The federal government's response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States has been a disaster. As of Tuesday, there were more than 170,000 confirmed infections, the most in the world. While the virus spread in China and elsewhere, the federal government conducted virtually no testing, allowing COVID-19 to spread within communities undetected. During these critical weeks, there was no effort to stockpile protective equipment for health care workers or ramp up production of critical medical devices like ventilators. Already, more than 3,400 people have died. And it's projected to get much worse.
How did this happen?
Appearing on the radio with conservative media personality Hugh Hewitt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the federal government was distracted because the House of Representatives impeached Trump. "[I]t came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment," McConnell said.
If the federal government failed to respond to an imminent pandemic because it was too concerned about the political fate of Trump, it would be an outrage. But the reality is even worse.
Years before Trump was impeached, he decimated the government's capacity to respond to a pandemic. Moreover, while Trump's impeachment and trial were ongoing, Trump found time for his priorities — holding campaign rallies and playing golf. And after Trump was acquitted by the Senate on February 5, Trump continued to downplay the threat of the coronavirus and for many weeks.
In 2018, long before impeachment, Trump dismantled the pandemic response teams at the White House National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security. Popular Information detailed Trump's actions on February 25, when there were just 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States.
In 2018, the Trump administration ousted Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer, who served as the Senior Director of Global Health Security. Ziemer was a member of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for coordinating "responses to global health emergencies and potential pandemics." Ziemer was lauded as "one of the most quietly effective leaders in public health." His work on Malaria during the Obama administration helped save 6 million lives.
"Admiral Ziemer’s departure is deeply alarming," Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) said in May 2018. "Expertise like his is critical in avoiding large outbreaks." Beth Cameron, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said that Ziemer's ouster was “a major loss for health security, biodefense, and pandemic preparedness” and noted that it "is unclear in his absence who at the White House would be in charge of a pandemic."
John Bolton, who was serving as Trump's National Security Adviser at the time, did not just remove Ziemer. He decided to eliminate the position, and "the NSC’s entire global health security unit." Bolton also forced out Tom Bossert, a highly regarded expert who was Ziemer's counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security. "Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced," Foreign Policy reported in January.
Thus, when COVID-19 began spreading in China in late 2019, the people in the White House best positioned to recognize the threat and prepare the country were gone.
Trump was impeached on December 18, 2019. But Trump didn't let his impeachment get in the way of his priorities. The same day, Trump held a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan. Vice President Mike Pence also attended.
Between December 20, 2019, and January 5, 2020, Trump played golf at his club in West Palm Beach, Florida, fourteen times. His only days off the links were Christmas and January 3, when Trump held a campaign rally in Miami.
On January 8, the CDC issued its first warning about a respiratory illness spreading in China.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring a reported cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology (PUE) with possible epidemiologic links to a large wholesale fish and live animal market in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. An outbreak investigation by local officials is ongoing in China; the World Health Organization (WHO) is the lead international public health agency. Currently, there are no known U.S. cases nor have cases been reported in countries other than China. CDC has established an Incident Management Structure to optimize domestic and international coordination if additional public health actions are required.
On January 9, Trump held another campaign rally with Pence in Toledo, Ohio. Trump and Pence were back on the campaign trail on January 14 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Trump was golfing again in Palm Beach on January 18 and 19.
On January 20, the first COVID-19 case in the United States was reported in Washington state.
On January 21, the Senate impeachment trial began.
On January 22, Trump went on a two-day trip to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” Trump said.
Trump held campaign rallies in Wildwood, New Jersey on January 28, and in Des Moines, Iowa on January 30.
Trump returned to his Palm Beach club for more golf on February 1 and 2.
The Senate acquitted Trump on February 5.
The same day Trump was acquitted, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requested $2 billion "to buy respirator masks and other supplies for a depleted federal stockpile of emergency medical equipment." The White House rejected Azar's request for funding, arguing it was unnecessary. Weeks later, the administration submitted a $500 million request for the same type of equipment to Congress.
At the same time, members of Congress like Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) were sounding the alarm. The administration was not taking action to prepare the country.
On February 15, Trump went golfing again in Palm Beach.
On February 20, two weeks after Trump was acquitted, two former Trump administration officials wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that testing for COVID-19 needed to be ramped up dramatically.
A mere 15 cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been diagnosed in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number hasn’t budged in a week. But the true number of cases is unknown, because the U.S. is testing only those who recently arrived from China or have been in close contact with confirmed patients. Public-health authorities need to be prepared for a wider outbreak.
Trump ignored the warning and continued to brag about the low number of confirmed cases in the United States at his political rallies.
On February 24, Trump requested just $2.5 billion from Congress to deal with the burgeoning crisis.
On February 25, a CDC expert, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warned that community spread of COVID-19 within the United States was inevitable, and "disruption to everyday life might be severe." Trump was reportedly furious that her comments caused the stock market to plummet.
On March 8 and 9, Trump returned to Palm Beach for more golf.
On March 9, Tom Bossert, one of the members of the United States pandemic response team that was ousted by Trump, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for urgent action. Time was running out, Bossert said, to avoid "the terrifying exponential upward curve confronting Italy."
School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1 percent...Time matters. Two weeks of delay can mean the difference between success and failure.
We are all now paying the price for Trump's negligence. And it has nothing to do with impeachment.
Thanks for reading!