With his poll numbers fading after a rally-around-the-leader bump, the president is stoking protests against stay-at-home orders.
First he was the self-described “wartime president.” Then he trumpeted the “total” authority of the federal government. But in the past few days, President Trump has nurtured protests against state-issued stay-at-home orders aimed at curtailing the spread of the coronavirus.
Hurtling from one position to another is consistent with Mr. Trump’s approach to the presidency over the past three years. Even when external pressures and stresses appear to change the dynamics that the country is facing, Mr. Trump remains unbowed, altering his approach for a day or two, only to return to nursing grievances.
Not even the president’s re-election campaign can harness him: His team is often reactive to his moods and whims, trying but not always succeeding in steering him in a particular direction. Now, with Mr. Trump’s poll numbers falling after a rally-around-the-leader bump, he is road-testing a new turn on a familiar theme — veering into messages aimed at appealing to Americans whose lives have been disrupted by the legally enforceable stay-at-home orders.
Whether his latest theme will be effective for him is an open question: In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday, just 36 percent of voters said they generally trusted what Mr. Trump says about the coronavirus.
But the president, who ran as an insurgent in 2016, is most comfortable raging against the machine of government, even when he is the one running the country. And while the coronavirus is in every state in the union, it is heavily affecting minority and low-income communities.
So when Mr. Trump on Friday tweeted “LIBERATE,” his all-capitalized exhortations against strict orders in specific states — including Michigan — were in keeping with how he ran in 2016: saying things that seem contradictory, like pledging to work with governors and then urging people to “liberate” their states, and leaving it to his audiences to hear what they want to hear in his words.
For instance, Mr. Trump did not take the opportunity to more forcefully encourage the protesters when he spoke with reporters on Friday.
“These are people expressing their views,” Mr. Trump said. “They seem to be very responsible people to me.” But he said he thought the protesters had been treated “rough.”
In a webcast with Students for Trump on Friday, a conservative activist and Trump ally, Charlie Kirk, echoed the message, encouraging a “peaceful rebellion against governors” in states like Michigan, according to ABC News.
On Fox News, where many of the opinion hosts are aligned with Mr. Trump and which he watches closely, there have also been discussions of such protests. And Mr. Trump has heard from conservative allies who have said they think he is straying from his base of supporters in recent weeks.
So far, the protests have been relatively small and scattershot, organized by conservative-leaning groups with some organic attendance. It remains to be seen if they will be durable.
But Mr. Trump’s show of affinity for such actions is in keeping with his fomenting of voter anger at the establishment in 2016, a key to his success then — and his fallback position during uncertain moments ever since.
In the case of the state-issued orders, Mr. Trump’s advisers say his criticism of certain places is appropriate.
Stephen Moore, a former adviser to Mr. Trump and an economist with FreedomWorks, an organization that promotes limited government, said he thought protesters ought to be wearing masks and protecting themselves. But, he added, “the people who are doing the protest, for the most part, these are the ‘deplorables,’ they’re largely Trump supporters, but not only Trump supporters.”
On Sunday, Mr. Trump again praised the protesters. “I have never seen so many American flags,” he said.
But Mr. Trump’s advisers are divided about the wisdom of encouraging the protests. At some of them, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, has been compared to Adolf Hitler. At least one protester had a sign featuring a swastika.
One adviser said privately that if someone were to be injured at the protests — or if anyone contracted the coronavirus at large events where people were not wearing masks — there would be potential political risk for the president.
But two other people close to the president, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly, said they thought the protests could be politically helpful to Mr. Trump, while acknowledging there might be public health risks.
One of those people said that in much of the country, where the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths are not as high as in places like New York, New Jersey, California and Washington State, anger is growing over the economic losses that have come with the stringent social-distancing restrictions.
And some states are already preparing to restart their economies. Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, took early actions against the spread of the virus, is planning a staged reopening beginning on May 1.
Still, as Mr. Trump did throughout 2016, as when he said “torture works” and then walked back that statement a short time later, or when he advocated bombing the Middle East while denouncing lengthy foreign engagements, he has long taken various sides of the same issue.
Mobilizing anger and mistrust toward the government was a crucial factor for Mr. Trump in the last presidential election. And for many months he has been looking for ways to contrast himself with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and a Washington lifer.
The problem? Mr. Trump is now president, and disowning responsibility for his administration’s slow and problem-plagued response to the coronavirus could prove difficult. And protests can be an unpredictable factor, particularly at a moment of economic unrest.
Vice President Mike Pence, asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the president’s tweets urging people to “liberate” states, demurred.
“The American people know that no one in America wants to reopen this country more than President Donald Trump,” Mr. Pence said, “and on Thursday the president directed us to lay out guidelines for when and how states could responsibly do that.”
“And in the president’s tweets and public statements, I can assure you, he’s going to continue to encourage governors to find ways to safely and responsibly let America go back to work,” he said.
With the political campaign halted, Mr. Trump’s advisers have seen an advantage in the frozen-in-time state of the race. Mr. Biden has struggled to fund-raise or even to get daily attention in the news cycle.
But Mr. Trump himself has seemed at sea, according to people close to him, uncertain of how to proceed. His approval numbers in his campaign polling have settled back to a level consistent with before the coronavirus, according to multiple people familiar with the data.
His campaign polling has shown that focusing on criticizing China, in contrast with Mr. Biden, moves voters toward Mr. Trump, according to a Republican who has seen it.
“Trump finally fired the first shot” with his more aggressive stance toward the Chinese government and its leader, Xi Jinping, said Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist. “Xi is put on notice that the death, economic carnage and agony is his and his alone,” Mr. Bannon said. “Only question now: What is America’s president prepared to do about it?”
Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, has advocated messages that contrast Mr. Trump with Mr. Biden on a number of fronts, including China.
But inside and outside the White House, other advisers to Mr. Trump see an advantage in focusing attention on the presidency.
Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, has argued in West Wing discussions that there is a time to focus on China, but that for now, the president should embrace commander-in-chief moments amid the crisis.
Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and a friend of Mr. Trump’s, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he did not think ads criticizing Mr. Biden on China were the right approach for now.
Ultimately, Mr. Trump’s advisers said, most of his team is aware that it can try to drive down Mr. Biden’s poll numbers, but that no matter what tactics it deploys now, the president’s future will most likely depend on whether the economy is improving in the fall and whether the virus’s spread has been mitigated. Those things will remain unknown for months.
“This is going to be a referendum,” Mr. Christie said, “on whether people think, when we get to October, whether or not he handled this crisis in a way that helped the American people, protected lives and moved us forward.”
Criticism of Anthony Fauci from the right has picked up in recent days, with some conservatives calling for Trump to dump the infectious disease expert after he made comments about how imposing social distancing rules earlier could have slowed the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States.
Fauci has become a national name with his regular presence at the daily coronavirus task force briefings and in other media appearances, and poll numbers show he’s trusted by a majority of Americans. It would set off a political storm if Trump were to sideline him in the middle of a pandemic.
Yet the criticism of Fauci by two conservative lawmakers in a Saturday op-ed and Trump’s own retweet of a conservative’s call to “#FireFauci” were unmistakable signs that the public health official is coming under pressure from some on the right to be loyal to the president.
Tensions between Fauci and Trump have been evident at times in recent weeks. The doctor put his head in his hand at one March briefing where the president quipped about the “Deep State Department,” and Trump stepped in at a briefing this month before Fauci could give his opinion on hydroxychloroquine.
The president had publicly praised Fauci as “extraordinary” and dismissed speculation about a rift between the two, joking on Friday that Fauci is so popular he could run against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and “win easily.” For the most part Fauci has seemed to successfully walk the line between contradicting Trump without outright criticizing him.
But Trump’s tweet on Sunday marked a shift and coincided with a fresh groundswell of conservative push-back toward the doctor as Trump comes under intense criticism for his slow response to the virus.
Some of the more pointed criticism of Fauci came after he said on CNN Sunday that more lives could have been saved if stay-at-home measures were implemented earlier than mid-March.
The comments irked Trump allies who viewed them as revisionist history given how Fauci’s own public statements evolved throughout January and February as scientists learned more about the virus and it spread through the U.S.
Jason Miller, a former Trump adviser who now hosts a radio show focused on the pandemic, said Fauci must be careful with how he talks about the crisis, but also described “finger pointing” as media chatter seeking to pull the administration apart.
“This talk of potential removal from the team is unnecessary media chatter trying to draw a divide where one doesn’t exist,” Miller said.
“I think what this is about is about the accuracy with which Dr. Fauci is communicating with both the president and the American people,” he added. “It’s critical as the lead scientist and health expert advising the president on the coronavirus pandemic that he be spot on with his details. I think the recent finger pointing and revisionist history whether intentional or accidental doesn’t help anybody.”
One source close to the administration said, while some inside would like to see Fauci gone, most recognize there is more value to keeping him on.
“I don’t sense there’s a monolithic view,” the person said. “There are some who dislike him and want him out of the [administration] but I think most recognize it’s better for him to be in the tent than outside of it.”
Fauci’s CNN remarks followed a New York Times article detailing how Trump ignored early warnings about the virus and initially resisted recommendations to implement social distancing recommendations, reporting that Trump has dismissed as “fake.”
One of Trump’s many tweets Sunday night defending his response quoted a former GOP congressional candidate who said it was “time to #FireFauci,” citing his Feb. 29 comments that there was not yet a need for Americans to alter their day-to-day lives.
Fauci has been clear that his realm of expertise is public health, and he has suggested at times that social distancing guidelines will be needed for weeks or months to limit the spread of the virus.
Others inside and outside the administration are advocating that it take steps to open up the economy soon, and emphasizing that health experts can’t be the only voices involved in the decision.
“Anthony Fauci should be deferring to the President when answering questions about timing of economic reopening,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted on Sunday.
Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) penned an op-ed in the Washington Examiner over the weekend arguing that Fauci should not be a primary voice speaking on the coronavirus outbreak after the public health official late last month described social distancing as an “inconvenient” from societal and economic standpoint.
The criticism of Fauci comes amid a concerted effort among Trump and his supporters to shift blame away from the White House for its handling of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 557,000 people in the U.S. and killed more than 22,000 in the country. The president has at various points blamed governors for failing to prepare for the pandemic, deflected criticism toward the World Health Organization (WHO) and accused Democrats of using impeachment as a distraction.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has been a ubiquitous presence during the coronavirus outbreak, appearing on political talk shows, sports podcasts and Instagram live chats.
He has emerged as something of a beacon for liberals in particular for his willingness to gently correct Trump on matters like a timetable for a vaccine and the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug the president has touted as a potential treatment for the coronavirus.
But his prominence has made him a target of criticism, so much so that he was given added security at the end of March.
One feature of Trump’s presidency has been his distrust of long-time government officials, particularly those who have served in previous administrations. Another has been Trump’s tendency to tire of aides and advisers who garner more of a spotlight than he does, putting Fauci in a precarious position even at a time when his expertise is most relevant.
Trump would have difficulty firing Fauci, who is not a political appointee, without cause. Attempting to do so would cause a firestorm among even some Republicans who have urged the president to listen to his health experts.
But one former administration official suggested Fauci could see his influence reduced. The official likened it to the way Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar has been diminished after he warned Trump in January and February about the threat of a pandemic but was dismissed as too alarmist.
“What happens when somebody repeatedly tells the president something he doesn’t want to hear?” said the former administration official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He won’t fire [Fauci], but he’ll just sideline him.”
But doing so could risk damaging public confidence in the administration’s response to the virus.
A Monmouth University poll released last week found that 35 percent of Americans named Fauci when asked who they trust the most among public officials who discuss the outbreak on television, whereas 20 percent named Trump.
“Regardless of the issue, [Trump is] not always his most disciplined messenger,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “The more that he’s able to rely on the expertise of scientists, the more credibility that it gives him in this entire process.”
- President Donald Trump’s administration wasted three key weeks between February and March that could have been spent enacting mitigatory measures against COVID-19, The New York Times reported on Saturday.
- By the end of February, top officials knew that time was running out to stem the virus spread, and wanted to present Trump with a plan to enact aggressive social distancing and stay-at-home measures.
- But on February 26, a top CDC official issued stark warnings about the virus’ spread right before the stock market plummeted, which angered Trump for being, in his view, too alarmist.
- The Times reported that the entire episode killed off the efforts to persuade Trump to take aggressive, action to mitigate the virus’ spread. In the end, Trump didn’t issue stay-at-home guidance until March 16.
President Donald Trump’s administration stalled three key weeks in February that could have been spent enacting mitigatory measures against COVID-19 after Trump was angered by a public health official issuing a dire warning about the virus, The New York Times reported on Saturday.
On Saturday,The Times published a lengthy investigation of all the instances Trump brushed aside warnings of the severity of the coronavirus crisis, failed to act, and was delayed by significant infighting and mixed messages from the White House over what action to take and when.
The Times wrote: “These final days of February, perhaps more than any other moment during his tenure in the White House, illustrated Mr. Trump’s inability or unwillingness to absorb warnings coming at him.”
The Times conducted dozens of interviews with current and former officials and obtained 80 pages of emails from a number of public health experts both within and outside of the federal government who sounded the alarm about the severity of the crisis on an email chain they called “Red Dawn.”
One of the members of the email group, Health & Human Service disaster preparedness official Dr. Robert Kadlec, became particularly concerned about how rapidly the virus could spread when Dr. Eva Lee, a Georgia Tech researcher, shared a study with the group about a 20-year-old woman in China who spread the virus to five of her family members despite showing no symptoms.
“Eva is this true?! If so we have a huge [hole] on our screening and quarantine effort,” he replied on February 23.
At that point, researchers and top officials in the federal government determined that since it was way too late to try to keep the virus out of the United States, the best course of action was to introduce mitigatory, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) like social distancing and prohibiting large gatherings.
As officials sounded the alarm that they didn’t have any time to waste before enacting aggressive measures to contain the virus, top public health officials including Dr. Robert Kadlec concluded that it was time to present Trump with a plan to curb the virus called “Four Steps to Mitigation.”
The plan, according to The Times, included canceling large gatherings, concerts, and sporting events, closing down schools, and both governments and private businesses alike ordering employees to work from home and stay at home as much as possible, in addition to quarantine and isolating the sick.
But their entire plan was derailed by a series of events that ended up delaying the White House’s response by several weeks, wasting precious time in the process.
Trump was on a state visit to India when Dr. Kadlec and other experts wanted to present him with the plan, so they decided to wait until he came back.
But less than a day later, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, publicly sounded the alarm about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in a February 26 press conference, warning that the outbreak would soon become a pandemic.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Messonnier said, bluntly warning that community transmission of the virus would be inevitable.
The Times reported that Trump spent the plane ride stewing in anger both over Messonnier’s comments and the resulting plummet of the stock market they caused, calling Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex Azar “raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily,” The Times said.
The Times reported that the entire episode effectively killed off any efforts to persuade Trump to take aggressive, decisive action to mitigate the virus’ spread and led to Azar being sidelined, writing, ” With Mr. Pence and his staff in charge, the focus was clear: no more alarmist messages.”
In the end, Dr. Kadlec’s team never made their presentation. Trump did not issue nationwide social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines until March 16, three weeks after Messonnier warned that the US had limited time to mitigate community transmission of the virus, and several weeks after top experts started calling for US officials to implement such measures.
In those nearly three weeks between February 26 and March 16, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose from just 15 to 4,226, The Times said. As of April 12, there are over half a million confirmed cases in the United States with over 21,000 deaths.
Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said Sunday that the U.S. would have saved lives had the country enforced firm social-distancing requirements as early as February, but noted that those recommendations were met with pushback at the time.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of The Union,” Fauci addressed a New York Times report that said he and other health experts concluded on Feb. 21 that the Trump administration would need to issue aggressive mitigation measures in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“As I have said many times, we look at it from a pure health standpoint,” Fauci said. “We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not. It is what it is. We are where we are right now.”
Fauci added that “you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives.”
“Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated,” he said. “I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
The National Security Council reportedly received intelligence reports in January warning that the COVID-19 outbreak would spread to the U.S. By the third week of February, Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), convened a meeting on whether officials should lock down the country to prevent an outbreak. The group determined that mitigation measures such as school and business closures were necessary despite the devastating economic implications, The Times noted.
The White House issued social-distancing guidelines, including recommendations against gatherings of more than 10 people, in mid-March. President Trump later that month extended those guidelines through the end of April.
The U.S. has reported more than 530,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and roughly 20,600 deaths caused by it as of Sunday morning, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.
Asked whether the statistics were a direct cause of the late start on mitigation measures, Fauci said that “it isn’t as simple as that.” While earlier mitigation efforts would have had an impact, Fauci noted that “where we are right now is the result of a number of factors,” including the size of the country and the heterogeneity of the country.
“I think it’s a little bit unfair to compare us to South Korea, where they had an outbreak in Daegu, and they had the capability of immediately, essentially, shutting it off completely in a way that we may not have been able to do in this country,” he said. “So, obviously it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor.”
The Trump administration has faced continued scrutiny over its handling of the outbreak, as state and federal officials raise alarms over testing and medical equipment shortages.
The president on Feb. 28 predicted that the disease would disappear like a “miracle.” Asked about those comments last week, Trump said that “the cases really didn’t build up for a while” and that he was trying to avoid stirring panic.
South Korea’s blueprint for victory.
How did this happen? For many it is baffling that a relatively small Asian country could succeed where much of the rest of the world tragically failed. Was it South Korea’s experience dealing with another respiratory epidemic illness, Middle East respiratory syndrome, in 2015? Its excellent and affordable health-care system? Its cultural values? Mask-wearing? Some of these factors doubtless accelerated South Korea’s rapid deployment of testing stations and its subsequent efforts to identify and treat patients.
But the efficient South Korean response also hinged on two historically rooted factors: the close cooperation between the state and the private sector, and the South Korean public’s willing and almost enthusiastic embrace of a large-scale medical intervention. The origins of both of these phenomena lie in the South Korean experience of rapid industrialization and nation-building during the Cold War.
After the first cases of covid-19 were reported in South Korea on Jan. 20, the government recognized the need for prompt and comprehensive action. According to Reuters, South Korean Health Ministry officials called a meeting with representatives from medical companies in January when only four cases of the virus had been confirmed. The health officials told the executives that the country needed to have tests ready in short order, and they promised rapid approval by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In scarcely one week, the government had approved a test kit developed by Kogene Biotech and would soon fast-track the approval of test kits developed by several other companies.
The endeavor was so successful that by March, 47 countries were seeking to import South Korean test kits. Compared with President Trump, who has squabbled with 3M and General Motors over the production of masks and ventilators, the government and private sector worked together seamlessly in South Korea. Companies responded quickly to the state’s demands while receiving strong government support.
The private companies’ swift response to an urgent government fiat followed a pattern of state-private sector partnership in the service of the nation that was pioneered by South Korea’s authoritarian ruler Park Chung Hee during the 1960s. When Park seized power in a military coup in 1961, South Korea was among the poorest countries in the world and, from the perspective of many U.S. officials who often called it a “rat hole,” it was hopeless. But Park was driven by an all-consuming determination to achieve double-digit economic growth rates and raise living standards in his impoverished country.
Although Park received much advice from the United States during his 19 years in power, the model of development he came up with did not emulate the American style of free-market capitalism at all. It bound South Korean conglomerates closely to the state, offering them special incentives if they followed state guidance and performed. During the 1960s, Park recognized that to achieve an economic takeoff, he needed to dramatically increase exports. His government made low-interest loans available to companies that were willing to test their mettle exporting textiles, wigs and other light-manufactured goods abroad. Those that succeeded were rewarded with even greater largesse from the state.
This development model had a dark side, of course. The cozy ties between the state and businesses facilitated corruption, strengthened Park’s grip on power and heightened repression. But from a purely economic standpoint, it worked. Exports increased, Korean firms captured a growing share of international markets, and per capita income rose.
Park never strayed far from his military roots. The managerial techniques and soldierly discipline he had learned in his years as an officer informed his approach to development. American aid officials were impressed by how his presentations seemed to come “straight out of the U.S. military briefing manuals.” South Korea’s rapid response to the coronavirus has contained echoes of this military ethos, although the country shifted to more democratic governance in the 1980s and 1990s. “We acted like an army,” one infectious-disease specialist in Korea told Reuters.
Cold War nation-building in South Korea brought not only state-led economic development, but also new kinds of government-led medical interventions. As historian John P. DiMoia has explained, during the 1950s, many South Koreans were still unfamiliar with Western medicine and did not initially welcome official health programs. This began to change under Park Chung Hee’s rule. The South Korean leader launched public health campaigns that fundamentally changed both the medical profession and the public’s attitude toward it. New professional standards were demanded of doctors and their support staff, while the public was encouraged — and at times coerced — to participate in family planning and other state-organized health interventions.
The swift rollout of coronavirus testing was not South Korea’s first large-scale effort to combat an infectious organism. During the 1960s, according to DiMoia, one of the biggest medical problems plaguing South Korea was parasite infestation. The Park government made a concerted effort to eradicate parasites through a national testing program that targeted elementary school students. For nearly two decades, collecting of stool samples for analysis was a routine part of life for South Korean children. The children that learned — at times grudgingly — to accept government testing for parasites during the 1970s and 1980s are now the adults who willingly line up to be tested for the coronavirus.
Today, the Moon Jae-in government’s response to the virus has not been without flaws and criticism. The South Korean media has blamed him for not moving quickly enough to ban Chinese tourists when the virus began spreading rapidly. Others have criticized the high degree of state surveillance that accompanied the rollout of testing. The government would have had far more difficulty carrying out contact tracing if it could not have closely followed the movement of its citizens through their smartphones and credit cards.
Here, too, there are faint echoes of South Korea’s authoritarian past, which was too often marked by the close monitoring of students, intellectuals and other dissidents by military regimes.
But Moon, who was imprisoned during the 1970s for protesting Park Chung Hee’s authoritarian rule, has been careful to keep his policies within the confines of democratic accountability. Conservative U.S. commentators who claim South Korea has succeeded because it is not a democracy have it wrong. In fact, South Korea has avoided the draconian lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by the Communist Party of China. Through the use of technology and data, South Korean has been able to keep businesses open to a greater extent than most parts of the United States.
South Korea’s impressive management of the coronavirus only strengthens its rapidly growing cultural influence around the world, which is abundantly clear in the widespread popularity of K-pop and the unprecedented success of the Korean film “Parasite” at the Academy Awards.
The Moon government’s deft handling of a global pandemic that has taken on nightmarish proportions elsewhere has drawn praise from health experts and policymakers worldwide, with many citing it as a model. “Let’s not follow Italy, let’s follow South Korea,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said recently when talking about how the United States should deal with its own swiftly escalating crisis.
Unfortunately, it is too late for the United States to emulate South Korea and avert thousands of deaths. But we could learn from its example, by encouraging better public-private partnerships in manufacturing needed medical equipment and protective gear and by encouraging Americans to embrace public health initiatives, including widespread testing, to save lives.
President Trump said Tuesday that he would consider placing a hold on funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), expressing grievances with its handling of the novel coronavirus.
“They missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known, and they probably did know,” Trump told reporters at a White House press briefing, suggesting the WHO failed to sufficiently warn the global community about the virus.
“We’re going to be looking into that very carefully, and we’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO,” Trump continued. “We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it, and we’re going to see. It’s a great thing if it works, but when they call every shot wrong, that’s not good.”
Pressed later by a reporter on whether it was a good idea to put a hold on funding during a global pandemic, the president clarified that he was considering suspending funding to the WHO.
“I’m not going to say I’m going to do it,” Trump said. “We will look at ending funding.”
The United States is the largest contributor to the WHO’s budget. The president’s fiscal 2021 budget request proposed slashing funding to the WHO, a body of the United Nations responsible for international public health, from $122 million to about $58 million.
The president said the WHO seemed to be “very biased towards China” and accused the organization of disagreeing with his travel restriction on flights coming in from China. He suggested the organization was blind to the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, where the virus originated.
The WHO said in early February that widespread travel bans that interfere with international travel and trade were not necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, days after the Trump administration announced it would restrict travel coming into the U.S. from China. It did not take particular issue with the president’s travel restriction.
“They actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it, and they were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. They had a lot of information early, and they didn’t — they seemed to be very China-centric. We have to look into it,” Trump told reporters.
When a reporter asked Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to answer a question on the WHO, Trump interjected before he answered, saying Fauci “respects the WHO, and I think that’s good.”
“But they did give us some pretty bad play-calling,” Trump said.
The remarks, expanding on a critical tweet he sent earlier Tuesday, come amid growing criticism among conservatives of the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Some have accused the organization of leaving other nations unprepared for the virus.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) last week called on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to resign, after reports emerged that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded China underreported its count of coronavirus cases. McSally accused the WHO of helping China conceal the extent of the outbreak.
Trump has faced criticism for at first downplaying the threat from the coronavirus, and his administration has been scrutinized for early delays in testing that hampered the overall response. Trump has often pointed to his early action restricting travel from China as a sign his administration was quick to confront the outbreak.
Ezekiel Emanuel, a special adviser to the director general of the WHO, was critical of Trump’s remarks on the coronavirus at the end of February, saying he found much of what Trump said at his first press briefing on the domestic virus outbreak to be “incoherent.”
A hodgepodge of news this week is telling the confusing and contradictory story of President Donald Trump’s efforts to change American health care.
On Monday, a federal judge blocked the administration’s efforts to force drugmakers to disclose the often astronomical list prices of medicines in their TV ads. It was intended to shame pharma into lowering prices, and would have been the first of the Trump administration’s major drug-cost initiatives to actually take effect.
On Tuesday, oral arguments were set for a Department of Justice-backed case that could wipe out the Affordable Care Act.
Wednesday will reportedly see the president reveal an ambitious set of initiatives intended to rein in spending on kidney costs.
The kidney initiative is among the administration’s better notions, along with its effort to index some drug costs covered by Medicare to the lower prices available abroad. Yet even when the administration lands on a good idea in health care, it seems to get in its own way. The Trump-backed ACA lawsuit, for example, would directly undermine the kidney initiative and price-indexing plan. And while the president has a variety of other proposals in the works – from an effort to pass drug discounts directly to consumers to a plan to force hospitals to make their pricing transparent – many could be exposed to the kind of legal risks that killed the drug-ad initiative. It’s all part of a scattershot and often incoherent approach that isn’t as effective as it could be.
Take the kidney-care push: this area of treatment is costly in part because the current system incentivizes expensive care at dialysis centers that are largely run by two companies: DaVita Inc. and Fresenius Medical Care AG. (Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg LP, is the lead independent director at DaVita.) The Department of Health and Human Services reportedly wants to change that dynamic with new payment models intended to shift patients to more cost-effective treatment at home. At least part of the administration’s ability to implement those models comes from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Innovation Center, which was created by the ACA and is threatened by the lawsuit.
The contradictions don’t end there. People with end-stage kidney disease are covered by Medicare, so the lawsuit wouldn’t strip their coverage. However, the administration’s plan reportedly emphasizes intervening before people get to the point where they need dialysis or transplants. Killing the ACA is at direct odds with that goal. It would see millions lose insurance coverage, would eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions like chronic kidney disease, and crimp access to preventative care.
Though it is a long shot, the court case demonstrates the administration’s inconsistency in health care. Just about every health initiative would be harmed by the disruption that would result if this lawsuit succeeds, especially considering that the administration doesn’t have a replacement plan. If it were serious about keeping people off of dialysis or curing HIV, it would oppose this suit and stop other ongoing efforts that harm the ACA’s individual market and Medicaid.
The administration hasn’t detailed an ACA alternative because its previous effort to pass one was a political disaster that helped Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Instead, its health-care efforts have largely been confined to executive orders and rule-making. That approach narrows the scope of what the administration can accomplish, and comes with significant risks. If a federal judge thinks that forcing the disclosure of drug prices in ads is an overreach, there’s clearly a chance that the administration’s more ambitious plans will also have issues.
I’m rooting for the kidney effort. It targets a real problem and could have an impact, depending on the details. I’d be more optimistic about the plan’s chances if it were part of a cohesive set of policies that had Congressional backing, rather than the current jumble.