Republicans are attacking the White House with a new talking point: More Americans have died of COVID-19 under Joe Biden’s presidency, they point out, than under Donald Trump’s. Mathematically, that’s true. When Trump left office, the U.S. death toll was around 400,000 people; now it’s above 800,000. The comparison is misleading for many reasons, however. One is that Biden has been dealt two new variants, Delta and Omicron, that spread more aggressively than the original Wuhan virus did. Furthermore, while Biden has begged Americans to get vaccinated, Republican politicians have constantly undermined him by banning or blocking vaccine mandates.
But there’s another crucial difference between the two administrations, and it’s outlined in a new report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Trump’s administration, unlike Biden’s, deliberately sabotaged the nation’s response to the pandemic.
The report, issued on Friday, documents multiple channels of interference by Trump and his underlings. To begin with, the White House shut down public briefings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Feb. 25, 2020, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC official in charge of respiratory diseases, warned Americans that a pandemic was coming and that they should prepare for school and workplace closures. Trump responded by threatening to fire her. For months thereafter, the White House refused to authorize CDC briefings. In transcribed interviews, CDC officials told the subcommittee that in April 2020, the White House rejected the agency’s request to hold a briefing to present the scientific case for wearing masks. Instead, Trump delivered his own COVID briefing, at which he said of masks: “You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it.” That statement and others, according to CDC officials who spoke to the subcommittee, gravely undermined the agency’s efforts to control the pandemic.
Second, the White House altered CDC guidance to religious congregations, deleting recommendations to wear masks and take other precautions. In a May 2020 email obtained by the committee, Jay Butler, a CDC official, reported that the White House had stripped out crucial elements of the guidance. “All references to face coverings are missing in the WH version,” Butler wrote. In addition, he noted, “References to considering virtual events are absent from the WH version.”
Third, the administration tried to limit COVID testing in order to hide the extent of the pandemic and keep businesses open. At a political rally on June 20, 2020, Trump said he had told “my people” to “slow the testing down.” He later claimed that he was half-joking, but the report found evidence that in subsequent months, Trump’s people tried to do exactly as he had instructed. On Aug. 24, 2020, the administration changed CDC’s guidance to say that most people who didn’t have COVID symptoms shouldn’t get tested, even if they had been exposed to a known carrier. An Aug. 27, 2020, email from Paul Alexander, an advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services, explained that the guidance had been altered because tests of asymptomatic people, if they came out positive, would end up “preventing the workforce from working,” and “widespread testing of schools and colleges/universities” would “not allow them to optimally re-open.”
Fourth, from September 2020 to January 2021, the White House ignored urgent entreaties from its COVID task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx. She told the subcommittee that during these months, she had repeatedly circulated internal reports pleading for more promotion of mask use, better access to monoclonal infusion and other therapies, immediate provision of vaccines to elderly people based on “compassionate use,” and “aggressive testing” to find and alert carriers before they infected others. By comparing states that implemented such measures to those that didn’t, Birx estimated that if her pleas had been heeded, fatalities could have been reduced by 30 percent to 40 percent.
The report also details other ways in which the White House impeded or corrupted the public health response. Trump’s political appointees tried to pressure the Food and Drug Administration to authorize hydroxychloroquine and other ineffective therapies. And early in the pandemic, when Americans faced a dangerous shortage of masks, a White House adviser, Steven Hatfill, rebuffed opportunities to get them overseas. In an email on March 27, 2020, a volunteer on the administration’s pandemic response team asked Hatfill: “Are you interested in talking to people who have or say they have large numbers (hundreds of thousands or millions) of N95 or KN95 mask available from abroad?” Hatfill wrote back: “Nothing that is not US based.” Two weeks later, the volunteer offered to connect Hatfill to a “US based sewing company that has manufacturing capacity in Mexico and Central America.” Hatfield replied that masks had to be “US made.”
Trump was directly involved in much of the administration’s malfeasance, as investigations by news organizations have previously revealed. But the subcommittee report links to emails, transcripts, and other documents that show how the president’s anti-mask, anti-testing rhetoric was translated into policy and magnified the death toll. There’s no evidence of such corruption in the Biden administration. On the contrary, Biden has implored the public to get vaccinated or mask up, while Republican politicians have undermined him by prohibiting mask mandates and suing to block his vaccine mandates. So let’s be clear about why so many Americans have needlessly died in the past two years. One party has been pressing the brakes on COVID-19. The other has been pressing the accelerator.