May 6, 2020

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, Trump was talking about disbanding his coronavirus task force because it had outlived its usefulness and the administration was going to go full speed ahead on rebuilding the economy; today, Time magazine issued this week’s cover: an “OPEN” sign with the N ripped off and put in front of the other letters to spell “NOPE.” The administration’s attempt to pivot from a focus on the botched response to the virus toward a triumphant story of the economy has foundered as reality has caught up with Trump’s cheery narrative.

Yesterday we learned that Rick Bright, the scientist who directed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the federal agency charged with developing a vaccine for this coronavirus, has filed a whistleblower complaint. The complaint alleges he was demoted for refusing to spend his agency's money on developing hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug the administration was promoting for use against Covid-19. But the complaint goes on to charge that the administration pressured him “to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism.”

In a very detailed 63-page report, Bright claims that he warned the leadership at Health and Human Services about the coronavirus on January 10, but was first ignored and then ostracized for his insistence that action to prepare for an epidemic was crucial. He says the everyone in the administration except trade advisor Peter Navarro simply refused to take his warnings seriously. Throughout February, Bright peppered administration officials with memos, begging them to secure medical equipment to prepare for the epidemic. Finally, they lost patience with him in March, when he refused to back hydroxychloroquine when the president was touting it as a possible cure for Covid.

Bright told a reporter about the dangers of the drug, and days later was removed from the directorship of BARDA to a post at the National Institutes of Health, because political appointees Alex Azar, the head of HHS, and Dr. Robert Kadlec, Bright’s immediate boss, suspected him of being a source for the article. Bright claims to have been retaliated against for his role as a whistleblower, and is demanding his old job back.

Bright’s whistleblower report was only one of two that offered a window into the administration’s fumbling of the epidemic. We learned that on April 8, a volunteer on Jared Kushner’s coronavirus task force, filed a whistleblower complaint with the House Oversight Committee. Kushner's group took the place of established channels staffed by experts in order to coordinate a private sector effort to find the medical supplies America needed. The complaint, supported by anonymous individuals in the government, says that the people working with Kushner were young volunteers from consulting and private equity firms with no significant experience in health care, procurement, or supply-chain operations, and had no knowledge of relevant laws or regulations. They were ill equipped to do their jobs, and were also ordered to pay particular attention to tips from “VIPs,” including conservative journalists like Brian Kilmeade and Jeanine Pirro, as they searched for medical equipment.

Today, Politico published a story based on audio tapes leaked from three conference calls between HHS and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and federal officials around the country fielding calls from governors trying to find medical equipment. The calls highlight that as Trump was saying the nation had plenty of equipment, his officials were scrambling to try to provide it. The leaked tapes also show officials privately acknowledging that reopening the states would lead to a higher rate of coronavirus infections.

In an interview with ABC News yesterday, Trump himself admitted the reopening of states for business could cause people to die. At a briefing, when reporter Jim Acosta asked why it was important to end social distancing right now, Trump told reporters "I'm viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent and to a large extent as warriors. They're warriors. We can't keep our country closed. We have to open our country ... Will some people be badly affected? Yes."

But Trump didn’t offer much to provide confidence that the government was on top of the ongoing coronavirus response. In the ABC News interview, when Trump blamed President Barack Obama for leaving the “cupboard” of the Strategic National Stockpile “bare” of medical supplies when he left office, anchor David Muir asked him what he had done to restock it in the three years he’s been in office. The question appeared to catch the president, who is accustomed to a friendly audience on the Fox News Channel, off guard. “Well, I'll be honest,” he said. “I have a lot of things going on. We had a lot of people that refused to allow the country to be successful. They wasted a lot of time on Russia, Russia, Russia. That turned out to be a total hoax. Then they did Ukraine, Ukraine and that was a total hoax, then they impeached the president of the United States for absolutely no reason.”

A Washington Post article by Dr. Zack Cooper, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale’s Economics Department, says that we do, in fact, have the ability to test at the rate of 20 million tests a day, which is what experts say we need in order to reopen the economy safely. But the rub is that it would cost about $250 billion, and there has not, so far, been sufficient political will to spend that kind of money on testing, especially when those most affected by the reopening of states have been poor Americans and workers who are disproportionately people of color. A Rockefeller Foundation committee on reopening the economy has published a report on how to do so safely; Cooper was a member of the committee.

But for all these events undercutting Trump’s push to reopen the economy, what got under his skin most dramatically was an advertisement released Monday by the Lincoln Group entitled “Mourning in America.” This one-minute spot plays on President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning In America” reelection campaign ad, showing Trump’s term as the opposite of the rosy vision people associated with Reagan. “There’s mourning in America,” the voice in the ad intones over shots of Covid-stricken patients and folks in unemployment lines in masks, “and under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker, and sicker, and poorer. And now, Americans are asking, ‘If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?”

It took Trump four tweets to express his fury adequately, calling Lincoln Project founder George Conway a “deranged loser.” Ten hours later, he was still fuming, and ranted about the Lincoln Project to reporters for two minutes on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews. This gave Conway the opening to hit him again in an op-ed in the Washington Post today. The article used Trump’s behavior to illustrate Conway’s usual concerns about Trump’s fitness for office, but it began with a new focus on the coronavirus: “Americans died from Covid-19 at the rate of about one every 42 seconds during the past month. That ought to keep any president awake at night.”

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Notes:

https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/05/850960344/rick-bright-former-top-vaccine-scientist-files-whistleblower-complaint

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/kushner-coronavirus-effort-said-to-be-hampered-by-inexperienced-volunteers/2020/05/05/6166ef0c-8e1c-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/06/save-us-all-jared-kushner/

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/06/trump-fema-hhs-coronavirus-response-239652

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-pushed-restock-empty-shelves-blames-obama/story

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-abcs-david-muir-covid-19-deaths-country/story

Warriors quotation:

https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/TheRockefellerFoundation_WhitePaper_Covid19_4_22_2020.pdf

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/06/we-can-scale-up-testing-were-just-waiting-government-agree/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/campaign-ads-2020/the-lincoln-project-mourning-in-america--campaign-2020/2020/05/05/2f99f36a-9761-4011-9b20-9258d3429f1a_video.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/06/george-conway-trump-lashed-out-me-twitter-its-because-he-knows-truth/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-obamacare-supreme-court/2020/05/06/4a53ba54-8fe1-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html