April 9, 2020
There were a whole bunch of variations today on the theme of the Trump administration mismanaging the pandemic crisis as it tries to consolidate power. And there was a really interesting political twist that made me sit up and take notice.
Shortages of supplies for our hospitals and health-care providers continue to plague our response to the novel coronavirus. A report from Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) has documented that as late as March 2, the administration was urging American businesses to take advantage of the booming market to export such supplies to other countries. If Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act, he could have kept masks, ventilators, and PPEs at home. Porter’s office examined export records to show that in February 2020, “the value of U.S. mask exports to China was 1094% higher than the 2019 monthly average.”
Even more disturbing are investigations into what is happening to the supplies hospitals and states are ordering. In the absence of federal masks, PPEs, ventilators, and so on, the president urged states to get what they needed themselves. They have bought supplies on the open market, only to have the federal government confiscate them.
While state and hospital officials from New Jersey, Colorado, Kentucky, and Massachusetts have all gone on record accusing federal authorities of confiscating supplies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denies it is taking shipments. Vice President Mike Pence told governors on Monday that the administration is simply redirecting supplies to areas that need them most. “We have the visibility on medical supplies that are moving into this country and available to vendors in this country,” he said.
But, as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, who is on this story, reports, officials will not share the formula by which they are making those decisions. More and more stories are emerging that allege that the supplies are being redistributed by Jared Kushner or Trump based on political partisanship. Trump friends get supplies; others don’t. It seems likely that at least some of the confusion is simply poor management and people see a conspiracy in the chaos. But the suggestion that leading administration officials are trying to create political capital out of this crisis seems in keeping with their usual patterns.
It would also explain that bizarre exchange between Jared Kushner and a reporter, when Kushner said, “The notion of the federal stockpile is that it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be the states’ stockpiles that they then use.” When CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang later asked Trump what Kushner meant by “our stockpile,” Trump said it was a “gotcha” question. “You know what 'our' means? United States of America,” he said. “We take that – ‘our’ – and we distribute it to the states.” “[W]e need it for the federal government,” Trump said. “To keep for our country because the federal government needs it too, not just the states.” “It’s such a basic and simple question and you try and make it sound so bad,” he added. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Certainly, the administration is trying to leverage the president’s daily coronavirus briefings for political gain. Today we learned that Pence, who is in charge of the administration’s communications about the virus, has been prohibiting doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, two top health officials dealing with the pandemic, from appearing on CNN. Trump likes the coverage the briefings get, often boasting of his ratings on Twitter, and the network has stopped broadcasting the briefings in full. CNN says Pence’s office told it the ban would last until they restored the full briefings. After the story broke, Pence’s office relented and permitted CNN access to the administration’s medical team.
As unemployment claims skyrocket and the stock market drops, Trump continues to worry about the effect the plummeting economy will have on his reelection. He and his economic advisors are pushing to reopen the country by May 1, against the advice of health experts. Today U.S. infections continued to climb to more than 466,000 confirmed cases and close to 17,000 deaths. Health experts say we need to be able to conduct mass testing, contact tracing on a massive scale, and targeted quarantines—none of which we currently have the capacity to do-- before we lift restrictions. Those restrictions are imposed by state governors, so it is unclear how much authority Trump can exercise, although certainly his advice would carry weight.
One of the people weighing in on the question, surprisingly, was Attorney General William Barr. In an interview yesterday on the Fox News Channel, he warned that “we need to be very careful that the draconian measures that are being adopted are fully justified.”
Barr said much more in that interview. He told FNC personality Laura Ingraham that the president was right to fire the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General, Michael Atkinson, and that the investigation into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election had no basis and was an effort to “sabotage the presidency.” Indeed, he said, it was “one of the greatest travesties in American history.” The inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, concluded that the investigation was legitimate and that the FBI did not act with political bias. Barr has appointed his own special inspector, John Durham, to reexamine the issue. Barr continued: “My own view is that the evidence shows that… there is something far more troubling here, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
For all that the administration appears to be consolidating power, there were signs that Trump is afraid. A new CNN poll shows presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading him by 53% to 42%. In the New York Times today, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman wrote a piece entitled: “Trump Keeps Talking. Some Republicans Don’t Like What They’re Hearing.” The subtitle read: “Aides and allies increasing believe the president’s daily briefings are hurting him more than helping, and are urging him to let his medical experts take center stage.” Yesterday, the conservative Republican group The Lincoln Project endorsed Biden, tweeting “As America contends with unprecedented loss, we need a leader who can steady the ship, heal our common wounds, and lead us into our next national chapter. Joe Biden has the humanity, empathy and steadiness we need in a leader.” The Lincoln project has already begun airing devastating attacks on the president.
And in California, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he was done begging for supplies and was going to use the purchasing power of California as a “nation-state” to get its own supplies, perhaps even “exporting” them to other states. These terms suggest that Newsom has decided to stand up to the administration once and for all with a threat to follow through on the state’s rights the Republicans have championed when it suited their agenda. This will complicate Trump’s political life, especially if other wealthy states follow suit.
But for all this news, the thing that jumped out at me today was an op-ed published last night in the Washington Post by Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri. In it, Hawley calls for Congress to invest in America by covering 80% of wages for US workers, offering bonuses for rehiring workers, strengthening supply chains at home, and cracking down on Wall Street profiteering. He wants anti-trust enforcement and corporate transparency rules. This op-ed reads to me like Hawley thinks the radical anti-government fever that took over the Republican Party in the last generation is going to break under Trump, and Hawley is betting that a political future, even for a Republican senator, depends on embracing government activism.
That is news indeed.
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Porter’s report: https://porter.house.gov/uploadedfiles/everyone_but_us.pdf
Supplies confiscated: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/politics/coronavirus-fema-medical-supplies.html