President Trump appears to have a two-pronged strategy to undermine the federal response to the pandemic in the waning days of his administration. The first prong is, quite simply, to do nothing as hundreds of thousands of Americans contract the coronavirus every day and hospitals in the West and Midwest face a “catastrophic” lack of ICU beds. The second is also a pretty easy lift, as it involves simply doing nothing on another front: By refusing to acknowledge the results of the election, the lame-duck president is also refusing to communicate with Joe Biden’s transition team. And while the president-elect’s people have been sounding the alarm on this new form of GOP obstruction, public-health experts are also warning that Trump’s blockade of coronavirus information could severely handicap the incoming administration’s response during the nation’s worst winter for public health in over a century.
“I have been through multiple transitions now, having served six presidents for 36 years,” Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “And it’s very clear that that transition process that we go through, that time period of measured in several weeks to months, is really important in a smooth handing over of the information.” However, the process has been quite bumpy so far: Trump’s election denial has resulted in the General Services Administration — the federal agency responsible for facilitating presidential transitions — to also deny the election results. Until Trump accepts electoral reality or states certify their results on December 14, the GSA will continue to block Biden’s team from communicating with federal agencies or accessing the millions in federal funding allotted for the transition process.
“It’s almost like passing a baton in a race,” Fauci said of the transition process. “You don’t want to stop and then give it to somebody. You want to just essentially keep going — and that is what transition is, so it certainly would make things [go] more smoothly if we could do that.” He added that “of course it would be better” if agencies like the CDC and NIAID could begin advising the president-elect’s team.
Officials on Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board agreed. “There are thousands and thousands of career civil servants and political appointees who have been working very hard on this pandemic for many months now,” Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general and co-chair of the advisory board, said on Fox News Sunday. “They have plans that are in process. They have data they have collected that the public doesn’t always have access to — and to be able to see that data, see those plans, is what’s going to help us put together the best possible product in the end.” Another member of the Biden COVID board, surgeon Atul Gawande, added on ABC’s This Week: “It is in the nation’s interest that the transition team get the threat assessments that the team knows about … We need to know where the stockpiles are, what the status is of masks and gloves. There’s a lot of information that needs to be transmitted. It can’t wait until the last minute.” Both advisers have said this week that the administration only intends to institute a second national lockdown as a “measure of last resort.”
With over two months remaining until Inauguration Day, it’s possible that Trump may begin to actively harm Biden’s COVID-response plans as well. As the president replaces key figures at the Pentagon with unqualified loyalists, he has also threatened to fire Anthony Fauci, one of the most trusted infectious-disease experts responding to the pandemic.