Since news broke in January 2020 of the United States’ first confirmed case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the rapidly spreading coronavirus, the federal government’s response has been defined by inadequate resources, confusing communications and blatant misinformation. President Donald Trump’s own demonstrably false statements, the worrying scarcity of testing kits, and the administration’s questionable control of official communications have only heightened the fear that the virus is spreading through communities undetected.
In late February, as the number of cases continued to rise, the Department of Health and Human Services came under fire for having sent multiple workers without proper training or protective gear to Wuhan, China, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. The whistleblower who filed the complaint also alleged that she had been retaliated against for raising concerns about those workers’ safety. Meanwhile, a delay in available testing had been exacerbated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to forgo World Health Organization tests and develop its own test, which turned out to be faulty. And public health officials and experts warned that the relatively low number of tests performed likely shielded the virus’s far larger reach.
The Trump administration’s public-facing communications have done little to alleviate concern. On Feb. 28, 2020, Rep. John Garamendi told reporters that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was directed to “stand down” and to cancel five Sunday morning talk show appearances. That same day, CNN reported that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had sent a government-wide email saying that all coronavirus-related communications must go through Katie Miller, the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, who had just taken control over the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.
Following Pence’s appointment to lead the coronavirus response, the Washington Post reported that “the White House has been obsessed with a ‘communications problem,’” to the irritation of senior health officials focused on a measured response to the coronavirus. 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. The president’s own statements — including, downplaying Covid-19 as a regular flu, blaming the Obama administration, and suggesting that going to work while infected was safe — also reflected what many saw as a preoccupation with his own political standing over concerns about public health.
American Oversight is investigating whether mismanagement in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has put lives at risk, and whether the White House’s attempted control of information has served the president’s own political interests over the health of the public.