It’s Not MY Fault — The Governors Did It

This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com on May 18, 2020.

Trump is counting on an economic recovery to salvage his re-election prospects. So when the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control drafted detailed guidelines for reopening businesses in ways that prioritized public health, he rejected them. Instead, Trump issued broad suggestions for loosening state restrictions safely.

Trump then incited mobs to protest against stay-at-home orders, pushed governors to reopen for business immediately, and encouraged leaders to ignore even the vague suggestions he had issued. That is how Trump has set up governors to take the blame for his cascading failures — both in addressing the spread of COVID-19 and in managing the economic fallout from the uncontrolled pandemic.

The Setup

Mar. 24: Trump says he wants the country “back to work” by Easter, Apr. 12. His medical experts later persuade him to extend White House social distancing guidelines through Apr. 30.

Apr. 10: CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, sends the White House step-by-step instructions for use by community leaders in reopening child care programs, schools, day camps, churches, workplaces, restaurants, bars, and mass transit systems. The guidance includes decision trees and flow charts advising states when to shut facilities during expected COVID-19 flare-ups. Dr. Redfield receives no response from the White House.

Apr. 14: The International Monetary Fund warns that the world faces the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Amid intensifying criticism of Trump’s testing failures, COVID-19 infections in the US surpass 600,000, with more than 25,000 deaths. According to public health experts, testing remains woefully short of the level necessary to reopen the country safely.

After weeks of claiming responsibility for America’s supposedly successful COVID-19 testing,Trump tries to shift the blame for his now widely recognized failure to implement a nationwide testing program. “[T]he governors will use whatever testing is necessary. And if they’re not satisfied with their testing, they shouldn’t open,” he says. “The governors are supposed to do testing. It’s up to the governors… The governors are doing the testing.”

Apr 16: Even as governors and health officials report continuing shortages of swabs, reagents, and other materials necessary for COVID-19 testing, Trump releases his plan for the country’s phased reopening. Compared to the CDC’s proposed guidance, Trump’s plan is both vague and less restrictive. But even under his relaxed standards, no state meets the requirements — which include rigorous testing, extensive contact tracing and surveillance, and downward infection trends.

The Sting

Apr 17: The day after issuing his guidelines, Trump tweets: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The governors of those states are Democrats. In response, armed “LIBERATE” protests erupt throughout the country.

Apr 21: Dr. Redfield tells The Washington Post, “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.” When asked about public protests against stay-at-home orders and Trump’s call for states to be “liberated” from restrictions, Redfield says, “It’s not helpful.”

Apr. 22: Trump opens a COVID-19 press briefing with his response to Dr. Redfield’s Washington Post interview, saying, “He was totally misquoted in the media on a statement about the fall season and the virus. Totally misquoted.”

Trump then says, “You could have some embers of corona…  It may not come back at all… Now, if we have pockets — a little pocket here or there — we’re going to have to put out. It goes out and it’s going to go out fast… It’s also possible it doesn’t come back at all.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “So, what Dr. Redfield was saying, first of all, is that we will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that…”

Apr 24: Dr. Redfield again asks senior White House officials to approve the CDC’s 63-page detailed guidance. The CDC hopes to publish its recommendations before May 1 — the day Trump targets for reopening many businesses.

Apr 26: Again Dr. Redfield receives no response.

Apr. 28: As some states lift restrictions, none has come close to Trump’s recommended guideline of a decline in COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period.

Apr 30: A Trump Administration official informs the CDC that its previously submitted detailed guidance “will never see the light of day.”

May 7: The Associated Press breaks the story that the Trump Administration has buried the CDC’s detailed guidance.

The Real Victims

May 7: As states continue to reopen, most still fail to meet even Trump’s vague guidelines. “In more than half of states easing restrictions, case counts are trending upward, positive test results are rising, or both,” according to The New York Times.

Also on May 7: Trump discusses the possibility of more COVID-19 infections as the economy reopens. A reporter notes that 20 states have partially or completely reopened without meeting Trump’s Phase 1 guidelines: “What do you say to those states that haven’t met the guidelines and are already starting that process now?”

Trump responds, “We’ve looked at all of them, and we’ve spoken to many of the governors — most of the governors. As you know, we give leeway to the governors….”

Asked if he could envision a scenario where spikes in COVID-19 infections require renewed stay-at-home restrictions, Trump says, “I hope not. I don’t think so. I think you’re going to have embers, as I say. I think you’re going to have some fires, some — maybe some fairly big fires, by comparison to what people would even think.”

May 11: The White House scrambles to deal with its own COVID-19 outbreak, which includes Trump’s personal valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesperson.

Also on May 11: Like every other state, Pennsylvania has not fully met White House guidelines to reopen. But Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) has begun reopening his state in phases. Nevertheless, Trump tweets, “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes… Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!”

Also on May 11: Dr. Fauci says that the country risks “needless suffering and death” and a setback “on our quest to return to normal” if the economy reopens too quickly.

May 12: Testifying before the Senate, Dr. Fauci warns that if states disregard guidelines for safely reopening, “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.”

Similarly, Dr. Redfield testifies, ”Rapid, extensive and widely available, timely testing is essential to reopening America.” Asked when the CDC will publish the detailed guidelines that the White House buried, Dr. Redfield says, “Soon.”

May 13: Trump says that schools should open in the fall, adding, “It’s up to the governors. It’s the governors’ choice.” He also asserts that Dr. Fauci’s warning about the danger of reopening too early is “not acceptable.”

May 14: Trump visits Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he tells his audience of factory workers that Gov. Wolf is moving too slowly, “We have to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit. You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected, and they want to keep them closed. Can’t do that.”

Disaster Lurks

Another wave of COVID-19 infections is on the horizon and Trump is hastening its arrival. He views human lives as “embers” in what may develop into “fairly big fires.” With his inflammatory rhetoric, Trump is stoking those fires.

Lose a loved one in the inferno? Blame the governors — they’re the ones who decided to reopen.

Read all installments of Steven Harper’s Pandemic Timeline.

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