‘We’ve All Given Up Getting a Straight Answer from You Guys’: Frustrated Emails Between Illinois Governor’s Office and White House

The federal government was criticized sharply for its lack of leadership in the pandemic during a congressional hearing on Wednesday, including by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said the government’s “muddled response” forced states to compete in a “sick Hunger Games game show” for personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

This isn’t the first time Pritzker has called out the Trump administration for its poor response to the coronavirus pandemic. Back in March, after President Donald Trump’s chaotic rollout of restrictions on travelers from most of Europe, Pritzker had lambasted the president over Twitter, leading to a testy exchange with the White House. This week, American Oversight obtained emails between a White House official and Pritzker’s chief of staff that show the mounting anger over the lack of a federal plan.

Pritzker’s criticism of the administration during Wednesday’s hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee is part of a larger chorus from state leaders who have called out the lack of a federal plan for combating the disease’s spread, including during the first few months of the pandemic. “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” President Donald Trump had told governors in mid-March. That same week, Trump had unveiled the travel restrictions, and the ensuing confusion had hit Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport particularly hard, with dangerously packed crowds.

The Washington Post reported that on March 14 — a few days after the president’s announcement of travel restrictions, and as the situation at O’Hare reached chaotic levels  — Pritzker’s aides “had struggled to get answers from the administration” but that the governor’s tweets “got the White House’s attention.” According to the Post, within minutes White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Douglas Hoelscher called the governor, and the conversation “grew heated,” with “a lot of yelling.”

The emails obtained by American Oversight are between Hoelscher and Pritzker Chief of Staff Anne Caprara, with the first having been sent after Hoelscher’s call to the governor. Hoelscher complained to Caprara that “nobody on your team reached out to me … despite the Vice President underscoring that we are here to help work through shared challenges of this unprecedented public health challenge.” 

The next morning, Caprara responded. “Was glad to hear that your response to this situation last evening was to call the Governor of Illinois and scream at him over the phone and then ask for a public apology for his tweets,” she wrote. “You guys really have your priorities straight. He left that call with no sense as to what you are actually doing to alleviate the situation at hand btw.”

But Caprara wasn’t finished. She criticized the White House for not informing the Governor’s Office that it planned to issue the restrictions, and said the poor communication was indication that “either you had no idea it was going to happen because you didn’t prepare AT ALL for the consequences and logistics of the President’s travel ban OR you knew and decided not to warn us. Both are unacceptable. We are also ‘just a phone call away’ but apparently the phone didn’t work when we needed to be warned this might happen.”

Caprara also faulted the White House for its lack of availability during the crisis, as well as the ongoing shortage of test kits. “It takes days for the governor to get anyone on the phone who has real decision making authority. Our repeated calls for more [test] kits have gone unanswered.”

“So please spare me the sanctimonious preaching about ending partisanship and coming to the table – the time for that was weeks ago when we needed an aggressive federal level response to head off this disaster. Instead we got ‘everyone who wants a test can get a test’ and ‘this is no worse than the flu.’”

In a follow-up email, Hoelscher claimed that Caprara didn’t accurately describe his call with the governor, but admits that he “did express frustration to the Governor about not picking up the phone to work toward a solution in partnership.” 

Caprara responded: “On the testing issue – my boss has been calling White House officials, including the Vice President, about this for two weeks. To be quite honest, we’ve all given up getting a straight answer from you guys.”

In the weeks that followed, Trump displayed little appetite for developing a cooperative attitude toward critical state leaders, lashing out at Pritzker during an April 5 news conference. The records obtained by American Oversight also include an email from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief of staff, Maurice Classen, about Trump’s remarks that day: “The President also tore down our Governor. Not helpful.”

In the months that followed — and even still, as the nation faces surges in cases in multiple states — poor testing capacity has hampered the fight against Covid-19. The emails outlined above offer a window into the frustrations that state and local leaders have had with the lack of federal leadership, a vacuum that has continued through the summer.

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