Jeh Johnson: Stop the political blame game, so we can solve our crisis first

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Many reporters have asked me in recent days to critique the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. To try now to assess the administration’s response to this ongoing crisis is like trying to assess the government’s preparedness and response to 9/11 on 9/12, while first responders were still pulling the dead from the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.

In the months and years ahead, scores of congressional committees, agency inspectors general and scholars will study the Trump administration’s actions in response to this crisis and why it did not take action sooner. This type of after-action second-guessing is one of the things that official Washington does best (if I sound a bit cynical here, I admit it’s from being the object of the same thing), and hopefully there will be things we learn from it.

But until a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19 are found, we must urgently address the here and now, and devote our minds and energy to slowing the spread of the virus. Here are a few observations:

First, there is widespread misapprehension about the roles and authorities of federal, state and local governments to address the crisis. The federal government does not have the general legal authority to command people to shelter in place or stay away from public spaces and events. At most, the federal government has the authority to regulate our international borders, to limit the interstate travel of those with communicable diseases, and some limited, rarely invoked authority to quarantine people with a communicable disease who somehow present a threat to interstate travel. The authority to direct people to stay at home or stay away from their workplace is a public health and police power typically reserved to state and local governments.

As I write this I am confined to my home in Montclair, N.J., by order of the governor of New Jersey; I am prohibited from going to work at my law office in Manhattan by order of the governor of New York. The president does not have the authority to override these orders and command the American people back to work by Easter, or any other date. Govs. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) and Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) will lift or modify these orders when they believe the time is right for public safety in their respective states, not because the federal government publicly urges them to do so.

In a crisis like this one, the principal roles of the federal government are to regulate our international borders, protect the national economy — aided, hopefully, by the just-enacted $2 trillion stimulus package — and to surge and direct needed resources. The president says “we are not a shipping clerk.” Well, that is exactly what the federal government should be now, to ensure that test kits, protective gear, ventilators, hospital beds and other vital medical supplies are delivered quickly to the communities that need them most. Through his command of the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Health and Human Services, Commerce and others, the president is in fact the shipping clerk-in-chief.

In this effort, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, should have the central role. I know from personal experience overseeing FEMA that its ability to identify, marshal and deploy resources quickly and effectively is superior to any other federal agency. The president should ensure that FEMA has all the legal authority it needs to husband resources and dispatch them to the communities that need them most. We cannot have a bidding war between states, cities and hospitals for ventilators.

Second, there is something that governments at all levels should be thinking about: Eventually, through the current aggressive social isolation, we will slow the spread of the coronavirus. In weeks or months, we are bound to “flatten the curve.” At that point we will need a plan for returning to work and a “new normal.” But, by what metric will it be safe to lift the various executive orders and tell people to leave the shelter of their homes?

There will be no magic “all clear” moment when COVID-19 disappears from the country or the planet. Here, President Trump is correct that the judgment is multidimensional and requires striking the right balance between public health and the prospect of total economic collapse if the American people do not work, travel and consume. Such a plan will be imperfect and risky. A plan to send people back to work will entail considerable public health risk of a COVID-19 resurgence, and, yes, some political risk for those who must make that judgment.

My hope is that the best minds in American government and public health are tackling this very question, as it may be the most difficult one we confront throughout the coronavirus crisis.

In the current crisis the American people have no patience for the political blame game or political posturing. As Ronald Reagan once said, “there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Jeh Johnson served as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 and as general counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012.

Tags Blame Congressional oversight Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Emergency management Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA Presidency of Donald Trump US news media

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