Just 37 percent of Americans say they have trust in what the president is telling us about the coronavirus outbreak, according to a poll released earlier this week. The NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll also found that less than half believe the federal government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the virus. And while another ABC poll found a higher number of Americans approve of President Donald Trump’s actions, the fact remains that his administration’s mismanagement has put lives at risk.
In fact, in large part the response has been state and local governments closing schools and businesses and telling their residents to stay inside and take part in “social distancing.” Two days after Trump told governors, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” health-care leaders have warned that “more needs to be urgently done,” including greater federal funding than what Congress had appropriated this week.
Testing availability remains frighteningly scarce, with daily stories of ill people unable to receive tests popping up on social media. And news continues to trickle out showing just how badly the government failed in ensuring widespread testing early on. Meanwhile the president’s seemingly all-consuming and misguided focus on his own political standing has further eroded whatever confidence there was that he could lead the country through such a time of anxiety.
American Oversight has filed dozens of targeted Freedom of Information Act requests across the federal government and in several states as we look into the Trump administration’s mismanaged response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Our investigation aims to shed light on the testing shortages, the administration’s dangerous early decisions and questionable focus on message control, industry influence over response decisions, and how Trump is attempting to reshape the narrative to fit his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Here’s a look at what we’re seeking.
In 2018, after John Bolton took over as national security adviser, Trump disbanded the NSC’s Global Health Security and Biodefense team. Bolton’s elimination of the NSC global health unit led to the departure of Timothy Ziemer, who headed the office and is now the senior deputy assistant administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Trump had fired his homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert, who worked on global pandemics, the month before.
The decision to dissolve that team is widely seen by experts as having hindered the administration’s response to the pandemic, despite Bolton’s refusal to acknowledge the mistake and the president’s refusal to take any responsibility. We’re asking for communications about the unit’s disbandment from both Ziemer and Director Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). We’re also asking for related communications from key officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The troubling nationwide shortage of coronavirus testing kits was the result of a number of grave errors in the initial stages of the pandemic, from turning down tests from the World Health Organization and the creation of faulty tests to excessive bureaucratic hurdles in the Emergency Use Authorization process, which allows outside entities to develop and use their own tests. One doctor told the New York Times that the federal government had instructed doctors in February to “cease and desist” testing for the coronavirus. Another problem, as reported by Politico, was a Feb. 23 email system crash at HHS, which interrupted negotiations over a coronavirus funding plan and other efforts.
American Oversight has a number of requests related to the behind-the-scenes actions that severely hindered testing abilities, including requests for:
Trump had consistently downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak before his recent claims that he had always been taking it seriously. Many have, rightly, been quick to fact-check his statements, but his early public-relations-style spin and apparent concern only for the stock market has had and will have serious repercussions.
Additionally, the White House’s early focus on message control stifled many important sources of information for the public. On Feb. 28, 2020, Rep. John Garamendi told reporters that NIAID Director Fauci was told to cancel five Sunday morning talk show appearances. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also reportedly sent a government-wide email saying that all coronavirus-related communications must go through Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller. Then on March 2, public reporting indicated that the CDC changed a page on its website to remove the total number of persons tested for Covid-19, with no indication as to the reason for this change.
To learn more about the administration’s potential attempts to suppress or politicize important public health information, we’re seeking:
Falling back on one of his favorite political rallying cries, Trump has linked the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States to human migration, and indicated in late February — before he acknowledged the seriousness of the outbreak — that he was “very strongly” considering closing the southern border with Mexico. Experts have questioned this approach, noting that it ignores the risk of “community spread” within the United States.
American Oversight has filed requests with the Department of Homeland Security for any White House directives or guidance regarding immigration, border crossings or travel screenings in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. We’re also asking for any final analyses prepared by DHS or provided to DHS by other agencies on the effectiveness of closing the southern border in response to the outbreak.
States and localities are responding to the outbreak in different ways, from those with more serious measures to states that have been criticized for not doing enough, to states like Washington that have seen the worst outbreaks so far. We’ve filed requests for communications that officials at the Wisconsin, Texas and Washington state departments of health have had with the White House, the CDC, the FDA, or HHS regarding the coronavirus.
Fear of industry opportunism during a national emergency is a serious concern. Banks have been lobbying officials for deregulatory actions, including lower capital requirements, which experts say could be risky for the financial system. We’re seeking communications between banks and Federal Reserve officials to see what influence the financial industry is having on the government’s response to the coronavirus, and are also asking for emails about coronavirus sent by Fed officials, including with the White House. We’ve also filed requests with various agencies for directives regarding the coronavirus at detention centers or other institutions.
We’re also asking for records of the government’s response to online disinformation about the outbreak. The State Department has created a report about such conspiracy theories and dangerous posts, but social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have complained that they haven’t received sufficient details about that disinformation. We’re asking the State Department for its report as well as for any such evidence and related emails.
As news continues to develop, we’re still researching and seeking information about the government’s coronavirus response. You can view our requests and read more about the investigation here.