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Vice President Mike Pence reportedly directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use its authority to seal U.S. borders as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly, though scientists for the agency advised the action would not contain the virus.
According to former officials, the top physician at the CDC responsible for issuing such orders had refused to comply with an administrative directive regarding the border closure on grounds there was not a legitimate public health reason to do so, The Associated Press reported.
After the doctor refused, Pence — who had been placed in charge of the government’s coronavirus task force — got involved, the AP said. The vice president called the CDC’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, and instructed him to issue the order under his agency’s special legal powers, which apply during pandemics.
A former CDC official told the AP that Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf were on the phone call with the vice president. The official said Redfield immediately ordered his senior staff to implement the administration’s border closure plan, which the newswire reported has so far amounted to the expulsion of 150,000 migrants.
The closure order came after President Trump shut down travel from China, which he has frequently credited with saving lives.
The administration’s order applied to U.S. borders with both Canada and Mexico, though the impact has mostly been felt along the southwest border, the AP noted.
Instead of border closures, “public health experts had urged the administration to focus on a national mask mandate, enforce social distancing and increase the number of contact tracers to track down people exposed to the virus,” said the newswire.
Trump, however, has refused to implement nationwide mandates and has instead deferred to governors and mayors on the issue of masks and other COVID-19 policies because they are closer to the problem and thus more familiar with their particular needs.
The AP reported that the expulsion order was mostly pushed by Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top aides.
“That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that,” Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who recently resigned in protest, claiming that the White House was putting politics ahead of public health. “There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”
In an email to the AP, however, Katie Miller, Pence’s spokeswoman, called the reported account of the phone call “false.”
“Vice President Pence never directed the CDC on this issue,” she said.
During a March 20 coronavirus task force briefing, President Trump said the order originated at the CDC.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decided to exercise its authority … to give Customs and Border Protection the tools it needs to prevent the transmission of the virus coming through both the northern and the southern border,” he said.
“So we’re treating the borders equally — the northern border and the southern border,” he added. “A lot of people say that they’re not treated equally. Well, they are.”
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