The Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a dangerous combination of critical errors and craven political opportunism. Its early missteps have been vividly illustrated in public documents already unearthed by American Oversight in our ongoing investigations of the government’s deficient efforts to address the crisis. This week, we’re spotlighting a number of records we’ve recently obtained that provide an additional window into the first weeks of the administration’s response.
Back in March, the administration’s failure to establish an adequate testing regime was reverberating across the nation. But President Donald Trump and anti-immigration forces within the White House were wasting little time in using the pandemic to enact severe immigration and travel restrictions — even if they came too late to be effective.
Among the most controversial measures was the decision to suspend asylum, under the guise of preventing people with the virus from entering the United States, something sought by Trump adviser Stephen Miller long before the novel coronavirus was known. American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests with multiple agencies for any final legal analyses pertaining to the order, and Customs and Border Protection has responded that it has so far been unable to locate records showing that the agency had written or obtained any such analyses in advance.
New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras, which took place Feb. 25, wound up turning the city and the surrounding area into an early hotspot of the coronavirus outbreak. At the time of the festival, the number of known cases in the U.S. were few, and as one New Orleans health official told the New York Times, “there was no way for us to know if we had community spread because we could not test for it.”
American Oversight filed public records requests with the New Orleans and the Louisiana state governments for communications with the federal government about Covid-19 from early February to mid-March, and despite receiving responses from multiple offices, have so far obtained no records of any such discussions. In response to one request, the New Orleans mayor’s office released a White House Covid-19 briefing that was sent to state governments on March 12 that, given what we now know about the levels community spread occurring well before then, was particularly grim.
The sections of the briefing were divided by federal agency. “The U.S. government’s travel restrictions and advisories have been a remarkably effective ‘first layer’ of containment,” read a bullet in the Department of Transportation’s section. “These travel requirements delayed the arrival of the virus to the United States, giving the nation precious time to prepare further measures, and plan for mitigation.”
Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security’s section said that “While the overall risk to the American public remains low, actions by DHS and the administration are decreasing the strain on public health officials by screening incoming travelers, expediting the processing of U.S. citizens returning from China, and ensuring resources are focused on the health and safety of the American people.”
Another set of documents released to American Oversight by the Louisiana Department of Health showed how quickly alarm over the virus’ spread increased in the weeks after Mardi Gras (and as confirmed cases of Covid-19 began cropping up around the country, despite the White House’s insistence that the threat level was low). On March 2, the governor’s office shared an update with various officials, stating, “The bigger threat to Louisiana remains the flu; we still are experiencing very high levels of that virus.”
But less than two weeks later, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards sent an email to Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir at the Department of Health and Human Services, who was tasked with overseeing federal testing efforts. “We have imposed significant mitigation measures to slow the spread of Coronavirus,” Edwards wrote, “but I am afraid the testing is nowhere near as robust as necessary to identify more positive cases that can then be isolated/quarantined so that we can in a significant way slow the spread, flatten the curve, and better ensure that our medical/hospital capacity is not overwhelmed.”
By now, the president’s baseless assertions that Covid-19 was no more dangerous than the seasonal flu have been shown to be not only incorrect, but also tragically irresponsible. But the evidence that the comparison was not sound was available to the federal government early on, making Trump’s public statements all the more reckless.
A set of documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs contains a PowerPoint presentation from a March 21 briefing the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The presentation included a number of slides that demonstrate the stark difference between the flu and the novel coronavirus. Other slides in the presentation provide details on coronavirus hotspots across the country — including Louisiana’s Orleans Parish — in mid-March. But of course, no state or region at that time was hit harder than New York City, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on Trump to do more to help states.
American Oversight also received records from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative that include an April 13 email from Michael Sekora, who had led the Reagan administration’s “Project Socrates,” a program meant to analyze decline in U.S. economic competitiveness. Sekora emailed Peter Navarro — the Trump trade adviser who has publicly attacked the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci — a white paper that according to Sekora “addresses China’s exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic and our required response.”
Sekora describes the paper as being “a bit direct” (and describes himself as being “a 100% supporter of the President”). The paper, dated March 18 and titled “China is Aggressively Exploiting the Coronavirus Pandemic,” says that “by chance or by design,” China had “spawned” the virus and was exploiting the pandemic to tighten “its vice-like grip on the global economy.” Navarro forwarded the email and paper to Jared Kushner, Larry Kudlow, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and other White House officials.
Navarro is also included in a number of emails American Oversight received from the U.S. Postal Service in response to our lawsuit for records of communications between former Postmaster General Megan Brennan and the White House or the Treasury Department. In late March, Trump had appointed Navarro to be the policy coordinator for using the Defense Production Act to produce badly needed personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
Shortly after that appointment, Brennan — who has since been replaced by Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor who previously ran a logistics and warehouse company — emailed Navarro to tell him that the Postal Service team was “here to assist.” The next day, Brennan forwarded Navarro an email about “Outbound shipments of mask gloves or respirators,” though heavy redactions over subsequent emails obscure a number of details.
Finally, American Oversight also received a set of communications between the Department of Homeland Security and Fox News producers from early 2020 detailing efforts to secure television appearances for top officials including acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, whose title is currently “senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary.” The emails demonstrate a close working relationship and an effort to synchronize messaging efforts.
While many of the appearances were centered on immigration issues and the controversial ban on New York residents using Global Entry, some of the interviews also discussed the growing coronavirus crisis. In the months since, the Trump administration has continued to sideline science and medical experts in favor of the president’s wishful thinking. But an early February email from Heather Swift — a DHS public affairs official who less than two months later was pushed out of her position in what appeared to be part of the White House’s ongoing loyalty purge — shows that at the time, the Centers for Disease Control was still at the center of the administration’s scientific response. Swift informed a booker for Lou Dobbs Tonight that “DHS doesn’t actually do the quarantine so we can’t answer questions about like where are people quarantining, what are the rules etc. That’s CDC.”
Additionally, among other emails about appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight and Fox & Friends is another email from Swift to Dobbs’ booker, in which Swift reminds the booker that “government accounts can’t [retweet] Lou if he used MAGA, KAG etc.” because they are campaign slogans that would be violations of the federal Hatch Act.
Part of Investigation: