BALLSTON SPA — The day after new revelations about what President Donald J. Trump knew about the novel coronavirus before it spread widely in the United States, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik defended the president’s response to the worst viral pandemic in more than a century.
“The president’s response to COVID was strong, the fact he banned flights from China was a critical decision that the press criticized,” Stefanik said in an interview while handing out food bags at a senior citizen picnic at the Saratoga County Fairground in Ballston Spa. “I think that was the right decision for public health and making sure we stemmed the spread of the virus.”
Stefanik, a Republican who represents the North Country’s 21st Congressional District and has garnered a national reputation as a defender of Trump since last fall’s impeachment hearings, wouldn’t comment directly on the revelations coming in a new book by veteran Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward.
Woodward writes that Trump in a series of on-the-record interviews told him as early as last February that the novel coronavirus was airborne and deadlier that the common flu virus, though Trump has repeatedly publicly downplayed the seriousness of the virus that causes COVID-19. “To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump is quoted as saying.
Stefanik, who is a co-chairperson of Trump’s New York re-election campaign, said Trump has taken the virus seriously and accused of Democrats of not taking it seriously. “The book hasn’t even been published,” she said of Woodward’s book, “Rage,” which is due out next week. “I’m focused on making sure this district has the responses they need and the resources they need for COVID … I have a very busy job, the book has not been published.”
Stefanik, who lives in the town of Saratoga, also praised Trump for Operation Warp Speed, the private-public partnership to develop a COVID vaccine. “The historic investment we have made in vaccination development, that is critical, and that’s going to be a key part of making sure that we beat this,” she said.
Stefanik, who is running for her fourth two-year term, faces Democrat Tedra Cobb of Canton in the Nov. 3 election. Cobb, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018, is campaigning primarily on expanding access to health care, but on Thursday she called the reported Trump comments a “disturbing revelation,” and said Trump “lied to Americans about the risks of a global health crisis, causing illness, death and destruction far beyond what we should have to bear.”
“As a result of Donald Trump’s failed leadership, 190,000 Americans are dead, millions have gotten sick, and our economy is in shambles,” Cobb said. “Throughout this crisis, Elise Stefanik has politicized the pandemic for her own political gain.”
The roughly 190,000 people who have died is the most of any nation in the world. New York state had the earlier outbreak in March, but disease transmission has dropped dramatically in the state, even as deaths continue to climb in the South and West, with particular severity in Texas and California. The state’s daily COVID death toll has been in single digits in recent weeks; there were seven deaths on Wednesday, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, including one each in Montgomery and Essex counties.
Stefanik said residents of her district — which stretches across northern New York from Ballston Spa to the Canadian border, and includes Fulton County and the Adirondacks — can be proud of how low the COVID rates have been in their communities.
“The North Country should be very proud. We’ve maintained our low COVID rates compared to the rest of the state and I think our county public health officials have done a great job,” she said.
With Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate continuing to resist the idea of providing additional federal aid to state and county governments that have seen their revenues devastated by the economic shutdowns in response to the pandemic, Stefanik said she supports more local aid. She is a co-sponsor of the State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition (SMART) Act, a $500 billion local financial assistance bill that has yet to move out of committee. (The House-passed HEROES Act provides about $1 trillion for state and local government aid, but has no prospect of passing in the Senate.)
“I’ve been very consistent in speaking out, saying we need support for municipalities and counties, and my top concern is making sure rural counties get the aid and it’s not just designated for suburban counties,” Stefanik said. “One of the problems I’ve had with previous rounds is federal dollars flow to the larger counties, but there was a population cutoff, so rural counties were not included. I want to make sure that no matter how small the county is, they are eligible for federal aid.”
The 21st Congressional District, which is indeed very rural, has a heavily Republican voter enrollment, and Trump easily won the district in 2016.