As the pandemic swept through largely Democratic-voting states like New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey this spring, the early response from the Trump administration was defined by a catastrophic mix of ambivalence and incompetence. “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” President Trump said on a March 16 conference call with the nation’s governors, abdicating federal responsibility and sparking a bidding war among the states for limited hospital supplies. At least one auction was sent into further chaos when the federal government outbid states on the contracts.
But the Trump administration’s disregard for the massive loss of life was not equal: According to a Washington Post report from March 28, hard-hit, Democratic-leaning states like Massachusetts received only 17 percent of the protective gear requested from the national stockpile, while GOP-led Florida promptly received supplies it needed, despite a controlled outbreak at the time.
Four months later, with the American death toll north of 150,000, a report from Vanity Fair details the callous political motivations behind the Trump administration’s early failure to roll out a national pandemic response. As with many recent policy calamities, it begins with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
After Trump replaced the White House pandemic response team with an assortment of unqualified private interests — including the president’s son-in-law’s college roommate — Kushner’s bunch reportedly developed an underwhelming proposal: “The plan would have set up a system of national oversight and coordination to surge supplies, allocate test kits, lift regulatory and contractual roadblocks, and establish a widespread virus surveillance system by the fall, to help pinpoint subsequent outbreaks.”
Starting mass testing in the fall would be about six months too late, but we never even got there; the policy was abandoned in April as the president with a “natural instinct for science” renewed his COVID-19 misinformation campaign. Per Vanity Fair:
Trusting his vaunted political instincts, President Trump had been downplaying concerns about the virus and spreading misinformation about it—efforts that were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures. Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity. Meanwhile, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, was reportedly sharing models with senior staff that optimistically—and erroneously, it would turn out—predicted the virus would soon fade away.
Against that background, the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s official coronavirus task force.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.
That logic may have swayed Kushner. “It was very clear that Jared was ultimately the decision maker as to what [plan] was going to come out,” the expert said.
The idea that the Trump White House abandoned a national testing strategy because New Yorkers, not Texans, were dying by the thousands is obviously appalling. And on top of that, even the “successes” of Kushner’s program were troublesome: The 1 million Chinese-made diagnostic tests that the task force procured on March 31 through an intermediary in the United Arab Emirates were faulty. After some of the tests were distributed to the states by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, two separate government laboratories had determined that the batch costing taxpayers $52 million was “contaminated and unusable.” A Food and Drug Administration spokesperson added that they were improperly shipped from the UAE: “The reagents should be kept cold.”
Though Trump was willing to dream that the coronavirus would pass after it devastated Democratic states, his mindset reportedly changed when Republican-controlled states began to post record highs in daily testing. According to a senior administration official who spoke with the Washington Post in July, advisers to the president showed him data of COVID-19 spikes among “our people” in red states, as well as projections showing a potential spread to swing states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. According to the Post, the “new approach seemed to resonate” with the president, to some degree. He switched up his rhetoric at the start of his rebooted coronavirus briefings in mid-July, but he’s continued to spread the false idea that soaring infection rates in the U.S. are the result of more testing, and said publicly that he’s asked his team to “slow the testing down please.”