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Trump Administration Abuses Thwart US Pandemic Response

The Brennan Center is tracking Trump administration attacks on government science, ethical violations, and other abuses during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last Updated: July 26, 2021
Published: August 6, 2020

Intro­duc­tion

The United States has by far the highest number of confirmed infec­tions and deaths from Covid-19 in the entire world. Recent harm­ful trends in the federal govern­ment — includ­ing distor­tions of science, attacks on govern­ment scient­ists and other experts, unqual­i­fied lead­er­ship and wide­spread vacan­cies in key posts, conflicts of interest, and other abuses of power — have preven­ted the federal govern­ment from respond­ing effect­ively to the pandemic.

Communit­ies of color have too often borne the brunt of these fail­ures. Native, Black, and Latino Amer­ic­ans are suffer­ing from Covid-19 at vastly dispro­por­tion­ate rates compared to white people in this coun­try, a dispar­ity result­ing from decades of racist economic, health­care, and hous­ing policies. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to effect­ively manage the crisis has made an already peril­ous situ­ation worse. The racial injustice exposed by the pandemic under­scores the urgent need for exec­ut­ive branch lead­ers to work for — and be account­able to — the Amer­ican public.

Collec­ted below are examples of norm viol­a­tions and other abuses that have hampered the federal govern­ment’s response to this historic public health crisis.

Congress and the next pres­id­ent must take bold action to repair what has been broken. The Bren­nan Center has advoc­ated for a number of reforms that, while not solv­ing all of the prob­lems exposed by the Covid-19 crisis and the many other crises and scan­dals of the Trump era, would go a long way to curtail abuses of power. For instance, the Bren­nan Center’s bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law and Demo­cracy has published two reports that lay out a legis­lat­ive agenda to prevent many abuses of exec­ut­ive power that have become common­place during the Covid-19 crisis. The Task Force’s propos­als include legis­la­tion to protect govern­ment science from polit­ical inter­fer­ence, strengthen federal ethics laws, and curb the prac­tice of placing acting offi­cials in key govern­ment posi­tions.The Bren­nan Center has also put forward a series of actions the pres­id­ent can take to curb exec­ut­ive branch abuses.

Beyond these changes, in March of 2019 the House of Repres­ent­at­ives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a land­mark demo­cracy reform bill. H.R. 1 would, among other things, strengthen govern­ment ethics and anti-corrup­tion rules, protect voting rights, and reform our broken campaign finance system. These changes would lead to a more respons­ive govern­ment and a more resi­li­ent soci­ety better able to weather future crises.


Polit­ical Inter­fer­ence in Govern­ment Science

Flout­ing Expert Guid­ance, Lead­ing to White House Coronavirus Outbreak

Disreg­ard­ing public health guid­ance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC), the White House hosted what medical experts are call­ing a coronavirus super spreader” event on Septem­ber 26, 2020, to announce the nomin­a­tion of  Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Over 200 people atten­ded the densely packed event, where guests mingled indoors as well as outside, with few wear­ing masks or phys­ic­ally distan­cing from one another. Accord­ing to a White House offi­cial, this is where Pres­id­ent Trump, along with Senat­ors Mike Lee and Thom Tillis and members of the milit­ary, may have become infec­ted with the coronavirus. At least 34 White House staffers and other contacts have been infec­ted, includ­ing members of the White House house­keep­ing staff, as well as White House report­ers.

As public health experts have explained through­out the pandemic, contact tracing is essen­tial to stop­ping the spread of the virus. However, for nearly a week after the pres­id­ent announced that he had contrac­ted the virus, the White House refused to allow the CDC to perform contact tracing (even­tu­ally allow­ing for “some limited CDC involve­ment” in invest­ig­at­ing the outbreak), even though the CDC has the federal govern­ment’s most extens­ive resources to do so. In the absence of a system­atic effort to trace or advise attendees of the White House event, many dispersed across the coun­try, enga­ging in activ­it­ies that risked spread­ing the virus, includ­ing  visit­ing public gyms and tour­ing manu­fac­tur­ing facil­it­ies. 

After the outbreak star­ted, the White House contin­ued to defy recom­mend­a­tions from scient­ists and health author­it­ies to prevent or contain the virus’ spread. For instance, the pres­id­ent’s medical team declined to say when the pres­id­ent last tested negat­ive for the virus. His medical team issued contra­dict­ory state­ments about the timeline for his diagnosis and the sever­ity of his symp­toms — at one point admit­ting that they misrep­res­en­ted his condi­tion to avoid caus­ing alarm — and flouted experts’ guidelines for isol­a­tion to stop the spread of the virus. The pres­id­ent may have also risked the health of Secret Service agents when he decided to leave the hospital to greet his support­ers from his motor­cade just one day after he began a ster­oid treat­ment used for patients with severe responses to Covid-19 (a decision one attend­ing phys­i­cian at Walter Reed described as “insan­ity”). Shortly after return­ing to the White House (and less than six days after he announced test­ing posit­ive), the pres­id­ent met in person with aides, despite warn­ings from medical experts that he could have still been infec­tious at the time. Just two days later, Trump held an in-person rally for hundreds of support­ers on the White House lawn (which, in addi­tion to rais­ing seri­ous safety concerns, may have viol­ated the Hatch Act).

Since his diagnosis, the pres­id­ent has also contin­ued to under­mine the author­ity and legit­im­acy of federal public health agen­cies and experts and spread misin­form­a­tion. In the midst of his intens­ive Covid-19 treat­ment, Trump urged the public, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it domin­ate your life,” contra­dict­ing warn­ings from the CDC and National Insti­tute of Allergy and Infec­tious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci about the seri­ous­ness of the disease. Less than five days after first receiv­ing an exper­i­mental drug, Trump touted it as a miracle “cure,” even though the drug had not completed clin­ical trials. He also pres­sured the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) to make it avail­able to the public imme­di­ately, thwart­ing the agency’s process for ensur­ing the safety of new drugs and vaccines, includ­ing on an emer­gency basis.

The pres­id­ent’s defi­ance of public health guid­ance and down­play­ing of the sever­ity of the Covid-19 pandemic in the wake of his own diagnosis are part of a long pattern of side­lin­ing and under­min­ing the federal govern­ment’s public health appar­atus. As docu­mented below, his admin­is­tra­tion has repeatedly censored govern­ment scient­ists, politi­cized test­ing, under­cut public health guidelines to wear masks, and thwarted state offi­cials’ science-based policy decisions. 

Politi­ciz­ing Test­ing

In the absence of a vaccine, experts agree that wide­spread test­ing is a crucial means to control the spread of the coronavirus, but the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has under­cut and politi­cized efforts to make enough tests avail­able.

The pres­id­ent has repeatedly expressed a desire to suppress repor­ted coronavirus infec­tion numbers, even declar­ing at a Tulsa rally that test­ing should be slowed to stop new cases from being discovered. Although a White House adviser later claimed the pres­id­ent was joking, the admin­is­tra­tion has worked to block legis­la­tion that would fund test­ing and contact tracing. One of the pres­id­ent’s top advisers on the coronavirus, Dr. Scott Atlas, who lacks expert­ise in infec­tion diseases or epidemi­ology—he is a radi­olo­gist by train­ing—also advoc­ated against wide­spread test­ing. Some govern­ment experts have accused him of peddling junk science. Dr. Atlas resigned as Trump’s pandemic adviser after feud­ing with health experts and repeatedly promot­ing vari­ous unproven theor­ies related to the pandemic.

Addi­tion­ally, in August 2020, Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials from the White House and the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) pres­sured the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) to stop recom­mend­ing coronavirus test­ing for people without symp­toms, despite scientific research show­ing that asymp­to­matic people can infect others with the virus. The news broke later that HHS and White House staffers wrote the recom­mend­a­tion, rather than CDC scient­ists; it bypassed the CDC’s stand­ard scientific review process and was published despite objec­tions from CDC staff. Local health depart­ments and experts condemned the change, and some CDC scient­ists told health offi­cials to ignore the agency’s offi­cial guid­ance. The CDC ulti­mately reversed the guid­ance and again recom­men­ded that asymp­to­matic people who might have come into contact with the coronavirus should seek test­ing.

The admin­is­tra­tion has also failed to spend billions of dollars Congress alloc­ated for expan­ded test­ing and contact tracing. Lawmakers have been unable to obtain a clear explan­a­tion from the admin­is­tra­tion as to why.

The politi­ciz­a­tion of test­ing comes at a high price. As the coun­try with the most confirmed cases and the highest death toll in the world as of late Octo­ber 2020 — account­ing for almost a fifth of total deaths from the disease glob­ally, although the United States comprises only four percent of the world’s popu­la­tion — our fail­ure to launch a large-scale, effect­ive test­ing program in the early days of the pandemic is strik­ing in compar­ison to other govern­ments, includ­ing Kerala, India, Viet­namCuba, and Ghana, all of which estab­lished robust test­ing programs and contained the spread of the disease.

Censor­ing, Under­min­ing, and Attack­ing Lead­ing Govern­ment Scient­ists

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has repeatedly censored and attacked pree­m­in­ent govern­ment scient­ists, whose research and analysis would normally be lead­ing the national response to a public health crisis like Covid-19.

The admin­is­tra­tion has imple­men­ted new policies to block govern­ment scient­ists from commu­nic­at­ing with the public. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) stopped hold­ing media brief­ings and insti­tuted a restrict­ive media policy for agency scient­ists receiv­ing inquir­ies for inform­a­tion about Covid-19 — even though these scient­ists have tradi­tion­ally been allowed to speak to the press. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion also preven­ted National Insti­tute for Allergy and Infec­tious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and other senior health offi­cials from commu­nic­at­ing with the public, instead requir­ing that all commu­nic­a­tions be controlled by Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence (who was accused of politi­ciz­ing another public health crisis as governor of Indi­ana). A top polit­ical aide at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) instruc­ted Dr. Fauci’s press team that Fauci was to refrain from advising that chil­dren wear masks. The White House also preven­ted Fauci from testi­fy­ing before the House of Repres­ent­at­ives, because (in the pres­id­ent’s words) the cham­ber was full of “Trump haters.” He blocked other experts from testi­fy­ing before Congress at all, includ­ing the CDC director, who was invited to testify about how to reopen schools safely. (Fauci and others even­tu­ally test­i­fied before a House commit­tee.)

Offi­cials who do speak out have faced retali­ation. In Febru­ary 2020, for instance, Dr. Nancy Messon­nier, director of the National Center for Immun­iz­a­tion and Respir­at­ory Diseases at the CDC, warned that the coronavirus would be severely disrupt­ive to daily life. Her comments reportedly infuri­ated the pres­id­ent; she was side­lined from further coronavirus brief­ings and nearly fired. Dr. Rick Bright, a federal health offi­cial with many years of exper­i­ence at HHS, was reas­signed after suggest­ing that the Trump-touted drug hydroxy­chloroquine should be tested before being used to treat Covid-19 patients. He main­tains that he contin­ues to face retali­ation in his new role.

In July 2020, the White House embarked on what appears to be a new and disturb­ing campaign to side­line Dr. Fauci. A White House offi­cial char­ac­ter­ized as “concern[ing]” assess­ments and guid­ance that Dr. Fauci provided early in the pandemic that were later revised after experts developed a better under­stand­ing of Covid-19. In an unusual move, White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro published an op-ed — which the White House denies clear­ing — claim­ing that Fauci had been “wrong about everything I have inter­ac­ted with him on.” The pres­id­ent stated publicly that Fauci was an "alarm­ist” and had “made a lot of mistakes.” When Trump resumed public brief­ings on the coronavirus in late July, he did not include Dr. Fauci.

Pres­id­ent Trump also attacked Dr. Deborah Birx, the govern­ment’s coronavirus response coordin­ator, as “pathetic” and made a base­less accus­a­tion that she changed her scientific assess­ment due to polit­ical pres­sure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when Dr. Birx accur­ately noted that the United States faced broad community spread of Covid-19 in August 2020.

Pres­id­ent Trump claimed that the “deep state” at the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) was inten­tion­ally delay­ing research on Covid-19 treat­ments until after elec­tion day, and a polit­ic­ally-appoin­ted HHS spokes­per­son accused career govern­ment scient­ists of “sedi­tion” in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, claim­ing without evid­ence that the CDC was oper­at­ing a left-wing “resist­ance unit” dedic­ated to under­min­ing Pres­id­ent Trump. In Septem­ber 2020, Trump directly contra­dicted the director of the C.D.C. by prom­ising that a vaccine would be developed in a matter of weeks and “go to the public imme­di­ately” while also cast­ing doubts on the value of wear­ing masks.

At the height of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion campaign in Octo­ber 2020, Trump attacked Dr. Fauci as a “disaster” and complained that “people are tired of hear­ing Fauci and these idiots.” He also sugges­ted that he would have fired Dr. Fauci were it not for the negat­ive press cover­age that would result. (At the time, Trump lacked the power to fire Dr. Fauci, although he recently issued an exec­ut­ive order that may allow him to do so.) Even as Trump was attack­ing Dr. Fauci, however, his  campaign used a mislead­ing  clip of Dr. Fauci — without his permis­sion —in a campaign advert­ise­ment, falsely suggest­ing that Fauci had praised Trump’s response to the coronavirus.

These abuses are only the latest in a long history of Trump admin­is­tra­tion efforts to ignore, censor, and punish govern­ment scient­ists who contra­dict its polit­ical messaging. These attacks on science deprive lawmakers, health­care work­ers, and the Amer­ican public of crit­ical inform­a­tion about Covid-19, under­mine trust in govern­ment, and ulti­mately hamper the admin­is­tra­tion’s abil­ity to effect­ively manage this public health crisis.

Manip­u­lat­ing Public Health Guid­ance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has manip­u­lated public guid­ance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC). The mission of the CDC is to fight diseases and protect Amer­ic­ans’ health. To that end, one of its most import­ant func­tions is to issue volun­tary public health guid­ance and recom­mend­a­tions. The CDC has a long history of inde­pend­ence, and its guidelines typic­ally reflect the best scientific judg­ment of its profes­sional staff, free from overt polit­ical consid­er­a­tions. Ignor­ing the CDC’s long­stand­ing inde­pend­ence from polit­ics, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has repeatedly manip­u­lated and suppressed CDC recom­mend­a­tions with respect to the pandemic.

Early on during the pandemic, the White House preven­ted the CDC from recom­mend­ing that senior citizens (who are at an increased risk of severe illness result­ing from Covid-19) avoid air travel. This was at a time when senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials down­played the threat the coronavirus posed in a bid to main­tain economic growth.

In the spring of 2020, as state and local govern­ments planned to reopen their juris­dic­tions follow­ing lock­downs, the admin­is­tra­tion used a number of tactics to suppress CDC guid­ance for safe reopen­ing. It removed CDC recom­mend­a­tions for schools, summer camps, parks, restaur­ants, and other facil­it­ies from the admin­is­tra­tion’s reopen­ing guidelines. Later in the summer, the pres­id­ent pres­sured the CDC to alter guidelines that the agency put out about reopen­ing schools, under­min­ing the agency’s scientific guid­ance because of Pres­id­ent Trump’s concern that adher­ence to public health meas­ures would limit his desired economic recov­ery. White House offi­cials pres­sured the CDC to include find­ings from a Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) report stat­ing that chil­dren were highly unlikely to spread the virus, despite CDC scient­ists’ asser­tion that this conclu­sion was inac­cur­ate. A top aide on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force left the White House after protest­ing against efforts to manip­u­late the CDC’s guid­ance on this issue.

In appar­ent capit­u­la­tion to this pres­sure, the CDC issued revised guidelines that removed refer­ences to social distan­cing for students and recom­mend­a­tions for wide­spread test­ing and contact tracing that the agency included in previ­ous docu­ments.

The White House also direc­ted the CDC to remove recom­mend­a­tions to suspend or decrease the use of choirs and singing from guidelines for faith communit­ies, reportedly to accom­mod­ate some of the pres­id­ent’s evan­gel­ical support­ers. And in August 2020, the CDC changed test­ing guidelines in response to polit­ical pres­sure from White House and HHS offi­cials, no longer recom­mend­ing test­ing for asymp­to­matic people — a move condemned by outside experts and state and local health depart­ments due to the fact that asymp­to­matic people can trans­mit the coronavirus.

In keep­ing with the admin­is­tra­tion’s sustained politi­ciz­a­tion of masks, detailed below, White House offi­cials also inter­vened to block a CDC order requir­ing masks on public and commer­cial trans­port­a­tion, despite mount­ing evid­ence that wear­ing masks dramat­ic­ally reduces trans­mis­sion rates.

Polit­ical appointees at HHS have repeatedly pres­sured the CDC to edit and delay data and stud­ies about Covid-19 in its Morbid­ity and Mortal­ity Weekly Report (MMWR), an essen­tial public health resource for doctors, research­ers, and the public that has been in exist­ence since 1878One offi­cial referred to the reports as “hit pieces on the admin­is­tra­tion” and accused CDC scient­ists of using the reports to “hurt the pres­id­ent.”

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has also created new proto­cols requir­ing the CDC to clear Covid-19 health guidelines with the White House Office of Manage­ment and Budget — which does not have person­nel with relev­ant scientific expert­ise — before they become public. This added level of review has delayed the release of crucial recom­mend­a­tions related to elder care facil­it­ies, schools, reli­gious communit­ies, and busi­nesses for up to several weeks.  

Finally, the White House inser­ted polit­ical oper­at­ives — who lack any relev­ant public health exper­i­ence — into the CDC to sit in on scientific meet­ings and ensure scientific commu­nic­a­tions from the agency have a posit­ive spin. This appears to be the first time polit­ical oper­at­ives from HHS have played a role of this sort in managing the tradi­tion­ally polit­ic­ally insu­lated agency.

Making False State­ments About Covid-19’s Spread and Possible Treat­ments

Through­out the pandemic, Pres­id­ent Trump has made repeated false and unsup­por­ted state­ments about Covid-19, contra­dict­ing scientific research and the advice of govern­ment experts. His state­ments have caused confu­sion, sown distrust of govern­ment, and politi­cized common­sense public health meas­ures, making it diffi­cult to control the spread of the coronavirus and stabil­ize the economy.

As the first coronavirus cases were repor­ted in the United States and top govern­ment health offi­cials expressed concern that the virus would spread through­out the coun­try for months, Pres­id­ent Trump claimed that the number of infec­tions would soon “be down to close to zero” and that the virus would disap­pear "like a miracle." He has also falsely claimed that the mortal­ity rate for Covid-19 is like that for the flu, that 99 percent of cases are “totally harm­less,” and that the United States has “one of the lowest mortal­ity rates [for the disease] in the world.” The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has encour­aged state offi­cials to dissem­in­ate false inform­a­tion. Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence told governors to spread the pres­id­ent’s mislead­ing claim that the uptick in coronavirus cases is due to an increase in test­ing.

Trump reportedly acknow­ledged that he had inten­tion­ally down­played the threat of the virus during inter­views with journ­al­ist Bob Wood­ward in Febru­ary and March 2020, stat­ing that although he recog­nized the deadly nature of the disease, “I wanted to always play it down . . . I still like play­ing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In late March 2020, with cases grow­ing expo­nen­tially, and less than two weeks after many states and local­it­ies insti­tuted lock­downs, Trump called for the reopen­ing of the Amer­ican economy by Easter based on the advice of busi­ness asso­ci­ates, and contrary to the coun­sel of health offi­cialsSkep­tical of models created by public health experts to predict the spread of the coronavirus, the pres­id­ent and his advisers instead relied on an econo­met­ric “cubic model” created by former Coun­cil of Economic Advisers Chair Kevin Hassett, who has no back­ground in infec­tious diseases. Hassett’s model, which projec­ted that Covid-19 deaths would stop completely by mid-May, was a preset Microsoft Excel curve-fitting func­tion rather than a science-based analysis of coronavirus infec­tion data.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordin­ator, repor­ted that Pres­id­ent Trump received and publi­cized his own unof­fi­cial stream of coronavirus data and graph­ics outside of the offi­cial process. Dr Birx linked some of this data to Trump’s pandemic adviser Scott Atlas, who lacks an infec­tious disease back­ground and resigned follow­ing conflicts with health experts.

The pres­id­ent has also misled the Amer­ican public about prevent­at­ive meas­ures, cures, and treat­ments for the disease. He made the base­less projec­tion that a vaccine would be avail­able within three to four months after the outbreak began, which Dr. Fauci later explained was not possible. Pres­id­ent Trump has pres­sured health offi­cials to exped­ite the timeline for devel­op­ment and told report­ers that a vaccine may become avail­able before the Novem­ber pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The pres­id­ent has also repeatedly promoted the use of the anti­m­al­arial drugs chloroquine and hydroxy­chloroquine to treat Covid-19 — going so far as to announce that he was taking the latter as a prevent­at­ive meas­ure — despite a lack of scientific evid­ence of their effect­ive­ness and against the advice of govern­ment experts. And most notori­ously, Pres­id­ent Trump sugges­ted that Covid-19 could be cured by inject­ing disin­fect­ants or by “hit[ting] the body with a tremend­ous” light, a patently unscientific — and danger­ous — claim that led to an uptick in calls to poison control centers due to expos­ure to clean­ing agents.

In Septem­ber 2020, as the death toll from Covid-19 surpassed 200,000 in the United States, Trump again claimed that the coronavirus would “go away” and that the United States was “round­ing the corner” — state­ments contra­dicted by Dr. Fauci. Trump also falsely claimed that Covid-19 affects “virtu­ally nobody” younger than 18, despite reports from the CDC and the WHO that young people play a signi­fic­ant role in spread­ing the virus and reports of chil­dren being hospit­al­ized in rising numbers. He later contin­ued to mock others for wear­ing masks and, just hours before announ­cing his own diagnosis, claimed that “the end of the pandemic is in sight, and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our coun­try.” Trump later repeated at a rally, held at the White House, that the pandemic would “disap­pear.” In Octo­ber 2020, the White House’s Office of Science and Tech­no­logy Policy issued a press release that listed “ending the Covid-19 pandemic” as one of Pres­id­ent Trump’s greatest accom­plish­ments during his first term in office.

Pres­id­ent Trump’s false and unsup­por­ted state­ments regard­ing the spread of and treat­ments for the disease have contrib­uted to the United States’ fail­ure to manage the crisis effect­ively. The pres­id­ent’s comments, as well of those of his allies in govern­ment and the media, have an impact on how seri­ously Amer­ic­ans view the threat of Covid-19 and the degree to which they adhere to guid­ance from public health experts. Opin­ion polls show a large and grow­ing partisan gap in beliefs regard­ing the health threat of Covid-19. Consequently, public health meas­ures like wear­ing masks and main­tain­ing social distance have become divis­ive partisan issues, notwith­stand­ing their ground­ing in scientific research. A Cornell Univer­sity study of global English-language media found that Pres­id­ent Trump was by far the most import­ant single source of coronavirus misin­form­a­tion — linked to almost 38 percent of misin­form­a­tion.

Promot­ing and Spend­ing Govern­ment Resources on Unproven Treat­ments, Against Expert Advice

Pres­id­ent Trump’s promo­tion of the anti­m­al­arial drugs chloroquine and hydroxy­chloroquine as Covid-19 treat­ments, despite scientific stud­ies show­ing their inef­fect­ive­ness, has exten­ded to federal agen­cies spend­ing money on and offi­cially recom­mend­ing the drugs.  

The pres­id­ent pres­sured govern­ment offi­cials to push for use of the drugs as treat­ment. Dr. Rick Bright, an expert at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services, was reas­signed after he objec­ted to the use of hydroxy­chloroquine to treat Covid-19 patients without first test­ing its effect­ive­ness. The Depart­ment of Veter­ans Affairs (VA) purchased $208,000 worth of hydroxy­chloroquine to treat veter­ans, despite VA hospital data show­ing that veter­ans treated with the drug died at a 17 percent higher rate than others. The Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) issued guid­ance promot­ing the prescrip­tion of hydroxy­chloroquine, citing only anec­dotal evid­ence. The CDC later removed the guid­ance, while the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) with­drew its emer­gency author­iz­a­tion for use of the drug to treat Covid-19, based on stud­ies show­ing that hydroxy­chloroquine does not improve health outcomes. Polit­ical offi­cials at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) delayed the public­a­tion of a subsequent CDC report show­ing the inef­fect­ive­ness of hydroxy­chloroquine.

Addi­tion­ally, in defi­ance of the emer­gency FDA author­iz­a­tion limit­ing the use of hydroxy­chloroquine to hospit­als and clin­ical trials, the White House ordered the distri­bu­tion of 23 million tablets of the drug from a federal stock­pile, includ­ing to retail phar­ma­cies. Although FDA guid­ance dictated that stock­pile supplies should only have been released at the request of state govern­ments, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion did not notify state offi­cials about the large-scale distri­bu­tion of hydroxy­chloroquine in their juris­dic­tions. The admin­is­tra­tion also provided a $765 million loan to Kodak to produce precursor ingredi­ents for hydroxy­chloroquine, although it later put the deal on hold follow­ing criti­cism of Kodak’s suit­ab­il­ity for a loan and alleg­a­tions of asso­ci­ated insider trad­ing.

In the mean­time, however, the admin­is­tra­tion’s promo­tion of hydroxy­chloroquine and similar drugs as an appro­pri­ate Covid-19 treat­ment resul­ted in prescrip­tions increas­ing by a factor of 46, leav­ing patients who needed the drugs to treat other condi­tions unable to find supplies.

In a similar fash­ion, Pres­id­ent Trump created confu­sion about another poten­tial Covid-19 treat­ment, convales­cent blood plasma, when he made mislead­ing state­ments about its effect­ive­ness and accused the FDA of delay­ing access to thera­peut­ics shortly before the start of the Repub­lican National Conven­tion. Imme­di­ately there­after, the FDA issued an emer­gency use author­iz­a­tion for plasma, even though senior govern­ment scient­ists had cautioned against doing so. As part of the rushed rollout, FDA Commis­sioner Dr. Stephen Hahn exag­ger­ated the demon­strated bene­fits of blood plasma treat­ment, for which he later apolo­gized. FDA spokes­wo­man Emily Miller, a conser­vat­ive media person­al­ity filling a role that normally goes to a career agency staffer, also circu­lated the inac­cur­ate inform­a­tion about blood plasma before Dr. Hahn fired her.

Trump also promoted an exper­i­mental drug — which he received as part of his own Covid-19 treat­ment — from biotech company Regen­eron as “a cure” and falsely claimed to have person­ally author­ized the treat­ment for wider use. In real­ity, the FDA, not Trump, is respons­ible for author­iz­ing drug treat­ments, and the drug in ques­tion has not yet been proven effect­ive in clin­ical trials. Trump is a former investor in Regen­eron, whose CEO has been a member of Trump’s golf club. The pres­id­ent’s comments caused a surge in Regen­er­on’s stock price.

Canceling Scientific Research Grant, Citing Racist Conspir­acy Theory

The National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) canceled a long­stand­ing grant to a New York health research organ­iz­a­tion study­ing coronavir­uses in part­ner­ship with the Wuhan Insti­tute of Viro­logy. The decision came after Pres­id­ent Trump said, “We will end that grant very quickly” in a press confer­ence.

Pres­id­ent Trump has repeatedly claimed without evid­ence that the novel coronavirus was created or released by the Wuhan Insti­tute of Viro­logy. Secret­ary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials have repeated the pres­id­ent’s claim, also without evid­ence and despite contrary state­ments by the director of national intel­li­gence, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the World Health Organ­iz­a­tion.

Pres­id­ent Trump’s attempts to blame China for the Covid-19 pandemic, which include refer­ring to the disease as “kung flu” and block­ing a Group of Seven (G7) state­ment that did not refer to the virus as the “Wuhan virus,” have stoked racial animus against Asian Amer­ic­ans. Monit­ors have recor­ded a surge of racist attacks and hate crimes target­ing Asian Amer­ic­ans.

Grant­mak­ing decisions by govern­ment agen­cies such as the NIH have histor­ic­ally been made free of polit­ical inter­fer­ence. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, however, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion interfered with scientific grant­mak­ing for polit­ical purposes, includ­ing by direct­ing grantees not to mention climate change in their mater­i­als and, without explan­a­tion, halt­ing grants to Alaska after Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski voted against the pres­id­ent’s health­care bill.

Seventy-seven U.S. Nobel laur­eates and a wide range of profes­sional scientific soci­et­ies have condemned the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s decision to cancel the coronavirus research grant and called for a review.

Under­cut­ting Health Experts’ Advice to Wear Masks

Pres­id­ent Trump has under­cut the effect­ive­ness of a basic public health meas­ure — mask-wear­ing — by refus­ing to wear a mask and mock­ing people for wear­ing them. He has also sugges­ted that people wear masks not for any health bene­fits but to signal disap­proval of his admin­is­tra­tion. During public appear­ances, he has falsely claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) found that 85 percent of mask-wear­ers even­tu­ally contract the coronavirus, despite the fact that the study refer­enced did not even invest­ig­ate this ques­tion. On occa­sion the pres­id­ent has refused to wear a mask (impli­citly encour­aging others to do the same) in places where state govern­ments require people to wear masks to protect public health. Other Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, includ­ing Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, have also not worn masks in places where masks are required. Pence also promoted a Trump campaign event where attendees did not adhere to state guidelines on masks. In Octo­ber 2020, an adviser to Pres­id­ent Trump stated without evid­ence that masks do not help contain the spread of Covid-19 in a post that Twit­ter later blocked for viol­at­ing its policy against shar­ing virus-related misin­form­a­tion.

This beha­vior has contrib­uted to mask-wear­ing being a uniquely polit­ical issue in the United States. Many in Congress and among the general public often refuse to wear masks, notwith­stand­ing research show­ing that wear­ing face masks reduces the spread of the coronavirus.

Thwart­ing State Offi­cials’ Science-Based Policy Decisions

In its efforts to reopen the economy, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has repeatedly attacked and under­mined state efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of effect­ive federal lead­er­ship, state and local govern­ments have shouldered the respons­ib­il­ity for setting policy to protect the health and economic well­being of their constitu­ents. Rather than support­ing these efforts, the pres­id­ent and senior federal offi­cials have threatened to with­hold resources from polit­ical foes and to take legal action to coerce state and local offi­cials to aban­don public health meas­ures.

The pres­id­ent has used finan­cial and other means to pres­sure states to aban­don policies designed to protect the health of their resid­ents. As state and local offi­cials faced protests against social distan­cing restric­tions imposed to flat­ten the infec­tion curve, the pres­id­ent voiced support for protest­ors in states with Demo­cratic governors, encour­aging demon­strat­ors to “liber­ate” their states. Attor­ney General William Barr threatened to take legal action against state and local govern­ments’ lock­down meas­ures for allegedly impinging on busi­nesses’ liberty. The DOJ has inter­vened in several lawsuits by churches seek­ing to chal­lenge state lock­down orders. When Michigan Governor Gretchen Whit­mer imposed new lock­down orders in Novem­ber 2020, follow­ing a resur­gence in cases, Trump’s pandemic adviser Dr. Scott Atlas encour­aged the people to “rise up” against her. (Earlier in the year, federal and state law enforce­ment offi­cials filed charges against a total of 13 people who sought to kidnap and possibly execute Governor Whit­mer because of her lock­down orders.)

Schools have been a partic­u­lar focus of the pres­id­ent’s efforts to force states to reopen. Tweet­ing that Demo­crats thought it “would be bad for them polit­ic­ally” if schools reopened for in-person learn­ing before the elec­tion, the pres­id­ent threatened to with­hold federal fund­ing for schools if they did not reopen in the fall of 2020, disreg­ard­ing the advice of federal health experts.

As coronavirus cases surged to unpre­ced­en­ted levels through­out the coun­try, Pres­id­ent Trump and senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials contin­ued to pres­sure schools to reopen and under­mine federal public health offi­cials’ guid­ance for safe reopen­ing, culmin­at­ing in the issu­ance of revised CDC guidelines on reopen­ing that substan­tially weaken the agency’s recom­mend­a­tions to protect public health.

Detain­ing Immig­rants in Unsan­it­ary Condi­tions Contrib­ut­ing to Spread of Covid-19

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has ignored warn­ings from public health experts that the coronavirus could spread rapidly in immig­ra­tion deten­tion centers (which have previ­ously seen fatal outbreaks of other respir­at­ory diseases). Experts have called for a reduc­tion in the number of people held in immig­ra­tion deten­tion centers as the most effect­ive means to promote public health, but the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has resisted this advice, fail­ing to address the threat the virus poses to detain­ees in an effect­ive and humane way.

Instead, the admin­is­tra­tion has contin­ued to keep detain­ees in over­crowded spaces where social distan­cing is impossible, and regu­larly denied them access to items needed to stop the spread of the virus, includ­ing soap, hand sanit­izer, and masks. Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment (ICE) offi­cials have also sprayed harsh disin­fect­ants — which can cause burns, bleed­ing, and respir­at­ory prob­lems and have sickened detain­ees — in crowded, poorly vent­il­ated areas, some­times as frequently as 50 times a day. Over 3,000 people in these facil­it­ies have tested posit­ive for the coronavirus, and at least four detain­ees have died of Covid-19 while in ICE custody. To avoid having to isol­ate or release detain­ees with Covid-19, and out of fear that test­ing would reveal large numbers of infec­tions, ICE has refused to even carry out test­ing in some loca­tions. When a nurse work­ing at a Geor­gia-based immig­ra­tion deten­tion center spoke out about unsan­it­ary condi­tions and lack of effect­ive Covid-19 safety proced­ures in her work­place, her employer demoted and rebuked her. The nurse repor­ted that detain­ees who raised similar concerns were placed in solit­ary confine­ment.

ICE has depor­ted immig­rant detain­ees who are infec­ted with Covid-19, caus­ing the disease to spread in other coun­tries. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion also trans­ferred a group of immig­rants by plane to Virginia in June 2020, caus­ing an outbreak at a deten­tion center there that infec­ted over 300 detain­ees and killed at least one. Although ICE offi­cials stated that this trans­fer was meant to reduce over­crowding at deten­tion centers in Arizona and Flor­ida, sources with direct know­ledge of the decision revealed that their primary aim in trans­fer­ring detain­ees was to enable the rapid deploy­ment of Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity troops to crack down on protests in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., as trans­port­ing migrants on the flight enabled ICE to skirt a rule prohib­it­ing agency employ­ees from trav­el­ing on chartered planes unless they are accom­pan­ied by detained immig­rants.    

Chan­ging Data Report­ing Proced­ures for Unclear Reas­ons and Without Trans­par­ency

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sought to side­line the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC), which Trump has repeatedly clashed with during the pandemic, from its usual role in compil­ing national data on infec­tious diseases. This effort began in April 2020, when the govern­ment awar­ded a $10.2 million contract to Tele­Track­ing Tech­no­lo­gies to set up a coronavirus data­base housed at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion first tried to use finan­cial pres­sure to coerce hospit­als to use the new system — refus­ing to provide emer­gency medical fund­ing to hospit­als that didn’t send Covid-19 admis­sions and intens­ive care data to the Tele­Track­ing data­base. The threat to with­hold fund­ing came at a time when hospit­als faced both increased admis­sions and decreased revenue due to the pandemic.

In July 2020, The Trump admin­is­tra­tion ordered hospit­als to stop report­ing coronavirus case data to the CDC entirely and instead submit all inform­a­tion to the Tele­Track­ing data­base. The govern­ment only gave hospit­als a few days’ advanced warn­ing of the change. Health experts from the CDC Health­care Infec­tion Control Prac­tices Advis­ory Commit­tee warned the Trump admin­is­tra­tion that the decision would impose increased burdens on hospit­als and limit research­ers’ abil­ity to access crit­ical inform­a­tion. Follow­ing the change in proced­ures, outside research­ers repor­ted signi­fic­ant lags in the public­a­tion of inform­a­tion about the number of patients being treated and hospital capa­city, and that the govern­ment’s hospit­al­iz­a­tion numbers for some days were implaus­ibly low.

When Senate Demo­crats deman­ded inform­a­tion on the Tele­Track­ing contract and the policy change, Tele­Track­ing refused to discuss the deal owing to a nondis­clos­ure agree­ment with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion — a seri­ous depar­ture from normal prac­tices of trans­par­ency surround­ing federal contracts. Michael Caputo, a top polit­ical staffer at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS), also sought to punish CDC commu­nic­a­tions work­ers who allowed a CDC epidemi­olo­gist to speak with the press about the decision to have a private contractor assume respons­ib­il­ity for data collec­tion that the CDC has long held.

In August 2020, White House coronavirus coordin­ator Dr. Deborah Birx announced that report­ing would return to the CDC in the future, under an unspe­cified system.

Attack­ing States’ Vote-by-Mail Efforts and Under­min­ing the Postal Service

Pres­id­ent Trump has criti­cized and sought to prevent state efforts to expand vote-by-mail to allow their citizens to parti­cip­ate safely in elec­tions during the pandemic — going so far as to suggest that the elec­tion should be post­poned. Vote-by-mail, which accoun­ted for one out of every four ballots cast in the 2018 elec­tion, is more crit­ical than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic. Public health experts have argued that for voting to be safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, there must be broadly access­ible vote-by-mail options. But Pres­id­ent Trump has repeatedly railed against state efforts to follow public health experts’ advice and expand vote-by-mail, falsely assert­ing that it allows millions of people to fraud­u­lently cast ballots, despite the fact that he and many members of his family and admin­is­tra­tion have voted by mail. The pres­id­ent has also threatened to with­hold federal funds from states — mostly those with Demo­cratic lead­ers — that intend to expand vote-by-mail programs. He has insisted that the vote count be tallied by the night of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which will likely prove impossible given the large number of mail-in ballots, and has previ­ously ques­tioned the fair­ness of the vote-count­ing process if it contin­ues after Elec­tion Day. This appears to be part of a larger strategy that the pres­id­ent has pursued, both before and after taking office, to cast doubt on the legit­im­acy of Amer­ican elec­tions.

Beyond Trump’s words, post­mas­ter general Louis DeJoy (a major Trump donor) has insti­tuted a series of cost-cutting meas­ures at the United States Postal Service (USPS) that poten­tially threaten Amer­ic­ans’ abil­ity to cast mail-in ballots. DeJoy — who owns a logist­ics company that competes with the USPS in some areas — has cut over­time for postal work­ers, ordered the removal and deac­tiv­a­tion of mail sort­ing machines, and instruc­ted letter carri­ers not to deliver mail that might slow down their routes. While some of these policies — such as remov­ing some mail sort­ing machines owing to decreased demand — date to before the pandemic, postal worker unions have expressed concern that the scale of DeJoy’s changes is unpre­ced­en­ted and might impact vote count­ing.

Follow­ing these changes, the USPS warned 46 states that they could not guar­an­tee the timely deliv­ery of mail-in ballots for the Novem­ber elec­tion. Pres­id­ent Trump person­ally expressed support for depriving the USPS of resources, because “that means you can’t have univer­sal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped to have it.” Although DeJoy announced the suspen­sion of the cost-cutting programs until after the elec­tion follow­ing wide­spread criti­cism, some prior meas­ures like remov­ing sort­ing machines will not be reversed.

The pres­id­ent’s attempts to under­mine vote-by-mail amplify efforts to force voters to choose between preserving their health and wait­ing in long lines to cast their ballots. Access to safe voting options, includ­ing vote-by-mail, is partic­u­larly crit­ical for Black and Latino voters. Due to myriad consequences of struc­tural racism, from mass incar­cer­a­tion to discrim­in­a­tion in the health­care system, Black and Latino Amer­ic­ans are uniquely suscept­ible to complic­a­tions from the coronavirus. They are also more likely than white voters to face inad­equate polling place resources, making in-person voting during the pandemic all the more danger­ous.

Exempt­ing Medic­a­tion Abor­tion from Regu­lat­ory Changes, Without Health Rationale

The Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion refused to include medic­a­tion abor­tion in regu­lat­ory changes intro­duced to respond to health­care chal­lenges posed by the pandemic, despite lack­ing a public health rationale for doing so.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the FDA suspen­ded enforce­ment of numer­ous rules, includ­ing waiv­ing require­ments for dispens­ing certain drugs to allow for virtual prescrip­tions and telemedi­cine. The FDA retained in-person dispens­ing require­ments for 17 drugs, the major­ity of which can cause imme­di­ate adverse events (such as stroke, pulmon­ary embol­ism, anaphyl­axis, over­dose, or death). The FDA also included mife­pris­tone, used for medic­a­tion abor­tion care and the manage­ment of miscar­riages, on this list, even though stud­ies have found that mife­pris­tone is safer than common drugs such as peni­cil­lin and Viagra that are much more widely avail­able. Thus, patients need­ing the drug must continue to have in-person visits with their health­care providers, which under­mine social distan­cing guidelines and threaten the health of both patients and doctors. Research­ers found that elim­in­at­ing these medic­a­tion abor­tion restric­tions would result in over two million fewer clin­ical contacts during the 18-month period that the Covid-19 pandemic was expec­ted to last.

A number of providers and patients filed suit in federal court seek­ing an imme­di­ate end to the in-person dispens­ing require­ment for mife­pris­tone. National provider organ­iz­a­tions such as the Amer­ican Congress of Obstet­ri­cians and Gyneco­lo­gists, the Amer­ican Academy of Family Phys­i­cians, and the Amer­ican Medical Asso­ci­ation also reques­ted that the FDA lift the require­ment during the pandemic. A federal judge ordered the FDA to do so in July 2020, reas­on­ing that the delay in access to repro­duct­ive health­care and the health risks presen­ted by the pandemic that the rule likely creates an uncon­sti­tu­tional burden. After the govern­ment appealed the ruling, a divided Supreme Court decided along ideo­lo­gical lines to rein­state the rule. Writ­ing in dissent, Justice Sonia Soto­mayor said the decision imposed “an unne­ces­sary, irra­tional and unjus­ti­fi­able undue burden on women seek­ing to exer­cise their right to choose” and that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion had failed to submit “a single declar­a­tion from an FDA or HHS offi­cial explain­ing why the Govern­ment believes women must continue to pick up mife­pris­tone in person, even though it has exemp­ted many other drugs from such a require­ment given the health risks of COVID–19.”

In April 2021, the FDA announced it was waiv­ing the require­ment that medic­a­tion abor­tion be dispensed in-person for the dura­tion of the Covid-19 pandemic. foot­note1_yy9mkp1 1 The Bren­nan Center created this entry in collab­or­a­tion with the EMAA Project.

Polit­ical Offi­cial Seek­ing to Censor and Attack Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign offi­cial who became a top spokes­man at the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS), led a campaign along­side his personal scientific adviser to censor scientific public­a­tions at the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) and under­mine CDC experts who sought to warn the public of the dangers of the coronavirus.

In June, after CDC Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat urged Amer­ic­ans to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Caputo and his scientific adviser Dr. Paul Alex­an­der accused her of seek­ing to under­mine Pres­id­ent Trump. Dr. Alex­an­der contra­dicted Dr. Schuchat by falsely claim­ing that Covid-19 posed “basic­ally 0” risk to chil­dren. Caputo then inter­vened with CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield to attempt to get Dr. Schuchat reprim­anded or fired. Caputo also sought to punish CDC commu­nic­a­tions offi­cials who had allowed a CDC epidemi­olo­gist to speak with NPR about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to stop hospit­als from report­ing Covid-19 cases to the CDC. (See above in this tracker for more details about Trump admin­is­tra­tion changes in hospital data report­ing proto­cols.)

Caputo and Dr. Alex­an­der also deman­ded to review the CDC’s Morbid­ity and Mortal­ity Weekly Report (MMWR) — which, as discussed above, is a crit­ical public health resource that is normally strongly insu­lated from polit­ical inter­fer­ence — prior to public­a­tion and attemp­ted to delay or remove content on the Covid-19 pandemic they deemed polit­ic­ally damaging to Pres­id­ent Trump. For example. Dr. Alex­an­der attemp­ted to remove language from the MMWR on the risk of infec­tions to chil­dren at a time when the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was advoc­at­ing for the reopen­ing of schools. Polit­ical pres­sure also led to the delay of reports show­ing that coronavirus infec­tions were much higher than offi­cially repor­ted and that hydroxy­chloroquine (a malaria treat­ment hyped by Pres­id­ent Trump as a cure for Covid-19) was not an effect­ive treat­ment.

In Septem­ber 2020, Caputo accused CDC scient­ists of sedi­tion and having a resist­ance unit at the agency dedic­ated to bring­ing down the pres­id­ent, and said that CDC scient­ists were “all going to hell” for allow­ing people to die so they could replace Trump. Caputo also accused Demo­crats of organ­iz­ing an armed resist­ance against Trump and urged his follow­ers to buy guns and ammuni­tion. Caputo subsequently took medical leave from HHS, while Dr. Alex­an­der left the agency perman­ently.

Attempt­ing to Politi­cize and Bypass the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion’s Vaccine Guidelines

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sought to control vaccine guid­ance issued by the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) — a custom­ar­ily apolit­ical scientific regu­lator tasked with certi­fy­ing the safety and effect­ive­ness of vaccines, medic­a­tions, and other medical treat­ments and tech­no­lo­gies.

As cata­logued above, Pres­id­ent Trump pres­sured the FDA to grant emer­gency author­iz­a­tion for blood plasma treat­ment the day before the Repub­lican National Conven­tion star­ted, despite govern­ment scient­ists’ concern about a lack of clin­ical trial evid­ence of the treat­ment’s effect­ive­ness.

Further­more, Trump has clashed with govern­ment scient­ists over regu­lat­ory guid­ance for a poten­tial future coronavirus vaccine. Pres­id­ent Trump has repeatedly prom­ised that a vaccine will be avail­able “very soon” — likely before the Novem­ber elec­tion — despite warn­ings from experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and from Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion Director Dr. Robert Redfield that it is highly unlikely that a vaccine will be demon­strated to be effect­ive, tested for safety, and distrib­uted before 2021. This has raised concerns that Trump might rush through author­iz­a­tion of a poten­tially unsafe vaccine in Octo­ber 2020, to bolster his reelec­tion campaign. Polls show a major­ity of Amer­ic­ans worry that Trump will approve an unsafe vaccine and that many would refuse to get vaccin­ated if one were avail­able. State governors have echoed concerns about the integ­rity of the federal govern­ment’s process for approv­ing a vaccine.

In Septem­ber 2020, FDA Commis­sioner Dr. Stephen Hahn announced that the FDA would imple­ment new guid­ance for emer­gency distri­bu­tion of vaccines and prom­ised that the FDA would not approve a poten­tially unsafe vaccine. Shortly after­wards, Trump contra­dicted Dr. Hahn, saying there would be no delay in vaccine distri­bu­tion and that he had “tremend­ous trust” in the compan­ies devel­op­ing vaccines. When the FDA intro­duced the new guid­ance, Trump sugges­ted that the White House would not approve the changes and accused the FDA of making a “polit­ical move.” The Trump admin­is­tra­tion later attemp­ted to block the vaccine guidelines but ulti­mately allowed their imple­ment­a­tion after protests from experts and the biotech industry concerned about under­min­ing public trust in the FDA. However, White House Chief of Staff Mark Mead­ows nonethe­less later ordered Commis­sioner Hahn to resign if the FDA did not approve the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by Decem­ber 11, 2020—­polit­ical pres­sure that could jeop­ard­ize public trust in the approval process.

Addi­tion­ally, Secret­ary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar announced a new policy barring the FDA and other agen­cies from issu­ing any new rules regard­ing medical treat­ments or other products, instead reserving that power for himself. The change under­mines the FDA’s abil­ity to make science-based decisions and may further politi­cize future vaccine guid­ance. The admin­is­tra­tion also blocked Dr. Hahn from testi­fy­ing before the House of Repres­ent­at­ives (although he was allowed to testify before the Repub­lican-controlled Senate).

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to politi­cize and under­mine vaccine safety meas­ures are espe­cially damaging given the admin­is­tra­tion’s 2019 decision to close down the National Vaccine Program Office — a govern­ment body tasked with monit­or­ing the safety of vaccines.

Hinder­ing Covid-19 Research by Appoint­ing Oppon­ents of Fetal Tissue Research to Advis­ory Panel 

In the midst of the pandemic, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion convened a bioeth­ics advis­ory commit­tee stacked with indi­vidu­als who oppose fetal tissue research, which, among other things, is used to develop vaccines and treat­ments for Covid-19. (In fact, the anti­body Pres­id­ent Trump received to treat Covid-19 was developed using a cell line derived from fetal tissue.) Viol­at­ing legal require­ments for balance in view­points, the commit­tee recom­men­ded that 13 of 14 fund­ing applic­a­tions for scientific research projects involving the tissue be rejec­ted, despite the fact that scientific review­ers convened by the National Insti­tutes of Health had already recom­men­ded that the projects be funded and they had met the legal require­ments for ethical use of such tissue.

Advis­ory commit­tees like the one that rejec­ted these research propos­als are governed by the Federal Advis­ory Commit­tee Act (FACA). FACA requires that advis­ory commit­tees be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view repres­en­ted.” But rather than follow­ing this direct­ive, Secret­ary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar appoin­ted at least 10 members of the 15-member commit­tee who are confirmed oppon­ents of fetal tissue research, abor­tion, contra­cep­tion, or embryonic stem cell research, notwith­stand­ing the scientific consensus that in many cases there is no substi­tute for fetal tissue in research, and stand­ards and regu­la­tions have been developed to ensure that the research is done ethic­ally.

One of the other commit­tee members, a neur­os­cient­ist at the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia, San Diego, expressed his disap­point­ment about “the obvi­ous bias in the member­ship of the so-called ethics board and the obvi­ous biased consequences for the outcome.” A dissent by two board members in the commit­tee’s final report observed that “[t]his board was clearly consti­tuted . . . so as to include a large major­ity of members who are on the public record as being opposed to human fetal tissue research of any type. This was clearly an attempt to block fund­ing of as many contracts and grants as possible[.]”

Dissent­ing members of the commit­tee poin­ted out that the grounds for reject­ing the propos­als are of ques­tion­able scientific basis. The major­ity rejec­ted propos­als on the grounds that the submit­ting scient­ists had not suffi­ciently considered altern­at­ives to fetal tissue for their research, but this determ­in­a­tion clashed with the scientific consensus about the unique bene­fits of using the tissue in research. Dissent­ing members also noted that the major­ity rejec­ted propos­als due to alleged defects in consent forms for the dona­tion of the tissue, when in fact an insti­tu­tional review board had already reviewed and approved the consent proced­ures at issue.

Keep­ing Meat­pack­ing Plants Open Despite Unsafe Condi­tions for Work­ers

As of Octo­ber 2, 2020, there have been at least 41,000 coronavirus cases linked to meat­pack­ing facil­it­ies and at least 196 worker deaths. A July 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) noted that, among those cases for which race/ethni­city was repor­ted, 87 percent of those affected were racial or ethnic minor­it­ies. But in the face of soar­ing infec­tion rates among meat­pack­ing industry work­ers, Pres­id­ent Trump issued an exec­ut­ive order call­ing for plants to continue to oper­ate at full capa­city. The exec­ut­ive order direc­ted the secret­ary of agri­cul­ture “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue oper­a­tions,” contained no provi­sions regard­ing worker safety, and char­ac­ter­ized state and local govern­ment meas­ures insti­tuted to protect the health of work­ers as “unne­ces­sary clos­ures.”

The language of the pres­id­ent’s order closely tracks language that meat­pack­ing industry provided to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) in April 2020. There is no evid­ence that public health experts were consul­ted during the draft­ing process.

Apart from the pres­id­ent’s order, both the Occu­pa­tional Safety and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) and the CDC appear to have softened their meat­pack­ing safety guid­ance by adding qual­i­fi­ers such as “whenever possible” and “if feas­ible” through­out. Several other federal public health guidelines issued through­out the pandemic were simil­arly watered down (docu­mented above).

Unac­count­able and Unqual­i­fied Lead­er­ship and Other Person­nel Abuses

Lack of Qual­i­fied Lead­ers in Key Govern­ment Posi­tions Hamper­ing Pandemic Response

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a crisis in govern­ment lead­er­ship, marked by numer­ous vacan­cies and the elev­a­tion of people lack­ing relev­ant exper­i­ence to posi­tions of power.

wide range of key posi­tions in the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity (DHS), the Office of the Director of National Intel­li­gence, the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion, the Occu­pa­tional Health and Safety Admin­is­tra­tion, and other agen­cies tasked with plan­ning or imple­ment­ing the federal govern­ment’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been either vacant or held by acting offi­cials who lack the neces­sary author­ity and, in many cases, the relev­ant exper­i­ence that Senate-confirmed lead­ers in these same roles have typic­ally had. For instance, the roles of under­sec­ret­ary of science and tech­no­logy at DHS and deputy admin­is­trator of the Federal Emer­gency Manage­ment Agency (FEMA) — key disaster manage­ment posi­tions — are staffed by acting person­nel. Addi­tion­ally, person­nel perform­ing crit­ical func­tions in the federal pandemic response at FEMA and other agen­cies are leav­ing at a time when the nation desper­ately needs experts and lead­ers. And there is a grow­ing list of admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials lack­ing the expert­ise neces­sary to fulfill science-depend­ent roles. This has hampered the govern­ment’s abil­ity to address the crisis quickly and compet­ently.

Shadow Coronavirus Task Force Marred by Nepot­ism, Conflicts of Interest, Inex­per­i­ence, and Lack of Trans­par­ency

Despite the exist­ence of an offi­cial coronavirus task force led by the vice pres­id­ent, the pres­id­ent’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kush­ner, runs a shadow task force to manage the pandemic, rais­ing numer­ous issues. 

Kush­ner himself has no train­ing or exper­i­ence managing public health issues or crises. The same is true of many of the shadow task force volun­teers, many of whom come from private equity and consult­ing firms. None of the task force members, several of whom are health­care industry investors, have complied with federal ethics disclos­ure require­ments designed to protect against the influ­ence of special interests. And volun­teers on the task force often commu­nic­ate with private email accounts, rais­ing concerns about their compli­ance with federal records laws. (Volun­teers were also required to sign nondis­clos­ure agree­ments, making it even harder to conduct mean­ing­ful over­sight over their activ­it­ies.)

In addi­tion to the shadow task force’s trans­par­ency issues, many private sector volun­teers help­ing with its efforts to procure PPE and other medical supplies possess little to no exper­i­ence in govern­ment procure­ment prac­tices. This has hampered efforts to obtain and distrib­ute crit­ical equip­ment. Indeed, the United States contin­ues to face supply short­ages of needed mater­i­als and lacks an effect­ive national strategy to procure and distrib­ute supplies.

Addi­tion­ally, the task force has a prac­tice of “VIP” favor­it­ism: the volun­teers have sought mater­i­als from suppli­ers with connec­tions to the pres­id­ent and his polit­ical allies rather than exper­i­enced vendors. This may have funneled taxpayer money to friends and asso­ci­ates of the Trump family and admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials. For instance, at the recom­mend­a­tion of Kush­ner’s task force, the state of New York paid a Silicon Valley engin­eer with no relev­ant exper­i­ence — who had tweeted in response to the pres­id­ent’s call for auto­makers to manu­fac­ture vent­il­at­ors — $69 million for vent­il­at­ors but termin­ated the contract when he failed to deliver.

Putting Federal Work­ers’ Health at Risk

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has failed to protect the health of federal work­ers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many federal work­ers have been ordered to come into work during the pandemic, in some cases to perform tasks that can be done from home. Federal work­ers have often had to work without protec­tions that would allow them to prac­tice social distan­cing in their work spaces. The govern­ment has also failed to provide them with inform­a­tion about hazard pay, tele­work­ing prac­tices, or health risks. The Office of Person­nel Manage­ment (OPM) — the federal agency that manages the govern­ment’s civil­ian work­force — refused a request from Congress for a brief­ing about its Covid-19 response efforts. And while several federal agen­cies disclose the number of their employ­ees who are infec­ted, the Depart­ment of the Interior declined to do so. Addi­tion­ally, the Depart­ment of Defense ordered command­ers to stop publicly report­ing Covid-19 cases at milit­ary bases. In Septem­ber 2020, the EPA reopened a regional office despite fail­ing to meet reopen­ing criteria the agency had previ­ously estab­lished, and a union repres­ent­ing Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency (EPA) employ­ees filed an unfair labor prac­tice charge after EPA lead­ers refused to bargain over key policies concern­ing work condi­tions.

The federal govern­ment’s poten­tially danger­ous person­nel prac­tices during the Covid-19 pandemic are consist­ent with the long­stand­ing anti­pathy towards federal civil servants among senior members of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The admin­is­tra­tion’s hostil­ity to govern­ment work­ers has mani­fes­ted in the pres­id­ent’s own language: he has repeatedly attacked civil servants, labeling foreign service officers trait­ors and “spies” and announ­cing plans to purge govern­ment employ­ees he perceives as disloyal to his admin­is­tra­tion. The acting director of OPM advoc­ates repla­cing all career exec­ut­ive branch employ­ees with polit­ical appointees and ques­tions the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of long­stand­ing civil service protec­tions, which require federal employ­ees to be selec­ted based on merit rather than polit­ical affil­i­ation. All of this has led to the attri­tion of crit­ical staff from govern­ment programs — be they scientific research to stop the spread of the coronavirus, enforce­ment of occu­pa­tional health and safety protec­tions for work­ers, or the issu­ance of small busi­ness loans to safe­guard our economy — at a time when their expert­ise is desper­ately needed to manage the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Conflicts of Interest and Other Ethics Issues

Favor­it­ism and Polit­ical Bias in Award­ing Small Busi­ness Loans

Small busi­ness loan programs imple­men­ted by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion have prior­it­ized fund­ing large corpor­a­tions, includ­ing some with ties to Pres­id­ent Trump and other admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, over smal­ler busi­nesses with imme­di­ate needs. In March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Secur­ity Act (CARES Act), which included the Paycheck Protec­tion Program (PPP), inten­ded to give small busi­nesses loans to protect jobs. In its imple­ment­a­tion of the program, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has stretched the language of the CARES Act to provide finan­cial support to large busi­nesses — such as oil and gas firms — includ­ing busi­nesses with ties to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

Even as large busi­nesses with ties to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion have received support, the admin­is­tra­tion has denied fund­ing to many small busi­nesses — partic­u­larly those owned by women and people of color. One study found that Black applic­ants faced discrim­in­a­tion when apply­ing for PPP loans. Another found that small busi­nesses in major­ity-Black ZIP codes had to wait much longer than similar busi­nesses in major­ity-white areas to receive fund­ing. Addi­tion­ally, in keep­ing with the pres­id­ent’s past hostil­ity towards clean energy initi­at­ives, the admin­is­tra­tion has left $43 billion in low-interest loans inten­ded for clean energy products completely untouched

The Small Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion (SBA) has released limited data about the stim­u­lus program — reveal­ing the iden­tit­ies of less than 14 percent of loan recip­i­ents — but the data that has been released reveals a troub­ling pattern. With loans ranging from hundreds of thou­sands to tens of millions of dollars, the data revealed that many recip­i­ents have ties to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, notwith­stand­ing that stim­u­lus funds were limited and other eligible compan­ies were unable to obtain them. Admin­is­tra­tion-connec­ted recip­i­ents include Secret­ary of Trans­port­a­tion (and wife of Senate Major­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell) Elaine Chao’s family’s ship­ping busi­ness, a law firm that repres­en­ted Pres­id­ent Trump, 22 compan­ies located in a New York office build­ing the pres­id­ent owns, several restaur­ants located in Trump hotels, and three coal compan­ies with connec­tions to the admin­is­tra­tion. The largest recip­i­ent of PPP loans is hotel mogul Monty Bennett, a major Trump donor, whose combined hotel chains have collec­ted over $58 million in these loans. Other large corpor­a­tions have agreed to return the money as a result of public outrage, but Bennett has refused to do so. Addi­tion­ally, the SBA has sought to recover PPP fund­ing provided to local affil­i­ates of Planned Parent­hood—which the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has treated as a polit­ical foe—al­leging that they did not qual­ify for fund­ing because they were too closely affil­i­ated with Planned Parent­hood’s national organ­iz­a­tion, even though many local affil­i­ates and fran­chises of other large national organ­iz­a­tions received PPP money.

Person­nel Lead­ing the Response to Pandemic with Ties to Health­care Industry

Several Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials managing the crisis have ongo­ing conflicts of interest. For example, the pres­id­ent’s vaccine chief, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, has ties to phar­ma­ceut­ical interests. Dr. Slaoui is a contractor and there­fore exempt from federal disclos­ure rules that could reveal his poten­tial conflicts. Although Slaoui pledged to donate any increase in the value of his invest­ments to the National Insti­tutes of Health, his contract states he does not have to do so until after the deaths of both Dr. Slaoui and his wife. Other top advisers on the govern­ment’s vaccine devel­op­ment project also hold stock in compan­ies devel­op­ing coronavirus treat­ments and vaccines that have received millions of dollars in govern­ment contracts.

Like­wise, Pres­id­ent Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kush­ner has an invest­ment in a health insur­ance company (co-foun­ded by Kush­ner’s brother) that the admin­is­tra­tion engaged to create a govern­ment website for coronavirus test­ing, rais­ing poten­tial legal issues. (The project was ulti­mately scrapped.) Addi­tion­ally, the fact that the pres­id­ent and some of his personal asso­ci­ates and polit­ical donors have finan­cial interests in the manu­fac­ture of the anti­m­al­arial drugs that the pres­id­ent has touted, despite a lack of evid­ence of their effect­ive­ness in treat­ing Covid-19, raises at least the appear­ance of conflicts of interest.

Another report found that several members of a vaccine approval advis­ory commit­tee at the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) have a history of taking tens of thou­sands of dollars from vaccine compan­ies in consult­ing and research fees. Several commit­tee members have consul­ted on vaccines whose approval the commit­tee will consider, which is espe­cially concern­ing in light of the politi­ciz­a­tion of the FDA’s vaccine approval process described above.

Older conflicts of interest may also have contrib­uted to the lack of prepared­ness for the pandemic. Most notably, in the two years prior to the pandemic, the assist­ant secret­ary for prepared­ness and response at HHS, Robert Kadlec, diver­ted resources away from stock­pil­ing medical supplies needed to respond to emer­ging infec­tious diseases. Instead, at his direc­tion the depart­ment acquired $2.8 billion worth of small­pox vaccines — at a price double that the govern­ment had previ­ously paid for them — from a company for which he had previ­ously consul­ted. Kadlec failed to disclose this finan­cial connec­tion during his Senate confirm­a­tion process.

Multiply­ing Irreg­u­lar­it­ies in Federal Procure­ment Contracts

Through­out the pandemic, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has circum­ven­ted stand­ard procure­ment meth­ods to give contracts to ques­tion­able vendors who are unable to meet contrac­tual require­ments and who in some cases have ties to admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials.

The coronavirus task force has taken the place of federal emer­gency manage­ment response teams and aban­doned long­stand­ing agency procure­ment meth­ods, doing outreach to personal contacts instead. In an unusual move, the White House direc­ted the Federal Emer­gency Manage­ment Agency (FEMA) to issue a no-bid contract amount­ing to two-thirds of the agency’s total Covid-19 spend­ing to a Cana­dian company to make respir­at­ors and PPE for health­care work­ers. And the pres­id­ent forced the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) to reverse a safety ruling in order to issue a $600 million no-bid mask recyc­ling contract, despite concerns that the recyc­ling process may not be effect­ive in ster­il­iz­ing masks.

Addi­tion­ally, compan­ies created by a former White House deputy chief of staff and a White House volun­teer for Vice Pres­id­ent Pence each received a multi­mil­lion-dollar contract for PPE, despite no history of provid­ing such supplies to the govern­ment. In the first case, the $3 million contract for masks was awar­ded 11 days after the company was created. The masks the company produced for the Indian Health Service did not meet FDA stand­ards for use in health­care settings.

In another ques­tion­able move, FEMA awar­ded a $55 million no-bid contract for N95 masks to a bank­rupt company that has no employ­ees and lacks expert­ise in manu­fac­tur­ing medical equip­ment. The cost per mask under the contract was approx­im­ately $5.50, whereas 3M, a company with exper­i­ence making these masks, charges $0.63 per mask. The company failed to produce any masks, despite an exten­sion of time to complete the order, and even­tu­ally the contract was canceled. In other cases, FEMA has shipped substand­ard, inad­equate, and expired medical equip­ment to nurs­ing homes. FEMA has also spent $10.2 million on test­ing supplies — purchased under a no-bid contract from a newly formed company whose owner had previ­ously been accused of fraud­u­lent prac­tices — that it later advised states not to use due to alleg­a­tions of contam­in­a­tion.

The Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) agreed to purchase 43,000 vent­il­at­ors from Philips Respiron­ics at a price of $15,000 apiece. HHS awar­ded the contract despite Philips having already failed to provide vent­il­at­ors for the national stock­pile — which the Obama admin­is­tra­tion had ordered for only $3,280 each. (Philips sold the vent­il­at­ors the Obama admin­is­tra­tion ordered — developed in part with U.S. taxpayer fund­ing — to foreign custom­ers for a higher price.) HHS ulti­mately cancelled the purchase contract with Philips, but only after having already bought thou­sands of vent­il­at­ors at above-market prices. When the House of Repres­ent­at­ives invest­ig­ated the contract for wast­ing taxpayer funds, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion refused to allow White House adviser Peter Navarro to testify before Congress.

A subsequent congres­sional invest­ig­a­tion found that Navarro repeatedly pushed for award­ing contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a vari­ety of compan­ies with minimal scru­tiny or over­sight. In one case, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion awar­ded a $96 million no-bid contract to Airboss Defense Group for respir­at­ors after an Airboss repres­ent­at­ive — retired General John Keane, whom Pres­id­ent Trump had recently awar­ded a medal — reached out to Navarro. Unlike most federal procure­ment contracts, which are handled by agency procure­ment special­ists, the White House directly ordered FEMA to sign the deal. The govern­ment also awar­ded a $34.5 million no-bid contract to Federal Govern­ment Experts LLC for N95 masks. Federal Govern­ment Experts LLC CEO Robert Stew­art Jr. later pled guilty to fraud and theft of govern­ment funds, admit­ting to having lied to the federal govern­ment about his company’s abil­ity to provide masks.

As discussed in more detail above, the shadow coronavirus task force led by the pres­id­ent’s son-in-law Jared Kush­ner has a troub­ling history of steer­ing contracts to suppli­ers with connec­tions to the pres­id­ent and his polit­ical allies. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion also gave a $10.2 million contract to a tech­no­logy company to produce a contro­ver­sial new coronavirus case data­base that duplic­ates a long­stand­ing program at the CDC. The company — Tele­Track­ing Tech­no­lo­gies — refused to answer ques­tions from Congress about the contract, citing a nondis­clos­ure agree­ment signed with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

Without a trans­par­ent procure­ment process and robust protec­tions against conflicts of interests within the admin­is­tra­tion, it is diffi­cult to know whether the federal govern­ment is spend­ing the taxpay­ers’ money on the highest qual­ity products for the lowest cost.

The procure­ment process has been further complic­ated by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s unpre­ced­en­ted policy of limit­ing state govern­ments’ access to the Stra­tegic National Stock­pile of PPE supplies, which has forced local juris­dic­tions into bidding wars for essen­tial goods.

Vice Pres­id­ent’s Chief of Staff’s Finances Posing Conflicts of Interest with Covid-19 Response

The vice pres­id­ent’s chief of staff, Marc Short, owns up to $1.64 million worth of stock in compan­ies whose work directly impacts the White House’s coronavirus response, accord­ing to a finan­cial disclos­ure report certi­fied by the Office of Govern­ment Ethics (OGE). Many of these compan­ies produce drugs, medical supplies, and tests that are used or promoted by the White House.

Federal offi­cials are required to divest from their finan­cial hold­ings or recuse them­selves from ethic­ally comprom­ising decisions. Short sought a certi­fic­ate of divestit­ure from OGE, which would grant him a tax break upon divest­ing from the stock. However, OGE rejec­ted his applic­a­tion for the tax break because Short might not be able to divest from all of the relev­ant stock, some of which is held in family trusts. Without the approval of the tax break, Short has refused to divest from any of the poten­tially conflict­ing stock. Moreover, rather than recus­ing himself, Short has been heav­ily involved in setting the agenda for the govern­ment’s coronavirus response — includ­ing by reportedly spear­head­ing Jared Kush­ner’s shadow coronavirus task force. Short may be viol­at­ing crim­inal conflict of interest law because he stands to gain finan­cially from policy decisions in which he has parti­cip­ated.

Trump Organ­iz­a­tion Seek­ing Bene­fits from Trump Admin­is­tra­tion and Foreign Govern­ments

The pres­id­ent’s fail­ure to divest from his busi­ness interests has created myriad ethical issues through­out his time in office, includ­ing in rela­tion to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the hospit­al­ity industry struggles, the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion has sought relief from both the federal govern­ment and from the Brit­ish and Irish govern­ments — the latter for employ­ees’ wages at the company’s golf courses over­seas. In partic­u­lar, the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion sought a break on rental payments for the Wash­ing­ton, DC Trump Hotel from the General Services Admin­is­tra­tion, the federal agency with which the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion has a lease for the hotel. This puts the federal agency in a bind: deny­ing the request could invoke the ire of the pres­id­ent, who appoints its leader, while accom­mod­at­ing the request would raise concerns that the decision was motiv­ated by the pres­id­ent’s finan­cial interests.

Pres­id­ent Trump has also deman­ded that Congress include money for a new down­town FBI headquar­ters in a coronavirus relief bill. By ensur­ing the FBI does not move to a suburban campus instead, the meas­ure would protect the Trump Hotel from possible compet­i­tion from a proposed new hotel on the site of the FBI build­ing — a long­stand­ing concern of the pres­id­ent.

Placing the Pres­id­ent’s Name on Covid-19 Stim­u­lus Checks

Pres­id­ent Trump’s name appeared on the stim­u­lus checks distrib­uted to tens of millions of people pursu­ant to the CARES Act. This was the first time in United States history that an Amer­ican pres­id­ent’s name was displayed on a disburse­ment check from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Normally, an offi­cial from the Bureau of the Fiscal Service signs the checks to protect against the percep­tion of polit­ical patron­age. IRS staff had to repro­gram the agency’s computers to add the pres­id­ent’s name to the template for millions of paper stim­u­lus checks, which threatened delays in disburse­ment.

At a coronavirus press brief­ing, the pres­id­ent noted, “I’m sure people will be very happy to get a big, fat, beau­ti­ful check, and my name is on it.” The pres­id­ent’s request to Treas­ury Secret­ary Steven Mnuchin to sign the checks may have been a viol­a­tion of the Hatch Act, which prohib­its the pres­id­ent from command­ing federal offi­cials to engage in certain polit­ical activ­it­ies.

Favor­ing Polit­ical Allies with National Guard Fund­ing

Although most states are facing severe budget crunches as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion announced that they would have to begin cover­ing 25 percent of the cost of deploy­ing National Guard troops to fight the coronavirus — with the excep­tion of two states governed by the pres­id­ent’s allies, Texas and Flor­ida. States like Arizona and Cali­for­nia, whose outbreaks were no less severe, were not exemp­ted. The admin­is­tra­tion did not provide an explan­a­tion for this decision beyond that the Texas and Flor­ida governors had made “special, direct cases to the Pres­id­ent.”

Follow­ing criti­cism, the admin­is­tra­tion announced that Arizona, Cali­for­nia, and Connecti­cut would also see their National Guard deploy­ments completely funded by the federal govern­ment. However, unlike Texas and Flor­ida, whose costs are covered through the end of 2020, Arizona, Cali­for­nia, and Connecti­cut will have to begin paying a share of their costs in Octo­ber.

Blur­ring Lines Between Polit­ical Speeches and Govern­ment Busi­ness During Virtual Conven­tion

After the Covid-19 pandemic interfered with plans to hold the Repub­lican National Conven­tion (RNC) in North Caro­lina or Flor­ida, Pres­id­ent Trump and several members of his admin­is­tra­tion delivered their conven­tion speeches from govern­ment-related loca­tions, blur­ring the lines between their offi­cial and personal roles and rais­ing signi­fic­ant ethical and legal concerns.

During the virtual RNC, Pres­id­ent Trump delivered a speech accept­ing his party’s nomin­a­tion for pres­id­ent from the South Lawn of the White House. He also appeared to use the office of the pres­id­ency as a polit­ical prop by issu­ing a formal pardon and speak­ing at a natur­al­iz­a­tion cere­mony in video segments that aired as part of the event (in the latter case, without inform­ing the immig­rants that they were parti­cip­at­ing in the RNC). In addi­tion, First Lady Melania Trump gave her RNC address from the White House Rose Garden, Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence spoke from Fort McHenry (which is located on federal prop­erty), and Secret­ary of State Mike Pompeo appeared as an RNC speaker while in Jeru­s­alem on a diplo­matic visit (a notable loca­tion given the admin­is­tra­tion’s contro­ver­sial decision to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv in 2018).

Conven­tion speeches from the White House and other govern­ment loca­tions viol­ate a long­stand­ing norm of pres­id­en­tial admin­is­tra­tions main­tain­ing clear bound­ar­ies between offi­cial govern­ment busi­ness and partisan campaign activ­it­ies. They may also be illegal. 

Ethics experts have noted that the Hatch Act, a civil service law, bars federal employ­ees from parti­cip­at­ing in certain polit­ical activ­it­ies while acting in their offi­cial capa­cit­ies. In response to concerns from members of Congress, the Office of the Special Coun­sel (OSC) issued an opin­ion stat­ing that because the pres­id­ent and the vice pres­id­ent are not bound by the Hatch Act, their RNC speech loca­tions would not consti­tute viol­a­tions (The letter made no mention of the First Lady.). But as the OSC letter noted, White House employ­ees are covered by the Hatch Act, mean­ing the event venue could pose legal issues for staff depend­ing on their level of parti­cip­a­tion. OSC also explained that White House employ­ees are prohib­ited from using their offi­cial author­ity to influ­ence elec­tion outcomes; thus, Hatch Act issues could emerge if White House staff worked on conven­tion-related tasks. (Notably, career civil servants across the federal govern­ment have faced signi­fic­ant consequences for Hatch Act viol­a­tions, while Pres­id­ent Trump’s polit­ical appointees and close advisers have not.) Further­more, hold­ing RNC events on federal prop­erty could viol­ate a separ­ate law against coer­cion of polit­ical activ­ity if govern­ment employ­ees were pres­sured to parti­cip­ate.

Secret­ary Pompeo’s RNC speech was also contro­ver­sial, viol­at­ing a long­stand­ing norm when he became the first sitting secret­ary of state in modern history to speak at a party conven­tion. Reflect­ing a prin­ciple artic­u­lated shortly after World War II that U.S. foreign policy should repres­ent all Amer­ic­ans and remain isol­ated from domestic polit­ics, Pompeo’s prede­cessors have occa­sion­ally atten­ded their party’s conven­tions, but none have spoken at them. For instance, in 2004, then Secret­ary of State Colin Powell explained that he would not attend the RNC because, “As secret­ary of state, I am obliged not to parti­cip­ate in any way, shape, fash­ion or form in paro­chial, polit­ical debates. I have to take no sides in the matter.” In fact, Pompeo’s speech appears to viol­ate a State Depart­ment policy meant to strengthen the divi­sion between diplomacy and polit­ics that Pompeo himself recently approved, which warns polit­ic­ally appoin­ted offi­cials that they are barred from “enga­ging in partisan polit­ical activ­it­ies while on duty, and, in many circum­stances, even when you are off duty.”

RNC lead­er­ship has defen­ded these contro­ver­sial aspects of the conven­tion on the grounds that the Covid-19 pandemic upen­ded a tradi­tional polit­ical conven­tion. While the coronavirus outbreak created the need for a virtual conven­tion, the Trump campaign has not explained why the public health crisis would have required members of the admin­is­tra­tion to speak from govern­ment-related loca­tions and under­cut the divi­sion between their offi­cial duties and personal polit­ical roles.

Redir­ect­ing Fund­ing for Personal Protect­ive Equip­ment (PPE) to Milit­ary Supplies

In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which alloc­ated $1 billion to the Depart­ment of Defense for the purpose of build­ing up the nation’s supplies of medical equip­ment to combat Covid-19. Depart­ment of Defense offi­cials diver­ted most of that fund­ing to defense contract­ors to produce milit­ary supplies unre­lated to the treat­ment or preven­tion of Covid-19, includ­ing jet engine parts, body armor, and uniforms. This diver­sion of fund­ing is part of a pattern of the admin­is­tra­tion misal­loc­at­ing pandemic relief money. (See above in this tracker for further examples of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s abuses related to procure­ment projects, as well as the Paycheck Protec­tion Program.)

Requir­ing Food Relief Program to Dissem­in­ate Letters from the Pres­id­ent Claim­ing Credit for It in Lead-Up to Elec­tion

Pres­id­ent Trump has used a federal food relief program as an oppor­tun­ity to promote himself in the lead-up to the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, a move that has program part­ners concerned that they may be forced to engage in improper polit­ical activ­ity.

Millions of Amer­ic­ans have faced food insec­ur­ity due to the economic down­turn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, with some stud­ies estim­at­ing almost a quarter of Amer­ican house­holds have been strug­gling to afford suffi­cient food.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) over­sees the distri­bu­tion of food relief pack­ages to people in need through its Farm­ers to Famil­ies Food Box Program. Under the Famil­ies First Coronavirus Response Act — signed into law on March 18, 2020 — the USDA’s Agri­cul­tural Market­ing Service (AMS) part­ners with local, regional, and national distrib­ut­ors that pack­age the food boxes, then bring them to food banks and other nonprofit organ­iz­a­tions serving those in need. The four billion dollar program has distrib­uted more than 100 million boxes since it launched this May.

In late Septem­ber, the USDA began requir­ing that govern­ment-contrac­ted vendors include letters from Pres­id­ent Trump in which he takes credit for the program in boxes they distrib­uted. Some nonprofit lead­ers charged with dissem­in­at­ing the letter feared that distrib­ut­ing — or remov­ing — the letters could be viewed as a polit­ical endorse­ment in viol­a­tion of their organ­iz­a­tions’ oblig­a­tion to remain nonpar­tisan to main­tain tax-exempt status under federal law.

Members of Congress have alleged the use of the federal relief program to dissem­in­ate the pres­id­ent’s letter in the last few months before the elec­tion to be a viol­a­tion of the Hatch Act, which bars exec­ut­ive branch employ­ees from enga­ging in polit­ical activ­it­ies through their offi­cial capa­cit­ies. As noted above, this is not the first time that Pres­id­ent Trump has used federal resources or programs as a tool to promote his reelec­tion campaign.

Order­ing a Promo­tional $300 Million Ad Campaign for the Pres­id­ent Using Public Health Funds  

In the lead-up to the 2020 general elec­tion, the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services (HHS) planned a $300 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign about Covid-19 with a theme pitched intern­ally as “Help­ing the Pres­id­ent will Help the Coun­try.” Normally, the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) would lead such a campaign, but CDC director Robert Redfield test­i­fied at a Senate hear­ing that the agency has not had any involve­ment in the coronavirus campaign other than fund­ing it. Instead, former HHS spokes­per­son Michael Caputo organ­ized the effort, claim­ing that the pres­id­ent deman­ded that Caputo person­ally lead the campaign. As docu­mented above, Caputo — a polit­ical oper­at­ive who joined HHS in April 2020 with no back­ground in science or medi­cine — has a history of inter­fer­ing with the CDC’s Covid-19 reports and accus­ing CDC scient­ists of “sedi­tion” and having a “resist­ance unit” to under­mine the pres­id­ent.

To finance the campaign, Caputo’s team used $300 million of the one billion dollars in emer­gency funds that Congress had appro­pri­ated to the CDC in April. The campaign — which is slated to show­case movie stars and music stars talk­ing about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s response to the pandemic — has faced criti­cism for divert­ing resources away from press­ing public health needs, such as manu­fac­tur­ing personal protect­ive equip­ment, devel­op­ing treat­ments, or increas­ing test­ing.

As docu­mented through­out this tracker, the ad campaign fits into a series of Trump admin­is­tra­tion activ­it­ies that have side­lined scient­ists, redir­ec­ted funds inten­ded for public health meas­ures, and used govern­ment resources for partisan purposes.

Under­min­ing Inde­pend­ent Over­sight and Govern­ment Trans­par­ency

Attack­ing Inspect­ors General

The pres­id­ent has repeatedly attacked and under­cut the author­ity of inspect­ors general — inde­pend­ent watch­dogs within the exec­ut­ive branch charged with invest­ig­at­ing waste, fraud, and abuse — tasked with scru­tin­iz­ing the admin­is­tra­tion’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Inspect­ors general invest­ig­at­ing aspects of the admin­is­tra­tion’s response to the pandemic have faced obstruc­tion and retali­ation from the pres­id­ent. The pres­id­ent demoted the inspector general who would have over­seen the govern­ment’s economic relief efforts and nomin­ated a polit­ical staffer to serve as an inspector general over­see­ing the admin­is­tra­tion of part of the stim­u­lus pack­age that Congress passed in March 2020. He also lashed out at an inspector general who issued a report crit­ical of the admin­is­tra­tion’s public health response to the pandemic and took steps to replace her.

The admin­is­tra­tion has also declared that it will not cooper­ate with the special inspector general for pandemic recov­ery (SIGPR). Congress created the SIGPR posi­tion as part of the CARES Act, a $2.2 tril­lion coronavirus relief law, and gran­ted the special inspector general the power to audit loans and invest­ments made by a new corpor­ate bail­out fund. However, Pres­id­ent Trump announced after sign­ing the law that he would not allow the SIGPR to report to Congress if the admin­is­tra­tion failed to provide them with relev­ant inform­a­tion, despite the law author­iz­ing the SIGPR to do so.

These and other recent attacks on inspect­ors general under­mine a key check on corrup­tion, self-deal­ing, and other abuses of power in the admin­is­tra­tion’s response to the pandemic.

Shirk­ing Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act Respons­ib­il­it­ies

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many federal agen­cies have signi­fic­antly curtailed their responses to requests for inform­a­tion from the public, in viol­a­tion of the require­ments of the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (FOIA). While it is to be expec­ted that there may be some delays in the FOIA process — as with other govern­ment services in the midst of an unpre­ced­en­ted health crisis — the magnitude of the delays and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive changes to FOIA processing proced­ures raise ques­tions about the extent to which the govern­ment is acting in good faith.

Inform­a­tion requests relat­ing to short­ages of medical equip­ment, test­ing capa­city, and other life-or-death circum­stances relat­ing to the coronavirus are crit­ical tools for hold­ing the govern­ment account­able. However, agen­cies such as the CDC have created obstacles to filing requests, citing the pandemic. They have stopped taking FOIA requests by mail, fax, and even email and have rejec­ted many of the requests they do receive. During the first few months of the pandemic — while people were shel­ter­ing in place, deliv­ery work­ers feared expos­ure to the virus, and there was a general push towards elec­tronic commu­nic­a­tion — the Federal Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tion (FBI) claimed that it could no longer respond to FOIA requests filed elec­tron­ic­ally during the pandemic and required all requests to be delivered through the mail.

At other agen­cies, there has been a slow­down in FOIA request processing. At the State Depart­ment, where FOIA work is not considered “mission-crit­ical,” there has been a 96 percent reduc­tion in the processing of FOIA requests. The Wash­ing­ton Post sued the depart­ment after it failed to process requests for commu­nic­a­tions from the Amer­ican embassy in Beijing regard­ing the poten­tial spread of the coronavirus.

Pandemic-related efforts to curtail trans­par­ency have not been limited to FOIA requests. For example, , the Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency (EPA) cited the pandemic as an excuse to stop the prac­tice of publish­ing the EPA admin­is­trat­or’s calen­dar — which allows outside groups to monitor who may be influ­en­cing policy decisions —  even as the EPA has contin­ued to carry out major regu­lat­ory over­hauls (includ­ing of regu­la­tions govern­ing air qual­ity that could have a direct impact on Covid mortal­ity rates, as discussed below).

Using the Pandemic as a Pretext to Achieve Long­stand­ing Contro­ver­sial Policy Goals

Suspend­ing Envir­on­mental Law Enforce­ment

The Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency (EPA) suspen­ded enforce­ment of many envir­on­mental laws during the Covid-19 crisis, citing the pandemic as a justi­fic­a­tion without explain­ing why it would neces­sit­ate such steps. (After public outrage, legal chal­lenges, and a determ­in­a­tion by the agency’s inspector general that the policy put the agency’s mission at risk, the EPA announced that it would end the policy.) The EPA declined to disclose inform­a­tion about compan­ies seek­ing a reprieve from compli­ance under the nonen­force­ment policy. The Asso­ci­ated Press found that the EPA permit­ted hundreds of oil and gas compan­ies to stop monit­or­ing emis­sions and bypass other rules aimed at protect­ing the envir­on­ment and public health, contra­dict­ing an EPA spokes­per­son’s claim to lawmakers that there had not been “a signi­fic­ant impact on routine compli­ance, monit­or­ing and report­ing” as a result of the pandemic.

Research shows a link between air pollu­tion and fatal­it­ies from Covid-19, with air pollu­tion asso­ci­ated with a nine percent higher death rate from the disease, mean­ing that a fail­ure to regu­late pollu­tion could exacer­bate the crisis. Without an explan­a­tion from the EPA for its decision to suspend enforce­ment during the pandemic, it is diffi­cult to know whether the agency considered health impacts before releas­ing this policy.

Imple­ment­ing Extreme Immig­ra­tion Restric­tions, Without a Clear Public Health Rationale

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has used the pandemic to justify drastic changes to immig­ra­tion policy. Admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials have not provided cred­ible explan­a­tions for why these meas­ures are neces­sary to promote public health, suggest­ing they are more likely aimed at advan­cing Pres­id­ent Trump’s long­stand­ing goal of restrict­ing immig­ra­tion.

In order to justify the suspen­sion of several immig­ra­tion laws for which immig­ra­tion hard­liners in the admin­is­tra­tion have long advoc­ated, the pres­id­ent and the secret­ary of health and human services (HHS) alleged without evid­ence that migrants were spread­ing the coronavirus. These contro­ver­sial changes include block­ing asylum-seekers from enter­ing the United States and viol­at­ing due process protec­tions by imme­di­ately deport­ing immig­rants who cross the south­ern border without docu­ments. Although claim­ing to reduce the spread of infec­tion, Customs and Border Protec­tion’s (CBP) imme­di­ate deport­a­tion proced­ures force migrants into close contact with each other, provide no excep­tions to expul­sion proto­cols for health concerns, and do not involve medical screen­ing prior to removal.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has also expelled thou­sands of chil­dren without legal proceed­ings in the name of Covid-19 preven­tion, many of whom tested negat­ive for the virus. At the same time, the admin­is­tra­tion has moved some famil­ies and chil­dren — includ­ing those who have tested posit­ive for the virus — into a shadow deten­tion system run by a private secur­ity company using hotels rather than govern­ment facil­it­ies, which are exempt from over­sight rules and not form­ally tracked. A federal judge ordered the admin­is­tra­tion to stop detain­ing minors in hotels in Septem­ber 2020, on the grounds that govern­ment offi­cials had not provided a cred­ible public health rationale for hold­ing the detained minors in hotel rooms rather than licensed govern­ment facil­it­ies. In response, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pres­sured the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) to support the use of the hotels as deten­tion centers for migrant chil­dren. Career CDC offi­cials refused to sign a legal declar­a­tion endors­ing this policy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s pres­sure on the CDC to provide a post hoc rationale for a preex­ist­ing policy decision is part of a broader pattern of exec­ut­ive branch offi­cials manip­u­lat­ing the agency’s public health guid­ance during the Covid-19 pandemic to serve its polit­ical goals rather than public health object­ives (docu­mented above).

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has used the pandemic as an excuse to restrict immig­ra­tion in other ways, as well. Pres­id­ent Trump suspen­ded the issu­ance of perman­ent resid­ent cards (green cards), with some excep­tions, citing the need to create jobs for Amer­ican citizens. The policy is unlikely to achieve that goal and instead reflects the long­stand­ing prior­ity of senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials to limit immig­ra­tion. This decision was strongly criti­cized by busi­ness lead­ers, who argued that it would under­mine economic recov­ery efforts. The ban also preven­ted foreign health­care work­ers from trav­el­ing to the United States to assist with the pandemic response, despite hospit­als’ desper­ate need for this support, demon­strat­ing that the policy has been coun­ter­pro­duct­ive to public health goals. In Decem­ber 2020, a federal judge struck down the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s restric­tions on high-skilled foreign worker visas, find­ing that offi­cials lacked an adequate public health rationale to justify fore­go­ing the stand­ard review process that should have preceded the policy change.

Addi­tion­ally, in July 2020, Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment (ICE) announced that inter­na­tional students would only be permit­ted to stay in the United States if they enrolled in in-person courses in an attempt to pres­sure educa­tional insti­tu­tions to host in-person classes ahead of the Novem­ber elec­tion. While this policy was quickly rescin­ded follow­ing heavy criti­cism and lawsuits, the admin­is­tra­tion then barred new students from enter­ing the United States from abroad if they were not attend­ing in-person classes.

Under­min­ing the Rule of Law

Loyalty to Trump Appear­ing to Be a Factor in Home Confine­ment Determ­in­a­tions

In the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s limited efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in federal pris­ons by grant­ing home releases to incar­cer­ated people, it has appeared to grant pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to several of the pres­id­ent’s close allies. Incar­cer­ated people are uniquely suscept­ible to the spread of infec­tious diseases due to condi­tions in Amer­ican pris­ons. The Covid-19 crisis has substan­tially heightened this threat. The pres­id­ent acknow­ledged the “seri­ous medical risk” posed by impris­on­ment during the pandemic when he commuted the sentence of his polit­ical ally Roger Stone. Although home confine­ment meas­ures are crit­ical to prevent­ing outbreaks in pris­ons and protect­ing the health of incar­cer­ated people, so far less than five percent of inmates in the Federal Bureau of Pris­ons’ custody have been released. (The Bren­nan Center has urged lead­ers across the coun­try to release as many people as possible from incar­cer­a­tion during the pandemic.)

The Bureau, which follows the direct­ives of Attor­ney General William Barr, has been criti­cized for its incon­sist­ent discre­tion in grant­ing releases to home confine­ment. Trump loyal­ist Paul Mana­fort, who was convicted of tax and bank fraud, was released despite having failed to meet the Bureau’s stand­ards for early release. Mean­while, Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for the pres­id­ent who test­i­fied against him and was also convicted of tax fraud and other crimes, saw his release to home confine­ment delayed by three weeks because he was not in compli­ance with the Bureau’s shift­ing stand­ards. Cohen was returned to prison less than two months after his release to home confine­ment after he refused to accept prohib­i­tions on public­a­tion of books and commu­nic­a­tions with the media. (A judge subsequently ordered Cohen’s release on the grounds that federal offi­cials retali­ated against him for his plans to publish a book about his exper­i­ence work­ing for the pres­id­ent.)

The Bureau’s dispar­ate treat­ment of the pres­id­ent’s allies and enemies fits into a pattern of politi­ciz­a­tion of federal enforce­ment agen­cies that pred­ates the pandemic, with the pres­id­ent seek­ing the prosec­u­tion of his supposed enemies while seek­ing to pardon his allies.

End Notes