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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: September 21, 2020
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

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. 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. 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 — accounting for about a quarter 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.

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. 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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. The administration also provided a $765 million loan to Kodak to produce precursor ingredients for hydroxychloroquine, although they 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.

With the airline industry facing economic hardship due to the pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted emergency approval for a new cleanser to disinfect planes, despite health experts’ concern that the chemical might harm passengers and airline crew members and would not prevent most transmission of the primarily airborne coronavirus.

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 also suggested that people wear masks not for any health benefits but to signal disapproval of his administration. On occasion the president has refused to wear a mask (implicitly encouraging others to do the same) in places where state governments require mask-wearing to protect public health. Other Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have also not worn masks in places where masks are required. And Pence promoted a Trump campaign event where attendees did not adhere to state guidelines on masks.

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.

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.

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 have 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 is 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.  The government has appealed the ruling. footnote1_kbp8d3m 1 The Brennan Center created this entry in collaboration with the EMAA Project.

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 members often communicate with private email accounts, raising concerns about their compliance with federal records laws.

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.

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.

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

Awarding Small Business Loans to Big Businesses with Ties to Trump Administration

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.

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 new vaccine chief, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, has ties to pharmaceutical interests. Dr. Slaoui is on contract and therefore exempt from federal disclosure rules that could reveal his potential conflicts. 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.

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.

Additionally, as discussed 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.

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.

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.

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 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. 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. It has moved some children who tested positive 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.

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 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. Additionally, 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