Behind the confusion and foot-dragging as the White House confronts the global pandemic is the administration’s desire to dismantle the federal government and give power to businesspeople.
The Trump administration has been clear that it does not want the federal government to assume responsibility for American citizens any longer. Trump has refused to issue a stay at home order from the federal government, insisting instead that governors make their own calls. He has refused to use the Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to produce the masks and ventilators Americans so desperately need. He is refusing to tell manufacturers where to place their supplies. In place of government coordination, his administration officials are counting on business people to assume leadership.
Instead, the fifty states are trying to respond on their own. They are making their own decisions about what to shut down, when, and are bidding against each other for supplies. This piecemeal response to the pandemic crisis means we are not effectively cutting off the spread of the virus, or supporting the healthcare we will need.
Today Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Trump to urge him to appoint a “senior military officer” as a “czar” to coordinate a federal response to the crisis and to use the DPA to increase production, procurement, and distribution of medical devices and equipment. “America cannot rely on a patchwork of uncoordinated voluntary efforts to combat the awful magnitude of this pandemic,” Schumer wrote. “The existing federal void has left America with an ugly spectacle in which States and cities are literally fending for themselves, often in conflict and competition with each other, when trying to procure precious medical supplies and equipment. The only way we will fix our PPE [personal protective equipment] and ventilator shortage is with a data-driven, organized and robust plan from the federal government. Anything short of that will inevitably mean this problem will remain unsolved and prolong this crisis.”
Trump responded with a letter that was remarkable, even by his standards. It began: “Thank you for your Democrat public relations letter and incorrect sound bites, which are wrong in every way.” Trump denied that there was anything wrong with his administration’s response to the crisis. “As you are aware, the Federal Government is merely a back-up for state governments. Unfortunately, your state needed far more of a back-up than most states.”
He went on: “If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers), and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy.’” (Schumer called for a declaration of a public health emergency on January 26.) “I’ve known you for many years, but I never knew how bad a Senator you are for the state of New York, until I became President.”
Meanwhile, today Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts gave a press conference in which he announced that the Kraft family, which owns the New England Patriots football team, had generously used the Patriots’ plane to transport more than 1 million masks the state had purchased in China, as well as picking up $2 million of the cost of the masks. While warmly complimenting the Kraft family’s generosity, state representative Katherine Clark said “this is not how it’s supposed to work…. What we need is a coordinated federal system.”
But there isn’t one. Instead, the White House is turning to private interests to manage the national response. It is a philosophical position embraced by those who would overturn the active government that has presided over the United States since the New Deal.
There was a remarkable moment tonight in the press conference tonight at the White House, flagged by Josh Marshall at TPM (Talking Points Memo). Countries have been sending supplies of masks, gowns, and so forth that our medical professionals so desperately need. But at the same time, ProPublica has reported that states are paying up to 15 times what medical supplies usually cost to get this equipment. So what’s going on?
At the press conference, Weijia Jiang of CBS News asked the official in charge of the shipments, Rear Admiral John P. Polowczyk, what was happening to them. He explained they are not going directly to the states or to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Rather, they are going to the private sector, which has systems in place for distributing such materials. But the states are in a bidding war in the private sector to buy this equipment, which is driving prices up.
Shouldn’t the federal government step in to stop profiteering and make sure states get the supplies they need? “I’m not here to disrupt a [commercial] supply chain,” the admiral said.
Schumer to Trump: