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Riggleman Defends Trump’s Pandemic Response

Denver Riggleman smiles in a ballroom at a conservative political convention
Rep. Denver Riggleman at the 2018 Young Americans for Liberty National Convention in Reston, Virginia (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Rep. Denver Riggleman said President Donald Trump has done a good job handling the coronavirus pandemic despite criticism from Democrats and many public health officials.

In an interview with VPM on Monday, the freshman Republican said it was a “backward rationalization” to blame Trump for a crisis that he said had blindsided politicians of all stripes and that has now claimed over 90,000 lives in the U.S.

And Riggleman praised Trump for cutting off air travel from China in an announcement in January, though later reports said over 400,000 travelers were able to circumvent the order.

“Is anything perfect?” Riggleman said of the federal response. “No, this isn’t perfect. But I believe we’re doing a pretty good job trying to get our arms around this.”

Trump endorsed Riggleman in a Tweet on the eve of his impeachment in December; Riggleman now serves as co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign in Virginia. The distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer is battling a primary challenge from Bob Good, a former Liberty University athletics director.

Both men have tied themselves to Trump, who remains popular among most Republicans even after coming under fire for his handling of the pandemic.

Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus from January through early March, often comparing it to the seasonal flu even as intelligence officials reportedly sounded the alarm.

The president has also come under fire for touting questionable remedies for the virus, ranging from injecting disinfectant (a statement he later described as sarcastic) to Monday's announcement that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that the Food and Drug Administration has warned against taking outside of hospital or clinical settings to treat COVID-19.

Meanwhile, governors from both parties have pushed Trump for a more coordinated national strategy on testing, protective equipment and reopening.

Riggleman pointed to $25 billion in federal funding provided for testing, on top of funding for programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, as signs of a strong federal response to the pandemic. He said he was on regular calls with Gov. Ralph Northam and pointed to a flattening national curve of infections as proof of progress.

“I do think [Trump's] done a good job,” Riggleman said. “I think the issue that we have is that we have 50 different states with 50 different criteria for reopening their states. I think they need to get a handle on that.”

Riggleman was appointed to the House of Representatives’ China Task Force earlier this month. Democrats backed out of the group, suggesting it would be used to deflect blame from Trump. Riggleman disputed that, and said he hoped to move beyond a cycle of “hostile coexistence” with the budding superpower.

Grant Fox, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Riggleman was turning a blind eye to the president’s shortcomings.

Trump “promised Americans they could get tested when that wasn't true, failed to coordinate with governors to get them adequate supplies, and repeatedly undermined the advice of the nation's top scientists and health experts,” Fox said. “It didn't have to be this bad, and Denver Riggleman knows it."

Riggleman also defended Trump’s firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Riggleman argued that the firing was well within the purview of Trump’s authority if Linick wasn’t doing his job.

“We don't know all the facts yet,” Riggleman said. “We will see those facts, and we can make a judgment may be a little better afterward, but I trust that the president made the right decision on this one.”

Riggleman voted against House Democrat’s $3 trillion stimulus package, arguing that it was a “liberal grab bag” that made no attempt at bipartisanship. He pushed for an amendment to the bill that would have prevented undocumented immigrants from retroactively receiving stimulus checks; that effort failed in spite of the support of a handful of Democrats, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).

The pandemic has delayed Riggleman’s fight to preserve his seat in the 5th congressional district, which stretches from southside Virginia through Charlottesville and into northern Virginia. GOP delegates will choose between Riggleman and Bob Good at a drive-in convention set for June 13, almost two months after the convention’s original date.