Trump’s federal response to the coronavirus is nowhere to be found


In times of crisis – from wars to natural disasters to recessions – the Americans have turned to the federal government to step up and lead the national effort to meet the challenge.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, our federal government, led by Donald Trump, has essentially abdicated its traditional role as the spearhead of a coordinated response.

State and local governments have always provided the majority of front-line public services in the United States. And a relatively high level of decentralization has been built into the US constitutional order for centuries, mostly serving as a good way to deal with the inevitable challenges of governing a country that is both large and diverse.

But the federal government has unique resources and flexibility, as well as the ability to move things from one part of the country to the other to ensure that capabilities are deployed where they are most needed. It can coordinate markets nationally, raise money when things are difficult for households and state governments, speak with one voice abroad, communicate quickly with the general population and mobilize a much higher level of expertise than any state or local government. Above all, the places with the greatest need at any given time may not be the ones with the most capacity. The federal government can organize, set priorities, and ensure that important issues are dealt with in a timely and comprehensive manner.

But while Donald Trump likes to play president on TV, he’s always been lazy doing the real work. So while he takes advantage of the crisis to stage daily extra-long episodes of the Trump Show with appearances by Mike Pence and public health officials, the executive branch of the federal government is virtually absent.

David Schleicher, a professor at the Yale Law School who studies federalism and comparative issues, notes that “in most countries – as far as I know – the crisis has led to a centralization of authority, both toward national government and to the CEO, ”who is the historic model in the United States. But now in America, when state governments have decided to centralize authorities rather than allow an uncoordinated response, the federal government has been absent.

John Harris of Politico calls Trump “a weak authoritarian man”, unlike someone like the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, who uses the epidemic to further neutralize the democracy of his country.

But it’s not as if Trump is acting on the back of high opposition to self-enlargement. He starred in the television version of the federal response, boasted of his ratings and boasted that he is now “Number one on Facebook” (in fact, Barack Obama has nearly 25 million additional followers). Nor was he above interference in the pursuit of partisan political goals. Rather, as Schleicher says, the heart of Trump’s approach is that he “seeks to avoid responsibility and blame rather than asserting control,” an instinct that is reinforced by the conservative ideology of his key contributors and donors.

The result is a hollow core at the center of the national response. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who publicly warned of inadequate coronavirus preparation in early February, said, “the administration has declared surrender.”

Rather than managing a public health emergency, they are managing a public relations crisis while letting states face the real problem.

Trump: the ball stops with Andrew Cuomo

Nowhere has this absence been more glaring than in the administration’s relations with the state hardest hit by the coronavirus to date: New York.

The epicenter of the epidemic is currently New York City and the surrounding suburbs. New York is no doubt particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, as many international air travel crosses it. City officials also say that its particularly high population density and use of public transportation by American standards make it vulnerable, although the success of Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo in controlling the virus make this doubt.

It is also clear that the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio (D), made serious policy mistakes between the beginning and the middle of March. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) finally stepped in to fill the void, but in retrospect he waited longer than he should (and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut seemed insufficiently attentive to the inevitable overflow in their states) and rightfully deserve some of the blame. But by stepping up, albeit late, it has improved the situation.

A desperate New York repeatedly turned to the administration for help, and the administration continually failed.

In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Trump explicitly explained his rationale, saying that the federal government is nothing more than a “backup” for states and not a frontline responder to a crisis. He also complained of governors’ “insatiable appetites” for medical supplies and blamed New York State for its “slow start”, while suggesting that he may have already received more help than ‘he never deserved it.

It’s rude as rhetoric, and the idea that the federal government is just a “back-up” in the midst of a historic global crisis is laughable, an analysis that comes straight from the articles of Confederation.

But it also reflects a more basic truth about Trump’s approach to the crisis. There is no systemic action plan or objective standard. Instead, federal aid is distributed sporadically and arbitrarily, bypassing governors whom he sees as potential rivals (“prefer to send directly to hospitals”) or whose states are irrelevant to his mathematics at the Electoral College, and described as charitable acts of a feudal monarch rather than the obligations of a democratically accountable leader.

Partisan relief efforts

During removal hearings last November, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan raised the possibility that a president who used foreign aid as leverage to gain personal political favors could do the same. -visors of governors with disaster relief funds.

And to the extent that there is an organizing principle in Trump’s actions, it is precisely in this sense.

At a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24, Trump said state assistance was “a two-way street.” They must treat us as well. When the governors comply with this request to sing for their supper, it turns into propaganda videos to strengthen the political position of the president.

In contrast, Trump has publicly called Washington Governor Jay Inslee (whose response to the coronavirus seems to have been the most successful of anyone in the country) to “snake” while suggesting that Pence should perhaps stop referral calls from the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ incredibly slow response, on the other hand, received no federal reprimand, as DeSantis is a close ally. And for some reason, the opaque system by which the federal government distributes equipment has led to Florida’s demands being fully met, while other states have only gotten a fraction of what they claim to have. need.

More recently, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that if public health officials want to send new Covid-19 rapid tests from Abbott Labs to the hardest hit communities, White House politicians prefer to focus on “the southern and low density “.

Dating back to before the crisis, Trump always acted as the president of the people who supported him rather than as the leader of the whole country. And in the throes of the epidemic as the stakes rise, he continued to behave in this very inappropriate affair.

Supply chain chaos

The United States currently faces a severe shortage of personal protective equipment for medical personnel, as well as shortages of real treatments such as ventilators and hospital beds in some locations. The President has the unique power to use the Defense Production Act to increase the production of these supplies. And the federal government has the sole responsibility, in times of scarcity and need, to assess where supplies can do the most good. In a major war, not all field commanders can get everything they need. The responsibility of political leaders is to simultaneously increase production to alleviate shortages and make decisions about who gets what is available in order to best achieve high-level goals and ultimate victory.

But Trump refuses to play this role. “The government is not supposed to be there to buy large quantities of items and then ship them. We are not committed to shipping, “said Trump at a press conference last week. “As with the tests, the governors are supposed to do it. “

The result was a competitive race between states to obtain the necessary equipment from private suppliers.

Lydia DePillis and Lisa Song report for ProPublica that New York pays up to 15 times the normal rate for desperately needed medical supplies. As it turns out, the hardest hit state right now is also the state with a large population and above-average income.

But according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the states that ultimately have the most vulnerable populations tend to be low-income, either with older populations, poor health conditions, or both. What happens when Maine and Alabama are forced into auction wars with less vulnerable but richer states like North Dakota and Virginia?

We could imagine a case based on flexibility for the decentralized approach if the federal government was currently filling the state coffers with money, so each governor had a health budget to play this game.

Instead, the federal government offers limited financial assistance to the states, even though their sales and restaurant tax revenues plummet. Some will not be able to buy what they need, others will be forced to adopt massive austerity measures to pay for masks and dresses, and fundamentally, resources will be allocated according to the situation of those in need. cash on hand rather than consistent with any national strategy.

And that, of course, because there is no strategy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday that he did not understand why some states had not yet issued a shelter order on site. But he knows the reason is that they didn’t receive clear instructions – perhaps with carrots and sticks – from the federal government to do so. By saying this publicly, he is clearly trying to do his best to play the coordinating role that the president abdicates, but nothing can replace the leadership of the man who is actually in charge. As many wags have noted online, the current patchwork solution is much like establish a pee section in a swimming pool.

How does it end?

Decentralization of course has its merits. As early as mid-March, Trump compared Covid-19 to seasonal flu and suggested that strict social distancing measures were not warranted. If he had had the means or the will to impose that view nationally, states like Ohio, California and Washington who acted decisively would have been much worse today. If you take incompetence for granted, it may be better to associate it with distraction and laziness rather than the other way around. But getting out of this disaster is going to take something better than coping.

Generally speaking, the United States has put in place a wide range of restrictions aimed at controlling the virus. Once it is, we can expect that a certain level of normalcy will start to return at a certain rate, but it will take some time until a vaccine exists, then some additional time before everyone can be vaccinated.

A natural question that many people ask themselves: how is all this supposed to work, exactly? By what criteria will we decide that the virus is now “under control”? And when we start lifting the restrictions, who will be the first to leave? What places will try to lift them? When a vaccine exists and the first doses come out of the assembly line, who will receive them?

Even if we don’t know the exact answers to these questions, it might be good to at least know who will make the decisions.

Currently, the White House has no document or word set explaining its strategy. But lifting the restrictions in a haphazard and decentralized manner risks causing disaster. If a state goes too far too early and creates a new epidemic, it is easy enough to increase resources while coming to a halt. But if 17 states make the same mistake all at once, there is a huge risk of uncontrolled national spread.

Alternatively, if everyone is so scared that no governor wants to be the first to run the risk of reopening things, the economy will continue to skyrocket. Only the President has access to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, and only the President has the power to guarantee the assistance that the federal government will provide and will not provide.

It should be his job to figure out how he wants it to work. But he does not do that, any more than he currently makes decisions about the destination of medical supplies. He tweets, he is great on television, and he even put the secret services in his pockets by renting equipment on his golf courses. Far from articulating a failed response strategy, it does not lead any kind of response.


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