Mainstream Media accounts of the Trump administration’s CCP Virus response keep appearing emphasizing how lousy and lackadaisical it’s been compared with the federal response to potentially dangerous disease outbreaks during the Obama years – and especially given supposedly prescient pandemic warnings that the Obama-nauts sounded to their successors that allegedly were ignored.
So RealityChek is going to have to keep pointing out major flaws in these accounts that both reporters and their editors should have noted, and questions they should have asked.
Keep in mind, moreover, that today’s pushback comes on top of (1) this blog’s description of a 2011 Commerce Department report on America’s increasingly dangerous vulnerability to foreign cutoffs of vital healthcare goods that was completely ignored; and (2) a similar presentation of federal economic data making clear the nation’s healthcare security – another way to think of this vulnerability – has been weakening for at least two decades.
Let’s start with the article in today’s New York Times detailing how a George W. Bush administration plan continued under Barack Obama failed to plug what its public health officials viewed as “one of the medical system’s crucial vulnerabilities: a shortage of ventilators.” The effort entailed finding businesses willing to try to build ventilators that were cheaper, more portable, and easier to use than were then available, and then awarding the contract to the best proposal.
According to Times reporters Nicholas Kulish, Sarah Kliff, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg (and presumably their editors), the eventual failure mainly highlighted “the perils of outsourcing projects with critical public-health implications to private companies; their focus on maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis.”
And although this point wasn’t made, the obvious message that the piece meant to send readers is that the President continues making a big mistake by not unleashing the full power of the Defense Production Act (DPA)– which creates vast government power to order whatever companies it wishes to make whatever products it considers necessary as quickly as possible, and to prioritize sales to Washington, not other customers. Underlying this position, of course, is the (completely ignorant) belief that this 1950 law (amended several times since) enables a Chief Executive to snap his fingers and instantly start assembly lines churning out ventilators and face masks and pharmaceuticals, etc.
But let’s leave aside this DPA fetishism. As I tweeted, the following sentence in the piece isn’t completely uninteresting given the unmistakable importance of quick results: After an initial failure (that shouldn’t be pinned on either of those two administrations), “The federal government started over with another company in 2014, whose ventilator was approved only last year and whose products have not yet been delivered.”
That doesn’t sound like the regulatory process reflected particular urgency – and clearly the problem extended into the Trump administration. But this business-as-usual attitude reigned even though, as the article noted, the ventilator project “came in the wake of a parade of near-miss pandemics: SARS, MERS, bird flu and swine flu.” In other words, evidence abounded that pandemics weren’t a rarity. Recently, they were becoming frequent. And still apparently no thought was given to any regulatory fast-tracking.
Finally in connection with this episode. It’s commendable that these pre-Trump public health officials tried to do something new. Less commendable, and less understandable, is why none of them recognized the foreign vulnerability problem and the offshoring-happy trade policies that fostered them.
Two other recent articles seeking to pin the blame for U.S. CCP Virus unpreparedness on Mr. Trump came out March 16 and March 25 in Politico. The first documented that on January 13, 2017 – seven days before the Trump inauguration – a team of outgoing Obama administration officials held a briefing for a team of incoming Trump-ers “intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis” – the distinct possibility that a major, deadly pandemic would sweep over the United States from abroad.
Further, the briefers specified that the new administration “could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was ‘paramount’….” Unfortunately, continued the article by Nahal Toosi, Daniel Lippman, and Dan Diamond, the Trumpers seemed pretty apathetic. And that’s pretty damning, right?
In principle, yes. But why did the Politico staff bury this observation: “None of the sources argued that one meeting three years ago could have dramatically altered events today”? Because it would take much of the punch out of this supposed bombshell?
Also buried: An observation in the apparently actual briefing document that, when in terms of “U.S. hospital preparedness and response,” “State and local governments lead public health response.” That’s an important piece of the current American response – even though it’s been relentlessly portrayed in the press another example of the administration’s failure. And P.S. – this document said nothing about ensuring adequate national screening capability.
Politico wasn’t finished, however. Nine days later, it ran another piece – by two of the same reporters – charging that the Trump administration’s CCP Virus policies have “failed to follow” a detailed pandemic playbook prepared by the Obama National Security Council that, it seems, would have prevented much of the virus damage inflicted on the nation.
Again, it’s a plausible claim – although, like the first Politico piece, this article left out the development of the Trump administration’s own pandemic strategy by the fall of 2018 (which means that work on it throughout the federal government began months before).
Also, like the first article, it failed to pose these crucial questions: If the Obama pandemic specialists were so utterly convinced that a pandemic would strike sooner rather than later, and that Team Trump was falling down on the preparation job, why didn’t they alert Democrats in Congress, or Never Trumper Republicans? Certainly there’s been no shortage of lawmakers (especially Democrats) looking for any opportunity to slam the administration (especially if this activity could do some good).
Additionally, if these pandemic warriors did send their message to these lawmakers, why did the public hear so little about it?
My hunch: For three years, the Never Trumpers of both parties had much higher priorities. Think “Russia” and “impeachment.”