Coronavirus response: States team up to oppose Trump’s “total” authority
Welcome, dear readers, to the fourth installment of my coronavirus roundup. I’m posting these every Friday in addition to Lost in the Sauce on Mondays (for non-coronavirus news). The previous edition can be found here.
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Propaganda in the White House
Last weekend, the New York Times published an article summarizing the many warnings the Trump administration – including Trump himself – received about the pandemic currently ravaging the nation. Some points were previously reported, some events are newly-revealed. The entire article is worth reading. Indeed, it is so devastating that Trump ranted about it for days.
“The @nytimes story is a Fake, just like the ‘paper’ itself,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “I was criticized for moving too fast when I issued the China Ban, long before most others wanted to do so. @SecAzar told me nothing until later, and Peter Navarro memo was same as Ban (see his statements). Fake News!”
Then, at Monday’s
Trump rally coronavirus task force briefing, Trump played a propaganda video created by the White House to rebut the idea that Trump was slow to respond to the crisis. In an effort to rewrite history, Trump accidentally highlighted his incompetence: In a section of the video featuring a timeline of Trump’s “DECISIVE ACTION,” the only pre-March action Trump could take credit for was travel restrictions on China. However, not only were these restrictions fairly porous, the virus was already spreading in the U.S. by that time (e.g. the first confirmed case was on Jan. 20, the travel “ban” was enacted on Jan. 31).
- WATCH the video Trump played for the press. A more thorough fact-checking of the various segments can be found here and here.
The campaign-style video also frames the administration’s mistakes as milestones in fighting the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, the CDC’s botched testing kit rollout is featured in the “DECISIVE ACTION” timeline segment; it is also the only entry for the month of February. These faulty test kits made it impossible for public-health authorities to get an accurate picture of how far and how fast the disease was spreading, wasting valuable time that allowed community-transmission of the disease to accelerate.
In the press pool while the video aired were two women who did not let Trump’s claims go unchallenged: Paula Reid of CBS and Kaitlan Collins of CNN.
Reid: What did you do with that time that you bought? The argument is that you bought yourself some time. You didn’t use it to prepare hospitals. You didn’t use it to ramp up testing. Right now, nearly 20 million people are unemployed.
Trump: You’re so disgraceful. It’s so disgraceful the way you say that….
Reid: Tens of thousands of Americans are dead. How is … this rant supposed to make people feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?…
[cross-talk and arguing]
Reid: What did your administration do in February for the time that your travel ban bought you?
Trump: A lot.
Trump: A lot, and in fact, we’ll give you a list…. We did a lot. Look, look, you know you’re a fake. (WATCH the video
Then, Collins questioned Trump’s claim (video) that he had “total” authority to force states to lift social distancing measures.
Collins: You said when someone is president of the United States, their authority is total. That is not true. Who told you that?
Trump: You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to write up papers on this. It’s not going to be necessary, because the governors need us one way or the other because ultimately it comes with the federal government. That being said, we are getting along very well with the governors and I feel very certain that there won‘t be a problem.
Collins: Has any governor agreed that you have the authority to decide when their states …
Trump: I haven’t asked anybody because. … You know why? Because I don’t have to ….
Collins: But who told you the president has the total authority?
Every expert saw it coming
The NYT piece
Keeping in mind that Trump didn’t take serious action to address the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. until mid-march, here are some of the new details in the NYT story that ruffled Trump’s
- “By [February 21], it was clear to the administration’s public health team that schools and businesses in hot spots would have to close. But in the turbulence of the Trump White House, it took three more weeks to persuade the president that failure to act quickly to control the spread of the virus would have dire consequences.”
- Feb. 26: “The meeting that evening with Mr. Trump to advocate social distancing was canceled, replaced by a news conference in which the president announced that the White House response would be put under the command of Vice President Mike Pence… With Mr. Pence and his staff in charge, the focus was clear: no more alarmist messages… It would be more than three weeks before Mr. Trump would announce serious social distancing efforts, a lost period during which the spread of the virus accelerated rapidly.”
- Early January: “In a report to the director of national intelligence, the State Department’s epidemiologist wrote in early January that the virus was likely to spread across the globe, and warned that the coronavirus could develop into a pandemic… The early alarms sounded by Mr. Pottinger and other China hawks were freighted with ideology… And they ran into opposition from Mr. Trump’s economic advisers, who worried a tough approach toward China could scuttle a trade deal that was a pillar of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.”
- “Mr. Trump took a conciliatory approach through the middle of March, praising the job Mr. Xi was doing. That changed abruptly, when aides informed Mr. Trump that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman had publicly spun a new conspiracy about the origins of Covid-19: that it was brought to China by U.S. Army personnel who visited the country last October. Mr. Trump was furious, and he took to his favorite platform to broadcast a new message. On March 16, he wrote on Twitter that ‘the United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.’”
- Late January into February: Peter Navarro “circulated a memo on Jan. 29 urging Mr. Trump to impose the travel limits, arguing that failing to confront the outbreak aggressively could be catastrophic… The uninvited message could not have conflicted more with the president’s approach at the time of playing down the severity of the threat. And when aides raised it with Mr. Trump, he responded that he was unhappy that Mr. Navarro had put his warning in writing.”
Further reading: NYT “The ‘Red Dawn’ Emails: 8 Key Exchanges on the Faltering Response to the Coronavirus”
Obama saw it coming
An investigation by ProPublica found that the Obama administration attempted to restock the Strategic National Stockpile with new equipment, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives denied the necessary funding.
Had Congress kept funding at the 2010 level through the end of the Obama administration, the stockpile would have benefited from $321 million more than it ended up getting… During the Trump administration, Congress started giving the stockpile more than the White House requested.
Congressional Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner, leveraged the debt ceiling — a limit on the government’s borrowing ability that had to be raised — to insist that the Obama administration accept federal spending curbs.
In 2013, Obama gave a speech requesting funding to fight future pandemics: “There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure — not just here at home, but globally — that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly.”
McConnell cuts again
During yet another attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, in 2017 Mitch McConnell introduced an amendment to defund the Prevention and Public Health Fund at the CDC, which assists states in detecting and preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The Republicans failed to ax the program when the entire repeal was voted down (in part by John McCain).
Hundreds of health organizations, including the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, sent a letter to McConnell and other congressional leaders, warning them of “dire consequences” if the Prevention Fund was eliminated. Public-health programs dealing with infectious-disease outbreaks had never been restored to the levels they were at before the 2008 crash and were “critically underfunded.” The letter concluded, “Eliminating the Prevention Fund would be disastrous.”
However, as I reported in Forensic News, Republicans were successful in cutting the CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response by over $787 million, nearly cutting funding by half.
Intel agencies saw it coming
In last week’s coronavirus “roundup,” we learned that U.S. intelligence officials were warning about the Wuhan outbreak as far back as November. This week, an Israeli news broadcaster reported that U.S. intelligence warned its close allies of the danger from the contagious disease – “specifically NATO and Israel.” The report continues to note that the White House was given the intelligence, as well, but “did not deem it of interest.”
Fauci saw it coming
In January 2017, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned incoming members of Trump’s administration about the inevitability of a “surprise outbreak” of a new disease.
“There is no question that there will be a challenge to the coming administration in the arena of infectious diseases,” Fauci said during a speech at Georgetown University, adding, “the thing we’re extraordinarily confident about is that we’re going to see this in the next few years.”
…”We do need a public-health emergency fund. It’s tough to get it … but we need it,” Fauci said. “Because what we had to go through for Zika — it was very, very painful when the president asked for the $1.9 billion in February and we didn’t get it until September.”
But the Trump administration did not create such a fund, and instead cut spending for federal agencies responsible for detecting and preparing for outbreaks.
Trump’s priority: Radio show
In early March, Trump walked into the Situation Room for a meeting with the coronavirus task force. He had an idea he was eager to share: He wanted to start a White House talk radio show. At the time, the virus was rapidly spreading across the country.
A talk radio show, Mr. Trump excitedly explained, would allow him to quell Americans’ fears and answer their questions about the pandemic directly, according to three White House officials who heard the pitch. There would be no screening, he said, just an open line for people to call and engage one-on-one with the president.
But that Saturday, almost as suddenly as he proposed it, the president outlined one reason he would not be moving forward with it: He did not want to compete with Rush Limbaugh. (NYT)
Social distancing & mitigation
On Sunday, Dr. Fauci told CNN: “Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives.” New models back up his analysis, showing that had the administration acted just two weeks earlier, thousands of lives could have been saved:
an estimated 90 percent of the cumulative deaths in the United States from Covid-19, at least from the first wave of the epidemic, might have been prevented by putting social distancing policies into effect two weeks earlier, on March 2, when there were only 11 deaths in the entire country. The effect would have been substantial had the policies been imposed even one week earlier, on March 9, resulting in approximately a 60 percent reduction in deaths. (NYT)
How long will we need to maintain social distancing measures? A new study from Harvard researchers published in the journal Science finds that “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.”
We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity.
What happens if we lift restrictions too early? Projections from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services determined that easing mitigation after just 30 days will lead to a dramatic infection spike this summer and death tolls that would rival doing nothing. If the administration lifts the 30-day stay-at-home orders, the death total is estimated to reach 200,000. That is compared to a death toll of about 300,000 if no mitigation measures were ever enacted.
Reopening the country
During the Thursday briefing, President Trump unveiled a three-phase plan to reopen the economy, complete with a campaign-style logo and catchphrase, “Opening Up America Again.”
In phase one, for instance, the plan recommends strict social distancing for all people in public. Gatherings larger than 10 people are to be avoided and nonessential travel is discouraged.
In phase two, people are encouraged to maximize social distancing and limit gatherings to no more than 50 people unless precautionary measures are taken. Travel could resume.
Phase three envisions a return to normalcy for most Americans, with a focus on identification and isolation of any new infections.
In contrast to Trump’s claim earlier in the week that he has “total” authority to force states to open when he prefers, on Thursday Trump told governors they are going to be responsible for deciding when it is safe to list restrictions.
On Monday: “The President of the United States has the authority to do what the President has the authority to do,” President Trump says. He says that local governments “can’t do anything without the approval of the President of the United States.” (video)
But legal experts say Trump is wrong. For one, they note that U.S. law gives state governors wide latitude to protect the health and safety of their constituents. Secondly, they point out that Trump never declared a nationwide lockdown, so there’s no mechanism by which he could order a nationwide reopening now, namely. (CNBC)
The next day, numerous governors – including New York’s Andrew Cuomo – pushed back on Trump’s unfounded claim of authority. “If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn’t do it. And we would have a constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government and that would go into the courts,” Cuomo said.
- Further reading: NBC “Trump’s ‘total authority’ boast should’ve enraged Republicans. Instead they shrugged.” The Hill “Bret Baier: Conservatives heads ‘would’ve exploded’ if Obama said he had ‘total’ authority.”
Friday morning: Another reversal
This morning, a day after saying that governors were going to “call your own shots” on reopening the country, Trump sent a series of all-caps tweets pushing for certain states to lift social distancing measures immediately:
Tweet: LIBERATE MINNESOTA!
Tweet: LIBERATE MICHIGAN!
Tweet: LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!
States team up
As Trump tried to convince Americans of his unfounded powers to unilaterally reopen the country, governors across the country teamed up to develop a plan to lift mitigation on their own terms.
“We are announcing that California, Oregon and Washington have agreed to work together on a shared approach for reopening our economies – one that identifies clear indicators for communities to restart public life and business,” read a joint statement issued by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
On the East Coast, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts will be forming a regional working group to design a reopening plan.
Cuomo said people who work in New York City come from across borders every day — they live in Connecticut and New Jersey, in addition to New York state — and it only makes sense for the states to work in a coordinated way. “His workforce is my workforce, my workforce is his workforce, all these decisions affect everyone and the entire region. What this virus says is all of your lines and boundaries make no sense,” Cuomo said, referring to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, another Democrat.
In the midwest, seven states announced their own coordinated effort: Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kentucky. “We look forward to working with experts and taking a fact-based, data-driven approach to reopening our economy in a way that protects families from the spread of COVID-19,” the governors said in a statement.
Yet again, the president used the coronavirus task force briefing last week to promote corporations. As the U.S. death toll passed 30,000 and over 22 million Americans filed for unemployment, Trump used the national spotlight to congratulate himself and praise business leaders for taking part in his economic task force:
When he finally unveiled his much-heralded new White House economic task force focused on reopening the economy, President Donald Trump read off a list of names. Dozens and dozens and dozens of names. With little explanation or context about their ultimate purpose, Trump spent roughly 10 minutes in the White House Rose Garden ticking off names of executives and companies from sectors including technology, agriculture, banking, financial services, defense, energy, transportation, sports and health care. (video one and video two)
A day later, Trump opened the briefing with a commercial for General Motors (video).
- Further reading: The Guardian “Trump accused of using coronavirus briefing as corporate advertising spot.”
Testing continues to lag
As Dr.Fauci said last week, the U.S. does not have sufficient testing and tracing capacity required to reopen the economy: “We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet,” Fauci said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Testing for the coronavirus would have to be at least doubled or tripled from its current levels to allow for even a partial reopening of America’s economy… (NBC News)
Strikingly, Trump’s plan to reopen America does not contain a national testing strategy.
Federal officials are still getting requests from private laboratories for help obtaining the necessary reagents to conduct tests, a person involved in the task force said. Meanwhile, the American Hospital Association has raised concerns with the administration about a lack of testing supplies.
The government has been unable to compel test manufacturers to dramatically increase the number of tests produced, and Trump has been unwilling to invoke the Defense Production Act for that purpose. States are also still struggling with acute supply shortages for tests, including swabs and reagents, that Washington has not addressed.
The president has failed to even begin to acknowledge how woefully behind America is on testing. In briefing after briefing, Trump has claimed that there are no testing deficiencies because the U.S. has tested more people than any other country, ignoring (or not understanding) that on a per capita basis this is not true.
When asked about the continued troubles with testing capacity on Tuesday, Trump pushed the onus onto the governors and berated the reporter, Brian Karem (video):
“Trump: Governors are supposed to do testing. It’s up to the governors…”
Karem tried to finish his question, to which Trump responded, “Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. The governors are doing the testing. It’s now not up, and it hasn’t been up, to the federal government… I told them if you put this guy here, he’s nothing but trouble, he’s a showboat. if you keep talking, I’ll leave and you can have it out with the rest of these people… just a loudmouth.”
A robust testing system is also required for contact tracing: the process of finding and reaching out to the contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19. These contacts are quarantined and monitored. If any of them test positive for the disease, the process is repeated with their contacts, etc., until the chain of transmission is halted.
How to pull off contact tracing in America is a matter of debate. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan have had success containing the virus by conducting contact tracing and enforcing quarantine with technology like tracking apps on cell phones. For example, in Singapore “citizens are encouraged by the government to install TraceTogether, which exchanges Bluetooth signals between mobile phones in close proximity.”
The alternative to using digital surveillance, which comes with privacy concerns, is a large force of contact tracers that rely upon human memory to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the virus. Massachusetts is the first state to take on this task in the U.S., budgeting $44 million to hire 1,000 contact tracers. Beginning with one-on-one telephone interviews of newly diagnosed patients, the tracers will make lists of who each person was in contact with shortly before testing positive, informing them all that they must quarantine for 14 days.
The downside of human contact tracing is that it is expensive, can overlook contacts a subject may not recall, and, some argue, is too slow for a fast-moving virus.
“Using automation to do it, cellphones and triangulations of data, that is the easiest and fastest way, and probably the most effective way to do this,” said Ranu S. Dhillon, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who advised the government of Guinea on the Ebola outbreak. “If you’re taking one or two days to manually figure out where someone went, you’re adding more time where people can transmit it to others,” he said.
An important part of reopening the country will be knowing who already has antibodies to the coronavirus and can safely return to work. These antibody tests are just beginning to be developed and rolled out in the U.S. However, as of Tuesday, the FDA has only approved one such test for an emergency use authorization. As CNN explains, “without FDA approval, these tests don’t undergo the rigorous process usually required to prove accuracy, and this has raised concerns.”
Lacking an approved product, some areas have resorted to using antibody tests manufactured in China with little oversight or proof of efficacy. NBC News reported that public health departments in Denver and Los Angeles are using these unapproved tests, as are urgent care centers in Maryland and North Carolina.
Relying on unreliable tests might feed into a second wave of infections if federal and state leaders reopen the economy too soon or base decisions on inaccurate data. For this reason, Gov. Cuomo called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of proven antibody tests, but so far Trump has refused to do so.
Playing favorites with medical supplies
In last week’s edition, I wrote about how Trump and his administration have given life-saving medical supplies to allies while refusing to assist areas governed by political opponents. This week, we have more examples of Trump playing favorites while Americans die:
For weeks, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) pushed the federal government to open up a site in his district for coronavirus testing. “When we do push up a request, they sit on it for weeks,” Kim said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “For weeks we’ve put in this request for a third site, and they weren’t being responsive… they say my area is about to be one of the biggest hotspots in the country, and there’s no follow-through.”
Meanwhile, Trump publicly announced that he is assisting Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican lawmaker whose district is 180 miles from Kim’s district:
From the White House briefing room podium last week, President Trump announced he’d be sending 200,000 N95 protective masks to Suffolk County, New York, “at the request” of Zeldin, who is a close White House ally. In a Facebook post touting the news, Zeldin said he got a call from Jared Kushner, a COVID-19 task-force leader, “within minutes” of issuing a call for personal protective equipment for his district.
While short-changing and delaying requests from Democratic lawmakers, the administration appears to promptly respond to requests made by Republicans. This was clear in the case of Florida and Colorado (as described last week), and it is clear now in Arizona. Sen. Martha McSally, currently polling behind her Democratic challenger, took to Twitter to try to claim credit for obtaining 100 ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile for her state. In reality, it appears that Republican Governor Doug Ducey was responsible for securing the ventilators, but McSally’s tweet garnered significantly more attention – likely in an attempt to save her Senate seat.
- Note: Literally a day before McSally and Ducey announced the delivery of ventilators, Trump claimed that “nobody is asking for ventilators” at the task force briefing (video).
Jared Kushner’s role
The House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is investigating “whether the U.S. government is paying too much for ventilators made by a Dutch company that received millions in tax dollars to develop an affordable one for pandemics, but is now charging quadruple the price under a new deal.” As ProPublica previously reported, the new deal for expensive ventilators was negotiated with Jared Kushner.
Chairman Krishnamoorthi notes:
During a press conference last night at the White House, President Trump appeared to denigrate the more inexpensive, portable ventilators developed over the last decade with BARDA, approved by the FDA in 2019, and under contract with HHS since last September. Instead, he boasted about ordering more costly ventilators, stating: “These are high quality ventilators. We had a choice. We could do inexpensive, less productive ventilators, or high quality. We’ve done a high-quality ventilator.”
Kushner has played a large role in the supply-chain unit of the coronavirus task force, favoring “some of the nation’s largest corporations and ignored smaller producers of goods and services with long track records of meeting emergency needs.” Kushner and his advisors, who have been nicknamed “the children” by FEMA veterans, have reportedly prioritized private profit and strict control over where supplies go.
The supply chain task force leaders pushed aside federal emergency management response teams that had long-established methods for engaging assistance from the public and private sectors. Instead, they first reached out to personal contacts…
“Jared and his friends decided they were going to do their thing,” said the senior government official involved in the response effort. “It cost weeks.”
Masks for us, not for you
In early March, while the Trump administration was discouraging the public from wearing masks, the National Security Council was scrambling to obtain masks for the White House staff. The quest ultimately resulted in a donation of hundreds of thousands of surgical masks from Taiwan, some of which were set aside for White House officials.
The resulting arrangement he struck with Taipei made thousands of masks available for White House staff use two weeks before the administration reversed policy and advised that citizens should broadly begin wearing cloth face coverings in public.
At the time, Surgeon General Jerome Adams was urging the public to save the supply of masks for medical workers on the front lines: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” Adams tweeted on Feb. 29, as stores across the country sold out. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
Chaotic PPE supply chain
Due to Trump’s slow response to the pandemic, the government was not prepared to supply healthcare workers across the country with protective equipment including masks:
- WaPo: The Trump administration has awarded bulk contracts to third-party vendors in recent weeks in a scramble to obtain N95 respirator masks, and the government has paid the companies more than $5 per unit, nearly eight times what it would have spent in January and February when U.S. intelligence agencies warned of a looming global pandemic, procurement records show.
- The same WaPo article: The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a $55 million contract for N95s this month to Panthera Worldwide LLC, which is in the business of tactical training. One of its owners said last year that Panthera’s parent company had not had any employees since May 2018, according to sworn testimony. It also has no history of manufacturing or procuring medical equipment…Panthera Worldwide’s parent company filed for bankruptcy last fall…
- ProPublica: The White House Pushed FEMA To Give its Biggest Coronavirus Contract to a Company That Never Had to Bid. The Trump administration has rushed through more than $760 million in contracts outside the usual bidding process during its haphazard coronavirus response. It’s highly unusual for the White House to step into FEMA’s supply bidding process.
- WSJ: New York City officials have asked local organizations for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns as Mayor Bill de Blasio said some protective equipment would be in short supply this week… Staffers with the mayor’s office reached out to the New York Mets over the weekend to help source ponchos usually sold in shops at their stadium.
For background on the “miracle” drug that Trump has been endlessly promoting, see my previous post here.
This past week, we have more evidence that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are dangerous and can be fatal:
- WaPo: The CIA has privately advised its workforce that taking an anti-malarial drug touted by President Trump and some of his supporters as a promising treatment for the novel coronavirus has potentially dangerous side effects, including sudden death.
- NYT: Small Chloroquine Study Halted Over Risk of Fatal Heart Complications. A research trial of coronavirus patients in Brazil ended after patients taking a higher dose of chloroquine, one of the drugs President Trump has promoted, developed irregular heart rates.
- A French study reviewing the death rates of patients treated with hydroxychloroquine compared to those who were not treated with the drug found no statistically significant difference. Therefore, the researchers determined that hydroxychloroquine has no benefit to coronavirus patients. Eight patients who took the drug developed abnormal heart rhythms and had to stop taking it.
- NBC News: Family of New York woman blames hydroxychloroquine combo for fatal heart attack. The 65-year-old woman was prescribed the malaria drug and an antibiotic by her doctor to treat coronavirus symptoms.