Donald Trump is apparently looking for a winning move after the multiple coronavirus cock-ups this week, including a press conference yesterday where VP Mike Pence was put in charge of the White House's response team, all white Trump was telling reporters that it's no big deal.
Amid mixed messages from the Trump administration regarding how it plans to address growing fears surrounding the spread of coronavirus in the U.S., President Trump announced Wednesday evening that Vice President Mike Pence will be in charge of addressing it.
Trump’s announcement comes on the heels of bipartisan criticism from lawmakers about his administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Politico reported Tuesday that the administration was considering the creation of a “coronavirus czar” whose job would be similar to Ronald Klain’s role as the Obama White House’s Ebola Response Coordinator. Trump said he didn’t think of Pence as a “czar,” since he is in the administration.
While Trump spoke, the Washington Post reported Wednesday evening that the first coronavirus case in the U.S. of unknown origin was confirmed in northern California.
After pledging that his administration “will spend whatever is appropriate” to address the coronavirus outbreak, Trump said that Pence “has a certain talent for this.”
“My role will be to continue to bring that team together, to bring to the president the best options for action to see to the safety and well-being and health of the American people,” Pence said. “We’ll also be continuing to reach out to governors, state and local officials.”
Considering Pence's role in restarting an HIV epidemic in rural Indiana back when he was governor by refusing to expand needle exchange programs in the state and wrecking the state's health programs, Pence may actually be the worst possible choice, given his displayed ignorance on basic medical science.
No wonder then that Trump is considering pardoning Roger Stone to get the press off the virus story.
Republicans close to the White House say officials are lobbying Trump not to go ahead with a Stone rescue. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Jared Kushner have argued to Trump that a pardon or commutation would create an unnecessary scandal during an election year. “They all think it’ll be a problem and that there will be hearings,” a Republican briefed on the internal conversations told me. Another source briefed on the matter said that Trump is being told, “We don’t need the hassle. Do it after the election.” Sources also said West Wing officials have told Trump that stepping in could lead Attorney General William Barr to resign—an outcome one Republican close to the White House described as “catastrophic.”
Trump’s desire to intervene on Stone’s behalf is being stoked by Stone’s longtime friend, Fox News host Tucker Carlson. In private, Carlson has lobbied White House officials to convince Trump to keep Stone out of jail. It’s the same case he’s made on Fox News. Last week, Carlson bashed Judge Amy Berman Jackson, the federal judge presiding over Stone’s case. “She is an open partisan, who has so flagrantly violated the bounds of constitutional law and fairness, it’s shocking she’s still on the bench. If there’s anyone in Washington who deserves to be impeached, it’s Amy Berman Jackson,” he said on air. Carlson continued the attack on air Tuesday night, calling Jackson “corrupt, dishonest, and authoritarian.” Carlson has also tried to discredit the jury’s forewoman, who Stone’s lawyers claimed failed to disclose anti-Trump tweets during jury selection. (Yesterday, Jackson erupted over Carlson’s attacks during a courtroom hearing. “Any attempts to invade the privacy of the jurors or to harass or intimidate them is completely antithetical to our system of justice,” she said.)
Carlson declined to comment.
Carlson met Stone in 1996 when Stone was working on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, which Carlson was then covering for George magazine. The two remained friendly over the years, and Stone regularly contributed to the Daily Caller, the conservative news site Carlson cofounded in 2010 (Stone has served as the Caller’s men’s fashion editor). Carlson has told people that he is frustrated that Trump didn’t immediately commute Stone’s sentence when it was handed down last week.
A source said Carlson has privately speculated that the failure to act is the result of Trump thinking like a television producer. Carlson has said to people that Trump instinctively wants to heighten drama by drawing out controversies so he can swoop in and administer justice, John Wayne–style. “The story arc isn’t complete,” a person close to Carlson told me. “The way he thinks is as a producer. It’s like, “I have to ride into the rescue.”
At the same time that Trump’s lawlessness is metastasizing, he is raging about the spread of the coronavirus. Trump has responded to criticism of how his administration is ill prepared to handle the health crisis by blaming the media for tanking the stock market. In private, Trump has blamed acting secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf for failing to have a clear message during a contentious Senate hearing yesterday, a source said.
Inside the West Wing, there’s panic that Trump’s compulsive fictionalizing could trigger an even bigger crisis if the coronavirus truly explodes. “This is a black swan event,” a former West Wing official said. “The White House is concerned because they can’t control the virus and Trump wants everyone to get out there and say positive things, but people inside don’t have confidence the statements are accurate.” The official went on: “It’s one thing to get people out there saying, ‘we’re going to win the election’ or ‘the economy is great.’ It’s another to have the government say, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ but then people start dying.” While we spoke, the official told me that he was searching for face masks on Amazon, but the site was sold out. “I have to go,” he said, and hung up.
The White House declined to comment.
It would be a great dark political comedy series, like Veep, only with absolutely evil morons in charge, if it wasn't the reality we're about to crash headlong into. And the thing that assures Trump is going to burn for the inevitable: he absolutely fired the CDC pandemic response team two years ago to "drain the swamp".
Amid warnings from public health officials that a 2020 outbreak of a new coronavirus could soon become a pandemic involving the U.S., alarmed readers asked Snopes to verify a rumor that U.S. President Donald Trump “fired the entire pandemic response team two years ago and then didn’t replace them.”
The claim came from a series of tweets posted by Judd Legum, who runs Popular Information, a newsletter he describes as being about “politics and power.” The commentary is representative of sharp criticism from Democratic legislators (and some Republicans) that the Trump administration has ill-prepared the country for a pandemic, even as one is looming.
Legum outlined a series of cost-cutting decisions made by the Trump administration in preceding years that gutted the nation’s infectious disease defense infrastructure. The “pandemic response team” is a reference to news stories from spring 2018 reporting that White House officials tasked with directing a national response to a pandemic had been ousted.
Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer abruptly departed from his post leading the global health security team on the National Security Council in May 2018 amid a reorganization of the council by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. Ziemer’s team was disbanded. Tom Bossert, who as The Washington Post reported, “had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks,” had been fired one month prior.
It’s true that the Trump administration axed the executive branch team responsible for coordinating a response to a pandemic and did not replace it, eliminating Ziemer’s position and reassigning others, although Bolton was the executive at the top of the National Security Council chain of command at the time.
Legum stated in a follow-up tweet, “Trump also cut funding for the CDC, forcing the CDC to cancel its efforts to help countries prevent infectious-disease threats from becoming epidemics in 39 of 49 countries in 2018. Among the countries abandoned? China.” That was confirmed in 2018 reports saying that funding for the CDC’s global disease outbreak prevention efforts were cut by 80%, which included the agency’s efforts in China.
Pence is now in charge of all information coming out of the federal government about the coronavirus and the response to it. We'll find out months from now that information was suppressed by Pence to make Trump look better, and it won't matter when the reports of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of cases and more roll in over the next several weeks.
I am convinced more than ever that an epidemic will end badly for America, not only the possible casulaties, but given Trump's authoritarian reactionary rage when the blame falls on him like an avalanche (and deservedly so), I truly fear what he may end up doing as a result.