A leaked copy of the report a United States Senate committee is about to release slams the Trump Administration’s response in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It also reveals that a chaotic government re-organization took place, which has never been reported before.
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Accountability Committee (HSGAC) plans to release its 242-page report to the public tomorrow. Washington Press obtained a copy of the embargoed report from a source on Capitol Hill without any restrictions on publication.
Its report focuses on the time period from the start of reports surfacing from China in late 2019 through June 2020.
Overall, the panel faulted the Trump Administration’s leadership in no uncertain terms.
Summarizing the breakdowns, the report says the Trump administration failed at threat recognition, mounting a cohesive response or taking timely mitigation measures, and failed to communicate effectively with the public. The Senators conclude these failures:
“Resulted in the avoidable yet devastating loss of human life.”
The Chief of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center later told Senate investigators that it was “a surreal experience reorganizing the government in two hours.”
Using a whiteboard, the officials frantically designed an entirely new pandemic plan on the spot. (Image embedded below story)
Yet, nothing the federal government planned in advance – while ignoring years of warnings about America’s inadequate public health infrastructure across multiple administrations – included re-organizing the government response 11 weeks into the pandemic around an agency with no public health experience.
In late February, former president Trump took the pandemic response away from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), giving it instead to the White House Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Mike Pence.
By March 11th, 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the HHS Director Alex Azar was “largely sidelined” from leading the pandemic response.
It would still be two days before Trump declared an emergency on March 13th, avoiding a cash crunch that the senate report noted was affecting HHS because of the administration’s failed attempts to downplay the pandemic.
And when the president did declare an emergency, he used two different laws, one of which had never been used for a pandemic or public health crisis. Thus, he designated two agencies as equals.
Unbeknownst to the public, on March 18th, former President Trump initiated a second major reorganization of the pandemic response to resolve the conflict.
That’s when sidelined America’s top health agency HHS in favor of tapping the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after a single meeting with its Director, ordering them to lead the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
FEMA’s Director had not participated in any of the White House Coronavirus Task force meetings up until that point, but after a March 18th meeting with Trump, he returned to the West Wing twice more that day.
Former Vice President Pence then seconded the order at a later meeting of the task force with Azar present, amongst others, handing off authority outside of controlling messaging.
According to the Senate report, that decision led to “unclear agency roles between HHS and FEMA.”
“Despite FEMA’s new role as the lead federal agency for the pandemic response,” says the report, “FEMA officials told the Committee that HHS retained the lead on all public health matters.”
The FDA also claimed to senate investigators that it experienced significant confusion from the second reorganization that took time to resolve.
Despite FEMA’s prowess at logistics, the government’s emergency relief distribution system continued to neglect New York’s desperate need for supplies and stuck with proportionate distribution during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
Azar was reduced to passively sending suggestions down the chain of command to his own subordinates at the HHS Administration for Strategic Preparedness & Response (ASPR):
“I’m out of this but might I suggest to you all and the FEMA leadership that we might want to surge PPE into NYC. 90% of new cases are from NY and mostly NYC. We need to relieve the pressure there. But not my call.”
Emblematic of the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials from FEMA characterized it as a “continuity of society event.”
Even some of those from the HHS’ preparedness agency admitted that they were not prepared for the scope of the emergency.
Most officials eventually credited FEMA with improving the Trump administration’s pandemic response. However, the federal government’s move away from science-driven communication – another key area of the vast report – is faulted for leaving the public vulnerable during the height of the public health emergency. Eventually, Trump’s team sidelined the HHS’ emergency preparedness agency altogether, per the report.
To the former administration’s credit, the senate report does credit its “Operation Warp Speed” with the rapid deployment of quality vaccines later in the year.
“The Trump Administration waited until March 16, 2020—fifty-five days from the date of the first confirmed case—to implement its first wide-scale attempt at nationwide mitigation of viral spread,” states the Senate report.
The report concluded that “initial federal response and actions taken by the Trump Administration at the time did not reflect the severity of the crisis and ultimately failed to effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Here is a photo of the whiteboard FEMA officials used to reorganize the government’s pandemic response in two “surreal” hours: