Sen. Mitt Romney says now is no time to celebrate as President Trump takes a victory lap on testing

(screenshot) Sen. Mitt Romney questions CDC Director Robert Redfield on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

Washington • A day after President Donald Trump took a sort of victory lap on testing for coronavirus — even as America’s death toll from COVID-19 topped 80,000 — Sen. Mitt Romney said now was not the time to break out the bubbly.

“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” the Utah Republican said at a Senate hearing Tuesday featuring the nation's top health officials.

Romney took aim at Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who on Monday joined Trump at the White House and boasted that the United States has done more than twice the per capita testing than South Korea, which he noted has become the standard.

“No matter how you look at it," Giroir said, “America is leading the world in testing.”

Romney on Tuesday pushed back during a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“Yesterday, you celebrated that we had done more tests ... per capita even than South Korea,” Romney said. “But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we were treading water during February and March.”

By March 6, Romney noted, the United States had completed 2,000 tests while South Korea had conducted more than 140,000.

“So, partially as a result of that, they have 256 deaths [and] we have almost 80,000 deaths,” Romney said.

Giroir didn’t respond to Romney’s question during the hearing, which was held virtually for the most part.

The Utah senator has been one of the few Republicans in Congress willing to criticize or contradict the White House upon occasion, and he has faced a partisan backlash for it, including from the president.

Romney was the sole GOP senator who was left off Trump’s economic recovery task force and the president said that was because “I don’t really want his advice.... I’m not a fan of Mitt Romney.”

On Sunday, Trump retweeted a post of a painting by Utah’s Jon McNaughton that showed Democrats with pitchforks, clubs and a noose with the words, “Democrats continue torching America” superimposed on the image. The painting includes Romney clutching a Bible and a piece of wood.

Trump on Monday had touted the federal ramp-up to get Americans tested for the coronavirus and noted that the country has tested more people than the rest of the world.

“In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task,” Trump said. “We have met the moment, and we have prevailed. Americans do whatever it takes to find solutions, pioneer breakthroughs, and harness the energies we need to achieve a total victory.”

There are many countries that have conducted more tests per capita than the United States, including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and Switzerland, The New York Times reported.

Romney on Tuesday noted that South Korea is in a much different position than the United States in facing the pandemic.

“The fact is their test numbers are going down, down, down, down now because they don’t have the kind of outbreak we have after going up, up, up,” Romney said. “I think that’s an important lesson for us as we think about the future.”

Romney next turned his questioning to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious diseases expert, and the Utah senator noted that he's impressed with the U.S. effort to find a vaccine for the disease.

“We've done a pretty darn good job of moving ahead pretty aggressively,” Romney said.

But Romney noted that Trump had blamed his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for making it less likely to create a vaccine.

“Are either President Trump or President Obama responsible for the fact that we don’t have a vaccine now or in delaying it in some way?” Romney asked.

Fauci, who appeared virtually from his home where he is quarantining after being in close contact with a White House staffer who contracted COVID-19, said it wasn’t the fault of either Obama or Trump.

“Certainly President Obama nor President Trump are responsible for not having a vaccine,” Fauci said. “We moved … rather rapidly. No one has ever gone from knowing what the virus was to a Phase 1 trial as fast as we’ve done so. I don’t think that’s something that one should say anybody’s responsible for doing anything wrong.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Fauci testified that he’s concerned about states that are reopening for business but have yet to meet the administration’s recommendations for a 14-day “downward trajectory” in reported cases. If America reopens too soon, he warned, there will be more cases spreading.

“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Fauci said during his opening remarks. “Which, in fact, paradoxically will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery. It would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward. That is my major concern."

Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 4.2 million people and killed over 287,000 — more than 80,000 deaths in U.S. alone, the world’s highest toll. Fauci said U.S. deaths likely are higher than the official count.

While Fauci has become the trusted science voice for millions of Americans, Sen. Rand Paul expressed frustration with his cautions. The Kentucky Republican said Fauci was not the “end all” in knowledge about the coronavirus and it’s “kind of ridiculous” to suggest children shouldn’t go back to school — something Fauci never said.

“We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said.