But the president was all over the place. He avowed, falsely, that “anybody” could get a test, even as my fellow governors were desperately pleading for help on testing. Then he shifted from boasting to blame. “We inherited a very obsolete system” from the Obama administration, he claimed, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own CDC had designed the troubled U.S. testing system and that his own Food and Drug Administration had waited a full month before allowing U.S. hospital labs to develop their own tests. On March 25, the president was back to bragging again. “We now are doing more testing than anybody by far,” including South Korea, whose widespread testing program was being praised around the world. This was true in absolute numbers, since we are a much bigger country, but we’d tested far fewer per capita than the Koreans had — 1,048 tests per million people vs. South Korea’s 6,764 per million — and of course that was the only figure that mattered. During one White House briefing in late March, Trump said the issue had been dealt with. “I haven’t heard about testing for weeks,” the president insisted.
As Trump was making these comments, I was requesting his approval to conduct joint testing at the National Institutes of Health. I even called Francis Collins, the head of NIH, to make this request, but he stopped me before I could. Not to argue but to plead: “Actually, Governor,” he said, “I’m glad you called, because I was going to ask you for help.” At NIH headquarters, he explained, his people had the capacity to perform only 72 tests a day. “I don’t even have enough tests for my immune-compromised patients or for my staff,” he said. He wondered if I might prevail upon Johns Hopkins, whose Suburban Hospital is across the street from NIH, to do some testing for him.
I could only shake my head at that. The federal government — a much bigger and better-funded institution, with tens of thousands of scientists and physicians in the civil service — wanted my help!