Decentralized leadership raises questions about Trump coronavirus response

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The rotating cast of officials appearing behind President Trump to detail the government’s response to the coronavirus are leading to new criticisms that they reflect a scattered approach from the White House that too often leaves states fending for themselves.

Top Trump administration officials say the appearances by a broad range of administration officials shows the “all of government” undertaken to combat the coronavirus.

But some current and former government officials see a disconnected strategy where it can be unclear who’s in charge of what or whether there is a coordinated long-term plan.

The shifting assignments and addition of officials with unclear responsibilities have contributed to the inefficient distribution of key supplies, those officials argue, which has been exacerbated by Trump’s insistence that the federal government merely play a supporting role for states.

“The approach that’s been taken at the White House with respect to critical inputs – protective gear, testing kits, ventilators, reagents, skilled personnel – there has never been a clear plan,” said Steve Morrison, director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“And the alternative has been a very haphazard patchwork approach that has gone from overpromising and underdelivering multiple times and left the states on their own,” added Morrison, a former Clinton administration official.

In recent days, more than a dozen administration officials have appeared behind Trump at the daily briefings.

Attorney General William Barr rolled out new drug interdiction efforts; Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke about the military pitching in while retaining combat readiness; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin touched on economic relief for businesses; senior adviser Jared Kushner outlined partnerships with the private sector; and top trade adviser Peter Navarro elaborated on the use of the Defense Production Act.

A White House spokesman rejected criticism that the effort has been disconnected. He identified Vice President Pence as the person in charge of coordinating the entire response, and listed dozens of actions taken by the administration that include travel restrictions, disaster declarations for states and funding for businesses and families impacted by the virus.

“As both the President and Vice President have said, this is a locally executed, state managed, federally supported response to a global pandemic,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement. “Every level of government needs to deliver solutions and that is what we are doing in partnership. During these difficult times, Americans are receiving comfort, hope and resources from their President, as well as their local officials, because this is an all-of-America effort.”

The White House has shifted responsibilities as it scrambled to get its arms around the magnitude of the pandemic, which Trump downplayed for January and most of February. 

The White House created a coronavirus task force at the end of January, putting Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar in charge.

Trump tapped Pence in late February to oversee the federal response as it became apparent the virus was spreading domestically. Within days, Pence was identifying himself as the leader of the task force, pushing Azar aside and adding officials from across the government to help steer the response effort.

In the weeks since, Azar and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been largely absent from public briefings, and the CDC has stopped holding its own briefings for reporters even as the public health crisis worsened.

Kushner made his first appearance in the briefing room Thursday, where he elaborated on the work he’s done to facilitate the supply chain at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to try and get ventilators and other equipment out to states in need.

The president’s son-in-law has drawn scrutiny for his increased portfolio in responding to the virus given his lack of medical background. But Kushner rejected the idea that he is operating a “shadow task force.”

“I would just say very simply — look, the president asked the vice president to run the task force. The vice president asked me to assist,” Kushner said. “I’ve been serving really at the direction of the vice president, and he’s asked me to get involved in different projects.”

FEMA was put in charge of organizing the response to states, but only in late March, forcing an agency typically tasked with targeting relief toward a region reeling from wildfires or hurricanes to quickly grasp the logistics of responding to a nationwide pandemic.

But Kushner and some of his allies have set up shop with FEMA to mobilize the private sector. While officials describe the effort as well intentioned, it has further clouded who was responsible for getting desperately needed ventilators and personal protective gear to states facing shortages.

Trump put Navarro in charge of managing the Defense Production Act to push companies to produce essential supplies. And while Navarro spoke at length about that effort from the White House on Thursday, Trump has been the one needling companies like General Motors and 3M on Twitter and invoking the act to ramp up manufacturing of masks and ventilators. 

“There have been so many iterations. Who’s in charge has been a constantly evolving item,” said one government official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

That has been a particular point of frustration for states. Governors in both parties have pushed for the federal government to use a stronger hand in leading the process of procuring equipment so that states aren’t forced to bid against each other. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) last week urged Trump to be more like Tom Brady than a backup quarterback.

But Trump has been adamant that he views the federal government’s role as secondary, going as far as to blame states who failed to foresee the pandemic for their own shortages.

“Remember, we are a backup for them. The complainers should have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Other states are thrilled with the job we have done. Sending many Ventilators today, with thousands being built. 51 large cargo planes coming in with medical supplies. Prefer sending directly to hospitals.”

Kushner adopted that tone on Thursday when he chided state leaders for not having a full accounting of their supplies before suggesting the national stockpile wasn’t intended for states to use.

Trump’s criticism of states; preparedness for the pandemic may be difficult for some local leaders to swallow, given the president was still comparing the death toll from the coronavirus to the flu and automobile accidents as recently as two weeks ago. 

The president has adopted a more somber tone in the past week as the White House rolled out grim projections that show hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from the virus even with strong mitigation measures. 

But public health experts and former health officials have expressed skepticism that Trump is thinking far enough ahead to address the supply chain and medical problems the virus will pose in the weeks and months to come.

“There is a basic playbook for how to deal with an epidemic,” said Thomas Frieden, who served as CDC director during the Obama administration. 

“You have the incident manager, they control the response, they are aligned with political leadership. They tee up the decisions to be made, there are policy decisions to be made,” he said. “I don’t see that happening. That makes me really worried. I don’t see us thinking a week, two weeks, a month ahead.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this story.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Jared Kushner Jay Inslee Mark Esper Mike Pence Steven Mnuchin William Barr
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