In January, or 37 lifetimes ago in Trump years, Elizabeth Warren released a plan to address the novel coronavirus that had already engulfed China and was spreading around the world. Among other things, the then Democratic candidate called for increased funding for agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; ensuring that hospitals had adequate levels of necessary equipment; and partnering with foreign governments and multilateral organizations. Weirdly, nowhere in Warren’s plan did she call for misleading the public about the threat of the disease; distributing supplies only to states that sufficiently kissed her ass; delaying stimulus checks so her name could be printed on them; using briefings to brag about what a great job she’d done; or empowering her son-in-law to prioritize aid as he, in his estimable opinion, saw fit. Of course, such approaches feature heavily in Donald Trump’s shambolic response to the coronavirus crisis, leading Warren and other lawmakers to demand investigations into the administration’s handling of COVID-19.
In a letter to the inspector generals at Homeland Security and HHS—watchdogs Trump has not yet gotten around to firing—Warren and nine other Democratic senators write that the “slow distribution of supplies,” including personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, along with an astonishing lack of transparency, “suggest a process plagued by confusion, inconsistency, and potential political interference.” For instance, Massachusetts, one of the first states hit by the coronavirus, has received “only a fraction of its request for PPE and other medical supplies” from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) while Florida was able to obtain 100% of the supplies it asked for within three days of doing so, as well as the full quantity of a follow-up order. How did such a discrepancy come to pass? Warren and company have an idea!
A White House aide recently credited electoral concerns and President Trump’s close relationship with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida for the prompt fulfillment of Florida’s request for supplies from the SNS, saying “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection, so when DeSantis says that, it means a lot…He pays close attention to what Florida wants.” President Trump has also claimed that Florida’s procurement of supplies from the stockpile was due to the state being “very aggressive in trying to get things.” In reality, Governor DeSantis delayed closing public beaches during spring break and resisted implementing a statewide lockdown until the beginning of April when the states’ cases had ballooned to nearly 8,000. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker sent a request to the SNS and issued a state public health emergency in early March.
Also curious? The shifting explanations from federal agencies re: how supplies are allocated. For example, per Warren’s letter, HHS originally stated that stockpile distribution was based on a formula in which “25 percent of a state’s requests were fulfilled based on its population and 25 percent on its number of COVID-19 cases.” Later, FEMA said that distribution was “focused on meeting future demand models where patient levels are expected to strain state and local medical conditions in coming weeks” based on data from the CDC and HHS. Finally, one gets to what appears to be the true methodology for determining who gets what, as laid out by the president of the United States, who told Fox News in late March that governors “Have to treat us well…they can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that,” going so far as to tell Mike Pence, head of the White House task force on coronavirus, “don’t call the governor in Washington, you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
Of course, this comes as Trump has insisted that states should effectively go it alone and not rely on the federal government for help getting supplies, with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saying that the SNS is “supposed to be our stockpile; it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use,” which is not how the SNS is supposed to work at all. And speaking of young Kushner, Warren et. al. would love a bit more insight into “Project Airbridge,” the administration’s public-private partnership for distributing supplies:
The novelty and complexity of this arrangement demands heightened scrutiny and transparency. However, the administration’s implementation of Project Airbridge has been completely opaque. It has not been transparent about how it identifies COVID-19 hotspots, except to say that “these areas are determined by HHS and FEMA based on CDC data.”
The involvement of Jared Kushner in Project Airbridge and management of supply chain complicates matters further. Mr. Kushner appears to believe that requests from the states are inflated, saying “In some cases, people are requesting 10 times what they actually need.” News reports allege that Mr. Kushner may be “circumventing protocols” as he handles states’ requests. Allegedly, Mr. Kushner has served as a “liaison to different donors, to different corporate allies of this administration,” and the White House may be “directing FEMA and HHS officials to prioritize specific requests from people who are able to get Kushner on the phone.”
In a second letter sent to the Pandemic Response Oversight Committee (PRAC), which was established by the CARES Act to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse, Warren, along with Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, ask for an investigation into, among other things:
Reports that stimulus checks were delayed because the man-child in chief demanded his name be printed on them; the decision by the administration to seemingly make decisions about allocating life-saving supplies “based on the electoral concerns of President Trump and his political allies rather than public health needs”; and the matter of the president’s daily briefings being less about disseminating information regarding a deadly virus than “crass political propaganda” and “self-promotion.” The senators specifically cite the April 12, 2020, briefing in which Trump screened a “campaign-style” video praising the administration for handling the crisis so awesomely, which is not only an objective lie, but, per Warren, Blumenthal, and Markey, a potential violation of the Hatch Act if it was created by White House staff or other federal employees.
Anyway, given that PRAC has the authority, nay, the responsibility to investigate potential fraud and abuse related to “all matters of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Warren and her colleagues are hoping it will “open a comprehensive investigation of the partisan and political nature of the Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic,” as “Americans should not have to wonder whether their lives are being put at risk by the President’s concern for his political prospects amidst a public health and economic calamity.” Of course, an investigation isn’t actually necessary to answer that question—Americans’ lives are quite obviously being put at risk by Trump’s concern for his political prospects—but one would nevertheless be nice.
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