Democrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus

Congressional Democrats are facing enormous pressure to show voters they are staying engaged and taking action to combat the deadly coronavirus pandemic during a critical election year. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has launched a new special House committee to oversee trillions of dollars in emergency spending, while other top Democrats are pushing legislation to create a separate 9/11-style commission looking into whether the government properly responded to the outbreak. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is aggressively pressing President Trump to appoint a “czar” to oversee the production and distribution of coronavirus-related medical supplies — a move that has rankled the president.

And rank-and-file Democrats are getting creative to make sure their constituents know they are working on the crisis — even as they hunker down with their families at home.

Freshman Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) are among those who’ve held telephone town halls on the coronavirus in recent days, while progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been answering coronavirus questions on Facebook Live, Instagram stories, Zoom and other social media platforms.

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who flipped a GOP-held seat in Staten Island in 2018, is taking things a step further. The decorated Afghanistan War veteran deployed to the National Guard, where he is helping to build overflow field hospitals in the New York region that’s become ground zero for the coronavirus. 

“When I’m a member of Congress, the generals call me ‘sir.’ But when I’m in uniform, I’m just a lowly captain,” Rose told reporters before his deployment. “So I’m going into this with no illusions of grandeur — just to do my small part and do my duty.”

The Democrats’ efforts come as Trump has used his bully pulpit to dominate headlines and the air waves, particularly with the daily White House briefing on the crisis.

He and his coronavirus task force — comprised of Vice President Pence, National Institute for Allergy and Infections Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and other medical experts — have held daily press briefings, which have attracted millions of television viewers. 

That’s put congressional Democrats and former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s likely presidential nominee, at a disadvantage as they try to protect their House majority and flip control of the Senate and White House. 

Home on a lengthy recess, lawmakers have spent the past week touting the passage of their historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus health bill — the largest such emergency rescue package in history. But with more than 10 million people filing for unemployment benefits and a death toll in the thousands, lawmakers are now racing to demonstrate they will be part of a months-long, sustained battle against COVID-19. 

Pelosi has been making the media rounds — including MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” CNBC and CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” — to push for a fourth stimulus bill, though that proposal has shifted in recent days from an economic recovery package to yet another emergency one as the crisis has worsened.

She’s done those interviews from the Capitol, a subtle signal to viewers that work is continuing in Washington even with nearly all of her members back home.

The Speaker is also trying to ensure that the trillions in aid from the first three coronavirus packages are being spent appropriately. Last week, she appointed House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close ally of Biden, to chair a new special bipartisan committee to provide oversight of the coronavirus spending. Republicans panned the Pelosi committee, arguing that the bipartisan package already created a panel to oversee bailout funds.   

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and other leaders also have been holding near-daily conference calls with rank-and-file members on various coronavirus issues, from stimulus checks and food security to housing. Some members said they are particularly worried that unemployment benefits and low-interest loans were not getting out quickly enough to out-of-work constituents and shuttered small businesses in their districts due to an inundated IRS and Small Business Administration.

Letters sent to the Trump administration have been popular, too. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and 15 other Senate Democrats sent a letter to Defense Department officials calling for a probe into whether the captain of the U.S.S Theodore Roosevelt was fired after sounding the alarm about a COVID-19 outbreak on his ship.

Democrats are flexing their oversight muscles in other ways as well. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have rolled out dueling legislation to create a 9/11-style bipartisan commission to investigate why the U.S. government was not prepared for the coronavirus pandemic and how the country can prevent an outbreak from happening again. 

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a leader of the moderate Blue Dogs, and Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), a leader of the centrist Tuesday Group, have authored the first bipartisan version of the coronavirus commission bill.   

“The general feeling I get from my colleagues now is that we were not ready. … I am convinced that properly positioned, we should have had a better response to it. There should have been a functioning system to address the pandemic,” Thompson said in a phone interview from his district office in Bolton, Miss. 

“The messaging we were getting from the White House was not the same message we were getting from the CDC and other professionals,” he added. “For quite a few weeks, it was a series of misstatements and missteps. That was inconsistent in a time of emergency.”

Other House Democrats have joined Schumer in urging Trump to create a special post within the administration to evaluate the various supply needs around the country and manage the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“The problem that I see right now is we really …  have to have some kind of centralization with regard to this PPE,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) told reporters this week. “So, I would like to have some, one person at the federal level who’s in charge of this who’s not only getting the stuff from overseas or whatever, but also getting the data to where this stuff is so that it can be redistributed.”

“We provided the money,” Pallone added. “It’s really a question of distribution at this point and manufacturing a lot of this stuff, too.”

Mike Lillis and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

Tags Adam Schiff Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Anthony Fauci Bennie Thompson Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Coronavirus Donald Trump economic stimulus Elissa Slotkin Hakeem Jeffries Haley Stevens Infrastructure Joe Biden John Katko Max Rose Nancy Pelosi Stephanie Murphy Stephen Colbert

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