Yesterday, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services published a study summarizing interviews with 323 hospitals. The study confirmed that hospitals are desperately short of personal protective equipment, and have been unable get coronavirus test results for patients. The details in the 40-page report are horrifying, though hardly unfamiliar to anybody who has followed news reports or the pleas of doctors and nurses on social media. Medical staff are unprotected and exposed to infected patients, shipments of gear from Washington have been haphazard, test results take seven days or more, and so on.
The purpose of such reports is to identify problems so that policy-makers can take corrective action. It is fair to say that President Trump did not take the report in the earnest problem-solving spirit in which it was intended. Several journalists asked Trump about the report at his briefing yesterday. His responses grew increasingly hostile and disconnected from reality.
After the first question, even before the reporter could finish summarizing the report, Trump interjected, “Did I hear the word inspector general? Really? It’s wrong.” When told the source came from his own government, Trump began fishing around for evidence the report’s author was biased: “Well, where did he come from, the inspector general. What’s his name?”
Fifteen minutes later, another reporter followed up with the answer. “Her name was Christi Grimm and it wasn’t so much her opinion, but they interviewed 323 different hospitals — ” began a second reporter. Trump interjected, “It still could be her opinion. When was she appointed? When was she appointed?” ABC’s Jon Karl replied, “She was appointed in January of this year to her current position as the principal deputy inspector.”
Another reporter followed up: “I know you don’t want to talk about the inspector general report, but testing is still a big issue in this country. When can hospitals expect to receive a quick turnaround of its test results?” Trump replied by asserting that hospitals and states, not the federal government, are responsible for testing — “Hospitals can do their own testing also. States can do their own testing.” — before complaining that the reporter was mean to ask the question:
We have a brand-new testing system that we developed very quickly and that’s your result. And you should say, congratulations. Great job. Instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.
Generally speaking, in a democracy, reporters at a press briefing use their questions to ask actual questions, rather than to say, “Congratulations. Great job.” Of course, Trump’s idea of how journalists should question leaders is more along the lines of Russia, the Gulf monarchies, or Fox News.
Yet the report continued to irk the president. Today he tweeted out the rebuke he wishes he had thought yesterday:
Did the inspector general report on the 2009 swine flu under Obama? Well, yes. In September, 2009, it released a 57-page report assessing the distribution of vaccines and treatments. Three years later, it published a retrospective report. Trump has a large executive branch staff at his disposal, and he could have asked somebody to look up the answer to his question before tweeting it out, but even the act of asking somebody else to do some work was more work than Trump was willing to put into the issue.
Why did the office conduct the survey by asking hospitals, rather than putting the questions to members of Trump’s administration? Probably the reason is that the report was intended to find out how hospitals are doing, and what they believe they need to better serve patients during the pandemic. It was not intended to record the party-line views of Trump’s lackeys who know full well that they are not allowed to admit bad news.
The entire concept of having an inspector general is to provide a resource to the government. The president can’t correct problems without finding out what the problems are. Trump’s method is deny problems or, when they can no longer be denied, shirk all blame. The existence of independent sources of information is abhorrent to Trump. Dictators don’t have inspector generals in their government. Their response to problems is to overpower them with propaganda.