By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – A friend of mine who possesses a cunning wit texted me after President Trump suddenly chose Vice President Mike Pence to head up the White House response to the coronavirus pandemic last week: “Hi Mike. You’re in charge of this epidemiological tsunami. Good luck and I have Nikki Haley on speed dial.”

That sums up the political stakes facing Mike Pence, who along with HHS Sec. Alex Azar, Centers for Medicaid/Medicare Director Seema Verma and Dr. Tony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has become the face of the pandemic’s federal government response. 

Or as former speaker Newt Gingrich told Politico of Pence, “If he does this well, he comes out of this as a very big national figure. If he does this badly, he comes out as a dramatically diminished figure. He knows that. His team knows that.”

The underpinnings to this pandemic are that President Trump has sliced away key personnel in what should be a continual warfare against the microbes. And the president doesn’t understand or comprehend the science involved.

On Monday when Trump, Pence, Azar and Fauci met with pharma execs, this became apparent when Trump pressed them for a vaccine timeline. “I don’t think they know what the time will be,” Trump said. “I’ve heard very quick numbers – a matter of months – and I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number.”

Fauci had consistently said a vaccine would take a year to 18 months and he reiterated that timeline. “But if you’re talking about three to four months, in a couple of cases, and a year in other cases – wouldn’t you say, doctor, would that be about right?” Trump asked.

The Washington Post reported: “When a reporter pressed on whether Trump really thought the months-long timetable was viable for a vaccine, Fauci cut in. And he actually asked that the president be educated on the timetable, despite it having been told to him repeatedly. ‘Would you make sure you get the president the information that a vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable,’ Fauci said. ‘So he’s asking when is it going to be deployable, and that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.’”

Wednesday night Trump appeared on Fox News Sean Hannity show and said he had a “hunch” that the World Health Organization’s 3.4% virus mortality rate was wrong.

NBC News reported that in 2018, Trump fired Tom Bossert, whose job as homeland security adviser on the National Security Council included coordinating the response to global pandemics. Bossert was not replaced. Last year, Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer, the NSC’s senior director for global health security and biodefense, left the council and was not replaced. Dr. Luciana Borio, the NSC’s director for medical and biodefense preparedness, left in May 2018 and was also not replaced.

ABC News reported that Trump introduced his fiscal year 2021 budget proposal on Feb. 10, just 11 days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concerns. The spending plan included a 16% reduction in CDC funding from the 2020 spending levels. In fact, all of Trump’s budget proposals have called for cuts to CDC funding, but Congress has intervened each time by passing spending bills with year-over-year increases for the CDC that Trump then signed into law.

Last Thursday, Trump became a beacon of wishful thinking as Wall Street took the worst nose dive since 2008, saying of the pandemic, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” The president warned that things could “get worse before it gets better,” but he added it could “maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

Last Friday at a MAGA rally in Charleston, Trump claimed the pandemic to be a “hoax,” though he said on Saturday that was in reference to Democrats and the news media seeking to parlay the pandemic into political gain at the expense of his reelection.

Axios reported that Trump replaced Azar with Pence abruptly a week ago, announcing the change at a presser in the White House briefing room that caught aides off guard. Earlier this week, Politico reported on the career stakes facing Pence and Azar’s removal and shortcomings. “This was a management failure,” said one administration official, charging that Azar didn’t adequately plan for a worst-case coronavirus scenario after the potential pandemic became evident in December, prompting Trump to impose travel restrictions to and from China. “The administration’s response has been reactive, not proactive,” added a former HHS official.

Mixed signals were still evident when Pence attended both Senate caucus lunches on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “We’re issuing clear guidance that subject to doctors’ orders, any American can be tested,” Pence said at one point. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state – which appears to be the pandemic’s American epicenter with nine deaths reported by Tuesday – led the questioning at the closed-door lunch, demanding to know when more test kits would become available. “People are calling their doctors, and they’re not being able to get a test,” Cantwell said after the lunch.

In a briefing on Wednesday, Pence vowed to deal with complaints from health care providers and state and local authorities that they lack sufficient testing capacity to check the virus’s spread, CNN reported. He said 1.5 million testing kits were on their way to health care providers and university labs and other locations. And he assured Americans that the administration had acted to make tests available for free on private health plans, Medicare and Medicaid.

Complicating things is the feud between Azar and Verma, which caused Pence to intervene last December at the president’s behest. Verma was the architect of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Healthy Indiana Plan and Gov. Pence’s HIP 2.0, while Azar is a former Eli Lilly executive.

Verma spent months developing an alternative to the ACA, only to have Azar kill the plan. “Azar believed Verma’s plan would actually strengthen Obamacare, not kill it,” reported Politico. The already tense relationship blew up last summer after Verma, in an Oval Office meeting with senior administration officials, including Azar and Trump, criticized Azar’s drug pricing proposals. Politico reported that Verma sided with White House officials, including top domestic policy adviser Joe Grogan, an Azar foe in several policy debates. This fall, Azar kept Verma from traveling with President Trump on Air Force One to make an announcement in Florida about a Medicare initiative championed by her folks at CMS. Laura Ingraham, the influential Fox host, is an Azar ally. In a tweet she called Verma “a debilitating weak link at HHS.” Jared Kushner and First Lady Melania Trump are also reportedly on Team Azar. Pence is the most important member of Team Verma.”

Pence has a spotty record when it comes to major assignments. He was handed the Obama-to-Trump transition team portfolio after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was fired the day after the election, later claiming that scores of staffing binders ended up in the Trump Tower “dumpster.” The seeds of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe were sown during that transition. What has followed has been more staff turnover than any other administration and a series of “acting” cabinet officials.

Pence has received bad press for his handling of the 2014-15 Scott County HIV epidemic when he was governor of Indiana. Critics say a three-month delay on approving a CDC-recommended needle exchange resulted in dozens of infections.

Pence was asked about how he dealt with health outbreaks when he was governor on Saturday. “I learned the invaluable role that local health officials play in dealing with the spread of infectious disease,” Pence said. Speaking of the first MERS case in the U.S., Pence said, “I’m proud to say the State of Indiana secured that first patient, found out everyone who had been in contact, and that patient recovered.”

Pence added that in 2015 he dealt with the HIV outbreak in Scott County. “Health officials came to me, we immediately deployed resources,” Pence said, contradicting recent news report that he waited a number of weeks before acting. “The state of Indiana did not allow that needle exchange. But the CDC came in, made a recommendation and I declared a public health emergency and made, for 30 days, a needle exchange available. I’m proud to say that every one of those patients was treated. We ended the spread of HIV in that community.

“As the president and I have discussed, my experience as a governor in dealing with two different infectious diseases and seeing the vital role that local health care providers play, federal officials play, has really informed me,” Pence said. “That’s why I have spent a lot of time talking with governors. I am proud of the work we did in the State of Indiana.”

In 2014, with Verma as the policy architect, Gov. Pence expanded Medicaid in Indiana with the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, which he said was developed to require Hoosiers to make nominal payments which he called “skin in the game.” It resulted in the expansion of Medicaid to some 400,000 Hoosiers when other “red state” governors and legislatures rejected the concept in opposition to Obamacare. It became one of the most conspicuous policy achievements of the Pence era.

“HIP 2.0 is not intended to be a long-term entitlement program,” Gov. Pence declared. “It’s intended to be a safety net that aligns incentives with human aspirations.” He sought and won a hard-earned waiver from President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services.

How this current pandemic will turn out is purely speculative at this point, but the World Health Organization upped the ante, saying on Tuesday that the global mortality rate is 3.4%. And Dr. Fauci told NBC’s Richard Engel that coronavirus has become “an evolving situation.”

“We’re dealing with clearly an emerging infectious disease that has now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions,” he said. Fauci warned of the infection’s alarming mortality rate. “If you look at the people who have just come to the attention of the health authorities, that’s 2 to 2-and-a-half percent,” Fauci said. “But even if it goes down to 1%, that’s still very, very serious.” “So if it went from 2% to 1%, [it is] still 10 times more lethal than the standard influenza that we get on a seasonal basis.”

With so much at stake, Vice President Pence is facing his most arduous assignment which could have far-reaching consequences for not only his career, but the lives of thousands of Americans.