We’ve known for months that President Donald Trump has been downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. In the spring, we knew that Covid-19 wasn’t just like the seasonal flu, despite Trump’s reassurances that it was. And we’ve known that the pandemic won’t just “disappear,” no matter how many times the president insists it will.
But recent revelations that as early as Feb. 7 the president knew that the novel coronavirus was “deadly stuff” cast an even more damning shadow over his irresponsible understatements. During an interview revealed in Bob Woodward’s new book, Trump told the journalist that the virus is passed through the air and that it is “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” The statement puts Trump’s public comments in the pandemic’s early months — not to mention the resistance to wearing masks — in an even more disturbing light. As does his March 19 admission to Woodward that he “wanted to always play [the virus] down” and that he “still like[s] playing it down.”
The tragic consequences of the White House’s focus on political messaging over public health are obvious. American Oversight has also obtained numerous sets of documents from the early days of the pandemic showing medical and public health experts across the country growing increasingly worried about Covid-19 and the nation’s lack of preparedness — at the same time the president’s insistence on “playing it down” was undermining efforts to contain the virus.
“We are at a crisis here,” said a health-care official in Wisconsin on Feb. 24, regarding shortages of personal protective equipment — the same day Trump said the virus was “very much under control in the USA.” “We are flying blind,” a doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote on Feb. 27., as Trump tweeted that the “numbers look to be going down.” And a PowerPoint presentation from a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing showing the stark differences between Covid-19 and the flu, as well as coronavirus hotspots across the country, is dated March 21; two days later, Trump said, “Parts of our country are very lightly affected.”
Trump’s latest misleading assertions are just one part of his administration’s tragically mismanaged handling of the pandemic. From supply-chain failures to unaddressed conflicts of interest, and from testing shortages to questionable promotion of certain treatments, there are multiple areas that demand scrutiny. American Oversight’s Covid-19 Oversight Hub is tracking the latest developments in investigations into the government’s response — visit the website to explore our library of public documents, stay up to date on new watchdog investigations, and see a comprehensive list of related lawsuits.
For more on what else has been going on this week, read on:
Allegations of Louis DeJoy’s Campaign-Finance Violations: The Washington Post reported earlier this week that prior to his appointment as postmaster general, Louis DeJoy’s rise as a major Republican donor was potentially aided by the campaign finance–violating practice of reimbursing employees for making donations to DeJoy’s favored political candidates. Former employees of the logistics company that DeJoy previously ran told the Post that they were pressured by him or his aides to attend fundraisers or make the contributions. While the law is clear on the illegality of reimbursing employees with company money after pressuring them to donate, proving that illegal coercion took place can be tricky, as American Oversight’s Melanie Sloan told the Washington Post.
We’re Still Waiting for DeJoy’s Calendars: Last month, the U.S. Postal Service denied our Freedom of Information Act request for DeJoy’s calendars, saying the calendar was for DeJoy’s personal use and not “subject to the FOIA.” We’re not the only ones who have asked for the calendars, which are important records that reveal how officials are spending their time and public resources. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked for them in a hearing last month (DeJoy has not complied with his commitment to turn them over to Congress, prompting a subpoena for the records), and the HuffPost has also filed a FOIA request that was denied. “For a head of an agency to not have any record of their business we think is unreasonable,” American Oversight’s Dan McGrath told the HuffPost.
The Trump Administration’s History of Anti-Immigrant PR Efforts: For years, the Trump administration has — often with the involvement of Stephen Miller, the president’s top immigration adviser — sought to portray undocumented immigrants as violent criminals. Documents we obtained show a number of such efforts, including meetings with the Remembrance Project, an SPLC-designated hate group, press releases tying immigration to violent crime, and the sharing of “potentially-helpful storylines” that serve that narrative. A recent fictionalized video produced by the U.S. Border Patrol is of a piece with those efforts; it shows a Spanish-speaking man escaping authorities and then killing another man in a dark alley. The video has since been taken down, but you can see it and read more about it here.
Rick Perry’s Ukrainian Energy Deals: During the impeachment inquiry, President Trump’s former energy secretary, Rick Perry, was revealed to be one of the “three amigos” tasked by the president with managing U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine. Now, a joint report by ProPublica, WNYC, and Time — based in part on emails released by American Oversight’s FOIA litigation — sheds new light on Perry’s dealings with Ukraine and his multi-year effort to “advance energy deals that were potentially worth billions of dollars to [his] friends and political donors.” Read the full story here.
Seema Verma Spent Millions on GOP Consultants: A new congressional investigation has found that Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), spent more than $3.5 million in taxpayer money on consultants who helped her place op-eds, win awards, and even organize a “Girl’s Night” in her honor. One of those consultants is longtime Republican consultant Brett O’Donnell. American Oversight has obtained multiple emails related to O’Donnell’s contract from the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes CMS. In one email from 2017 about O’Donnell’s recently expired contract, one CMS aide wrote, “We work with Brett everyday so it is difficult with it not in place.”
DOJ Intervention in Defamation Lawsuit Brought by Trump Accuser: Attorney General William Barr continues to find new ways to turn the Justice Department into the president’s personal law firm. This week brought news that the Justice Department is intervening in the lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a journalist who says the president raped her years ago.
Part of Investigation: