The Trump administration’s process for getting critical medical supplies to the states and localities that need it to fight the coronavirus pandemic has been an absolute disaster. Confused, disorganized, and opaque, President Donald Trump’s laissez-faire approach has generated a Lord of the Flies-like atmosphere where states are bidding against other states—and even the federal government itself—for lifesaving equipment such as ventilators. Meanwhile, every day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pleads on national television for more ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) from the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), so frustrated with the disorganized and politicized federal response, is now calling on the White House to appoint a nonpartisan senior military officer to quarterback these efforts.
But worse than just a logistics failure, recent reports suggest that Trump may again be abusing his public office for private gain. Last week, details emerged that some states, such as Florida, had received everything they requested from the federal government, while other states, such as Michigan and Louisiana, received only a fraction of the requested supplies. Florida has a Republican governor who is vocally supportive of Trump, while the governors of Michigan and Louisiana are Democrats who have been critical of Trump’s coronavirus response. This week, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, sparked outrage when he suggested that federal resources belonged to Trump and his administration, rather than to the public: “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” The administration then proceeded to alter the webpage on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website to reflect Kushner’s new inaccurate description a day after his remarks, and the president himself has implied, repeatedly, that federal support depends on how well he perceives himself to be treated by governors. “It’s a two-way street,” he said last week. “They have to treat us well.” Federal officials have said this aid is being solely distributed on the basis of need, but they have not demonstrated any transparency in their process.
The politicization of aid has dangerous implications
There are multiple problems with the Trump administration’s decision to politicize aid, particularly during a pandemic.
First, government resources do not belong to President Trump or his administration alone; they belong to the American people. Americans, not the Trumps, have spent approximately $600 million annually to support the buildup of the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal reserve of medical equipment, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and PPE originally designed in the event of a major biological, radiological, or chemical terror attack. American tax dollars have funded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Defense to be prepared to assist them in emergency situations that exceed states’ ability to respond. Americans also fund the White House, the president’s Cabinet, and other essential government personnel who are making decisions regarding the allocation and distribution of lifesaving medical supplies during this emergency.
Second, decisions about the allocation and distribution of lifesaving medical supplies must be based on the needs of the American people, without regard to the president’s personal or political interests. Accordingly, there must be complete transparency about the decision-making process for allocating medical equipment and PPE: How are decisions being made about the allocation of critical supplies, from both the national stockpile and from the FEMA air bridge bringing supplies in from other countries? Who is making those decisions, and is there a process to appeal them? Total transparency about the decision-making process is the only way to ensure that political considerations are not affecting how the government allocates taxpayer-funded supplies and resources.
Finally, Donald Trump was elected president of the entire United States—not just those states where he won electoral college votes. Everyone in America deserves a fighting chance to overcome this virus, regardless of their politics. Total, real-time transparency to the American public, regarding what federal resources are being provided and to whom, is necessary. This transparency must include the requests that the federal government receives from states and the resources available to the federal government from all sources, including the national stockpile, donations and purchases from other countries, and domestic resources acquired using federal authorities. This transparency must also include the decisions made and timelines for distributing essential medical supplies to the states receiving them. The American public deserves to know what it can expect from the government—and what the government will not be able to provide.
Policy recommendations to ensure fair and transparent distribution of federal aid
The Trump administration should follow the following three guidelines when allocating resources to address the coronavirus pandemic:
- Transparent supply: There should a clear picture of the critical medical supplies available to the federal government, including emergency supplies currently in the Strategic National Stockpile, supplies donated by or purchased from other countries, and supplies acquired through the use of federal authorities. This can be done without jeopardizing national security, focusing on transparency of key equipment and supplies specific to the current COVID-19 crisis, including ventilators, N95 and surgical masks, and other PPE.
- Transparent process: There must be a clear and transparent process for federal acquisition and allocation decisions regarding COVID-19 supplies and equipment. States need to understand how to submit formal requests, what factors will affect federal decision-making, and how the process will unfold. All states—indeed, all members of the public—deserve to have confidence that the federal government is making allocations decisions based on scientific data, informed by public health assessments about where the need is greatest. States and the public need to have confidence that there is swift and adequate implementation of those decisions.
- Transparent results: There must be total transparency regarding federal decisions once they are made, including easily accessible, real-time data that allow the public to see what states have requested, what federal decisions have been made, and what will be provided to the states and when they will receive it. The ideal location for these data is gov. The American people need to have confidence that their government is delivering for them and a means to hold it accountable for results.
Americans deserve better than this disorganized and politicized federal response to the coronavirus crisis. The Trump administration must tell the American public what the needs are, what its resources are, and how it will make what are essentially life-or-death decisions. It is what the moment—and the job—requires.
Kelly Magsamen is the vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Katrina Mulligan is the managing director for National Security and International Policy at the Center. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst for human rights, democracy, and development on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.
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