters at the White House, with Azar at his side. Trump on Friday signed a multibillion-dollar spending package to combat the spread of the coronavirus. He also canceled and then remade plans to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta on Friday.

The coronavirus, which first originated in China in December, has spread to dozens of countries and has killed at least 3,383 people so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The president has repeatedly stressed that the coronavirus is under control in the United States, but health officials have signaled an entirely different message as they continue issuing stronger guidance for travelers and U.S. citizens.

There are more than 100,000 confirmed cases worldwide, and at least 14 deaths in the United States, according to official tallies. 

The novel strain of coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, has roiled markets and led governments to take drastic actions as it rapidly spreads across the globe. 

— CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.

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