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Blog Post | March 11, 2020

The Coronavirus Crisis: A Who's-Who of Trumpian Mismanagement

Ethics in GovernmentRevolving Door

The COVID-19 coronavirus is a public health emergency unlike any the United States has faced in decades, but it is also one which the federal government has tools to counter. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is wielding those tools. As the Revolving Door Project wrote in The American Prospect in February, “we are being asked to put our faith in inexperienced political cronies, servicing the needs of corporations rather than the public, and contemptuous of science, scientists, and the idea of expertise.”

As we always argue, personnel is policy. The makeup of the executive branch deserves considerably more attention than it typically receives from media and activists alike.

In that spirit, we offer this running blog presenting critical information about the individuals leading the executive branch’s response to the coronavirus crisis, along with sources for readers to do their own follow-up research. As the administration inevitably fires, reorganizes, and appoints new batches of sycophants, we will use this post as a reference guide and historical record of the people responsible for the public getting needlessly sicker.


MIKE PENCE, Vice President and head of coronavirus response task force

Prior Job: Governor of Indiana, during which time Pence defied CDC expert consensus by  refusing to authorize a needle-exchange program to combat a massive HIV outbreak. 

  • Pence also voted to strip Planned Parenthood of funding while in Congress. The last HIV testing center in Scott County, Indiana — the epicenter of the outbreak — was a Planned Parenthood office. 
  • Nearly 200 HIV cases were eventually reported, at a rate of 20 new cases per week, during the Indiana outbreak.

Role in COVID-19 Response: President Trump put Pence in charge of the crisis on Feb. 26.

Notes

  • In a 1997 op-ed, Pence dismissed the health dangers of smoking. 
  • In a 2000 op-ed, Pence claimed that “smoking does not kill.” 
  • He voted against a 2009 bill to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco products. 
  • As Indiana governor, he slashed funding for the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation office. 
  • In Congress, he compared a 2012 Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act to 9/11.

JARED KUSHNER, Director of the Office of American Innovation and Senior Advisor to President Trump (who is also his father-in-law)

Prior Job: Head of Kushner Companies, a New York City real estate development and management firm

  • Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump both continue to own their companies while serving in the White House. It took the Office of Government Ethics over a year to certify their financial disclosures, and conflicts of interest remain abundant, such as Chinese authorities approving the patent on an Ivanka Trump apparel line the day after she dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • The company faced dire financial prospects before Trump’s victory in 2016. Since then, foreign investors have made frequent deals with Kushner Companies to parley influence with Trump. This includes Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who has developed a personal friendship with Kushner that has helped insulate him from accountability for human rights violations.
  • Deutsche Bank, one of the last lenders to do business with Trump, detected a pattern of suspicious transactions between Kushner Companies and Russian oligarchs. Its compliance department wanted to flag these transactions to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, but was overruled by Deutsche Bank management.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Though not on the official task force, Kushner runs a separate effort characterized as an “all-of-private sector” response. His team, which includes a former roommate and a private equity executive invested in healthcare companies, has cut across traditional federal jurisdictions and maintains few checks on conflicts of interest.

  • Kushner’s team works parallel to the official coronavirus response led by Mike Pence. His authority exceeds even Alex Azar, the one-time head of the coronavirus response. One anonymous White House official said of Kushner’s power over the crisis response, “I don’t know how our government operates anymore.”
  • Private sector actors reporting to Kushner work side-by-side with public servants in at least FEMA, HHS, and USAID.
  • The only two checks on conflicts of interest within Kushner’s private-sector team are, according to one official, “voluntary service agreements that were vetted by career legal professionals — and that there is no one doing procurement, outside of government officials.”
  • The watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has already flagged multiple potential cases of lawbreaking arising from these lax ethical standards.
  • As Trump has realized the gravity of the coronavirus crisis, he has leaned more and more on Kushner to handle “nearly every major problem area facing the administration.” Ironically, early on in the crisis, Kushner told his father-in-law that media coverage was exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus. This likely played a role in Trump’s initially sluggish response, which has caused a far worse outbreak than was necessary.
  • Kushner’s team fields many pitches, responds largely to short-term problems, and lacks a clear focus. The only chain of command is that all involved report directly to Kushner. As a result, it is difficult for the group to stay focused, and team members often do not know what other parts of the group are working on.
  • In March, Kushner urged President Trump to ban some travel from Europe. The bungled policy rollout (European Union leaders weren’t even informed ahead of time) led to massive gluts of travelers stranded in American airports, almost certainly spreading the virus dramatically.
  • Vice President Pence asked Kushner to help merge his and the President’s communications staffs to clarify coronavirus messaging. Kushner used it as an opportunity to put his own allies, including recently-departed White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, onto the communications team. The White House’s messaging remains chaotic.
  • Kushner persuaded his father-in-law to talk about a Google-developed website to rout users to coronavirus testing sites at a March 14 press event. Contrary to Trump’s statements at the event, the website was not only still in development, it was only planned for limited use in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Notes:


ROBERT REDFIELD, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Prior Job: Co-Founder of the Institute of Human Virology at University of Maryland School of Medicine

Role in COVID-19 Response: Key member of coronavirus task force. 

  • Redfield’s CDC made the decision to leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers aboard the ship, which later became the largest source of U.S. coronavirus cases.
  • The CDC discarded an effective COVID-19 testing procedure approved by the WHO and implemented in multiple countries. It instead tried to create its own kit that could test for both COVID-19 and other similar viruses. Only after distributing these kits in early February did CDC realize they produced frequent false positives for the other viruses. Yet it only allowed labs to test exclusively for COVID-19 after public pressure in late February. Some local labs remain unsure if even the COVID-19 tests distributed by the CDC are accurate.
  • The CDC’s botched testing development process prevented the US from conducting ‘surveillance testing’ to track the virus’ spread before patients required hospital care. America’s outsized vulnerability to coronavirus is directly linked to failings on Redfield’s watch, even as Redfield remains a little known figure.
  • The CDC also insisted that states send results back to its headquarters in Atlanta for the first full month of confirmed US cases. This meant the United States could only process 350 to 500 tests per day as a country. 
  • As of early March, the CDC is not publishing the number of people tested for coronavirus on its website. Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen said “in my view, the biggest scandal is that sort of response.” In absence of official numbers, The Atlantic has had to compile state-level data and investigative work to publish a rough estimate. 
  • As of March 9, The Atlantic estimates 4,384 Americans had been tested in total. By the same point in its outbreak, South Korea was testing 15,000 people per day
  • Emails from Redfield to CDC colleagues show him consistently downplaying the danger of the virus and talking up the agency’s management and preparedness. In a Jan. 28 email, he writes that “the virus is not spreading in the U.S. at this time,” even though the first U.S. case was confirmed eight days prior and epidemiologists believe the virus began circulating days after patient zero arrived in the US.
  • On March 3, when it was clear that the virus was circulating throughout the US and the country was poised for a dangerously uncontrolled outbreak, Redfield wrote to CDC colleagues “Confronting global outbreaks and protecting Americans is what we do. More and more, people are turning to us for guidance, and we respond consistently with evidence-based information and professionalism.”
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci and Redfield are known to “loathe each other.

Notes: 

  • Before joining government, Redfield was on the board of Children’s AIDS Fund, a fundamentalist Christian organization which advocates an abstinence-only response to HIV and has received federal funding for its work in Uganda and Zambia. 
  • In 1985, he fought the CDC to force mandatory HIV screenings in the US military, which both barred recruits and segregated active-duty soldiers. HIV-positive recruits were put in so-called “HIV Hotels.”
  • He was accused of manipulating research for an experimental HIV vaccine in the mid-1990’s. Though he was cleared of the charges, the reason why was never made public
  • Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist Laurie Garrett told the Financial Times “Redfield is about the worst person you could think of to be heading the CDC at this time. He lets his prejudices interfere with the science, which you cannot afford during a pandemic.”
  • Most previous CDC directors have experience running public health agencies for cities or states, due to the managerial skills needed differing from pure medical knowledge. Redfield has no such prior experience.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator

Prior Job: Ambassador-at-Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator. Appointed by Obama.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Senior Pence task force member and referred to by Pence as “my right arm.” 

  • She is essentially the Coronavirus Czar, the point person for the White House’s response.
  • She was appointed on February 27, 2020. She has mostly stayed out of the public eye. 

Notes:

  • Birx is a highly-regarded public health expert across both sides of the aisle. 
  • She has avoided criticizing the White House’s response prior to her appointment, saying “It’s clear that the early work of the president, both with travel restrictions and the ability to quarantine, has bought us the time and space to have this task force be very effective.”
  • At least one anonymous State Department official, though not critical of Birx, did question why the administration’s task force is staffed so heavily with HIV experts rather than veterans of the 2014 ebola crisis. 

MONCEF SLAOUI, Vaccine Czar

Prior Job: Partner at venture capital firm Medicxi. Before that, Head of Pharmaceutical R&D and Chairman of Vaccines division at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

  • In 2012, GSK pled guilty to the largest healthcare fraud case in American history at the time, paying a settlement of $3 billion. GSK promoted drugs for unapproved uses and offered kickbacks to doctors who prescribed its products.
  • Slaoui oversaw GSK’s $720 million acquisition of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. Sirtris developed experimental anti-aging treatments based on the molecule resveratrol, and was known for putting out public statements like “One hundred years from now, people will maybe be taking these molecules on a daily basis to prevent heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”

Role in COVID-19 Response: Tapped to head administration’s vaccine efforts.

  • Slaoui is not a government employee, meaning he is not required to disclose or divest any stock holdings or positions that pose conflicts of interest.
  • Slaoui told administration officials that he does not want to sell his GSK stock. GSK is a major Trump administration partner in the COVID-19 vaccine development process.
  • Slaoui sat on the board of Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company Moderna, which is seeking to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. He only resigned upon being appointed by President Trump. Slaoui’s stock holdings in Modern jumped nearly $2.4 million on May 18, just days after his appointment, when Moderna trumpeted positive preliminary results of its COVID-19 vaccine research. Slaoui says he will donate this windfall to cancer research. His stock options with Moderna were worth multiple millions before he joined the Trump administration.

SEEMA VERMA, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Prior Job: Founder and CEO of SVC Inc, a consultancy which helped Republican governors implement punitive Medicaid work requirements under Obamacare.

  • Verma designed Indiana’s Medicaid system at the same time that she was an employee of Hewlett-Packard, one of the largest Medicaid vendors in Indiana.
  • Exclusion to accessing publicly funded healthcare is a unique (among developed countries) problem facing America as it addresses this pandemic.
  • Verma worked closely with Vice President Mike Pence to design Indiana’s Medicaid system, which denies many Indianans healthcare they would receive in states with more compassionate political elites. 

Role in COVID-19 Response: Member of Pence task force.

  • The Trump administration refuses to allow states to loosen Medicaid enrollment restrictions so more people can get treatment for coronavirus. This breaks a precedent which has been followed under presidents of both parties, including during Hurricane Katrina and the H1N1 “swine flu” panic. It directly reflects Verma’s involvement in the Trump administration.
  • “Medicaid could be the nation’s biggest public health responder, but it’s such an object of ire in this administration,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a Medicaid expert at George Washington University. “Their ideology is clouding their response to a crisis.”

Notes:

  • Verma’s department caused an all-day email outage in HHS on Feb. 23, just as the department was trying to coordinate emergency coronavirus funding. Verma had not informed any other part of HHS about her team’s plan to send thousands of messages in a test process. The failed test crashed HHS’ email system. It’s part of a pattern: Verma’s CMS has caused constant IT snafus for over a year. Even still, on March 10, Verma pleaded with the White House to restore her power over her agency’s email system.
  • Among Verma’s first actions as CMS Administrator was a letter to the nation’s governors urging them to impose premiums, charge for emergency room visits, and implement employment requirements on Medicaid recipients.
  • Verma criticized “Medicare for All” proposals in a July 2018 speech, prompting a Hatch Act lawsuit (she allegedly violated federal law by engaging in political activity while an employee of the executive branch.)
  • Verma and HHS Secretary Alex Azar have a long-running feud about who should receive credit for White House efforts to replace Obamacare. Verma blames Azar for unflattering news stories about her spending taxpayer money on a public relations push to appear on Glamour magazine.

ALEX AZAR, Secretary of Health and Human Services

Prior Job: President of Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, and an Eli Lilly lobbyist before that. 

Role in COVID-19 Response: Initially positioned to lead the administration’s response to the crisis

  • After Azar told a House committee that a COVID-19 vaccine would not be affordable because “we need the private sector to invest”, Trump sidelined Azar and appointed Vice President Pence to lead the response. Pence has not disavowed Azar’s comments or made any indication that he will seek price controls on a vaccine. 

Notes: 

  • Azar helped overrule the State Department’s decision to avoid flying the Diamond Princess passengers home.
  • Azar defended the Administration’s cuts to HHS and CDC even after coronavirus began to spread internationally. 
  • Azar told lawmakers on a phone call that a string of cases at meatpacking plants were linked more to the “home and social” aspects of their lives, rather than being forced back to work by an executive order from President Trump. Trump used the Defense Production Act to compel meatpackers back to work, but has not invoked the Defense Production Act to generate more PPE or respirators, as of May 7.
  • Azar worked closely with his Chief of Staff, Brian Harrison, to lead HHS’ day-to-day response to Covid-19. While he had served in government before during the Bush administration, prior to joining HHS under Azar, Harrison ran a dog-breeding company from 2012 – 2018 called Dallas Labradoodles. Initial media reports played up this unrelated experience, while downplaying his prior service.
  • Azar’s feuds with fellow Trump pandemic responders Seema Verma and Joe Grogan previously consumed so much time and energy that Vice President Pence had to give him and Verma a scolding in the Oval Office. One senior official described the Azar-Verma spat as “a fucking soap opera.”

ANTHONY FAUCI, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Prior Job: Fauci has directed NIAID since 1984 and inspires the most confidence of any member of the task force.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Pence task force member.

  • Fauci has frequently publicly clarified President Trump’s false statements about COVID-19. He has corrected the record about symptoms, probable time to a vaccine, and more.
  • For the most part, Fauci has not publicly called the President wrong about anything, merely framing his corrections as clarifying the President’s statements. However, when asked in a hearing if Trump’s assertion that there would soon be a vaccine had any merit, Fauci said “No. I made myself very clear in my opening statement.” When asked if the worst is yet to come, he replied “Yes. Yes it is.”

Notes:

  • Fauci made a number of contributions to medical understanding of how HIV breaks down the human immune system. He also helped design President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

STEVEN MNUCHIN, Secretary of the Treasury

Prior Job: Career Wall Street banker and trader.

  • Mnuchin led OneWest Bank from 2009 – 2015, during which time it repeatedly broke foreclosure laws including illegally forcing homeowners out of houses.
  • California’s attorney general’s office found OneWest committed over 1,000 legal violations. Then-attorney general Kamala Harris declined to pursue the case.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Pence task force member and major administrator of the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion bailout bill. One journalist wrote, “Mnuchin, the unelected former Goldman Sachs banker, Hollywood financier, and campaign money man, may well be the most powerful person in Washington.”

  • Mnuchin took the lead in negotiating the third coronavirus response bill with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The final bill provided Mnuchin with a $500 billion “slush fund” to bail out industries as he sees fit. While the March 25 draft eliminated earlier language which would have allowed Mnuchin to withhold the names of companies he bails out for up to six months, it still grants him wide authority to send taxpayer money to large corporations with few strings attached.
  • The only oversight of Mnuchin’s powers under the CARES Act comes from an inspector general and a congressional panel. However, they can only investigate Mnuchin’s conduct after he has already used CARES Act powers, rather than preventing harms in the first place. Moreover, the congressional panel lacks subpoena power. In his signing statement for the CARES Act, Trump asserted that any reports from the inspector general about Mnuchin’s conduct must be supervised by the President first.
  • Mnuchin is also the point man on a separate $50 billion bailout fund specifically for airlines. He will ultimately determine if the government takes equity stakes in firms like Boeing, though he has indicated he will leave it up to the firms to decide. Since Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun indicated he would walk away from a deal which involved any public ownership should public funds rescued his company, this seems unlikely.
  • Mnuchin is responsible for distributing the means-tested one-time $1,200 checks to each American citizen allocated by the CARES Act.
  • Mnuchin was added to the task force after Pence took over its leadership.
  • He initially downplayed the economic costs of the coronavirus to the financial and general press.
  • Trump’s response to the single-largest stock market drop since 2008 on March 9, 2020 was to float payroll tax cuts and emergency business loans administered through the Small Business Administration. Mnuchin would likely oversee such economic policies.

Notes:


JUSTIN MUZINICH, Deputy Treasury Secretary

Prior Job: President of Munich & Co., an asset manager which has prospered under the Federal Reserve and Treasury’s coronavirus policies.

  • Muzinich & Co. manages wealthy investors’ money, including investment in risky “junk” bonds. For the first time in its history, the Fed is buying up corporate debt, which has sent the market for junk bonds roaring back to life.
  • Muzinich retained his stake in the family company for his first year in the Trump administration, only releasing his direct financial stake after Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 passed.
  • Even then, Muzinich did not fully divest — he instead transferred his ownership stake to his father, who agreed to pay him for the shares with interest years down the road. Law professor and ethics specialist Kathleen Clark said “This is something akin to a fake divestiture.”
  • Even under the most charitable interpretation of Muzinich’s transfer to his father, he retains a financial interest in the company. His father now owes him over $50 million, which will naturally come from the success of the family business.
  • Muzinich reported that his holdings in the family business were worth at least $60 million upon entering the Trump administration. The actual value could be higher — ethics rules don’t require a specific estimate for assets worth more than $50 million.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Point man for Treasury’s coronavirus policies.

  • While Treasury Secretary Mnuchin negotiated the CARES Act and consolidated a great deal of power over the economy in the Treasury, Muzinich has actually managed Treasury’s use of these powers.
  • Muzinich communicates daily with Federal Reserve officials.
  • Muzinich oversaw about two-thirds of the department before the crisis hit. Treasury was understaffed well before COVID-19.
  • Muzinich was a major negotiator on behalf of the Trump administration for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act before he was nominated to be Deputy Treasury Secretary.

Notes

  • Muzinich & Co. officials have praised the Federal Reserve’s COVID-19 response. One said on a webinar “The Fed has been about as supportive, helpful, accommodative — whatever word you want to use — as anyone can imagine.”
  • ProPublica contacted four ethics officials, including two former Treasury ethics lawyers, about Muzinich’s arrangement with his father. None could recall anything similar, and three of the four said it would not resolve his conflicts.
  • Depending on how Muzinich reported his transaction with his father to the IRS, he may not even have had to pay capital gains taxes.
  • Muzinich met with many insurance companies while negotiating the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and the final bill included several carve-outs for the insurance industry. Insurance companies account for 17 of Muzinich & Co.’s 89 clients, though it is unknown if Justin Muzinich met specifically with his family firm’s clients while negotiating the 2017 tax bill.
  • In February, Muzinich & Co. started a new line of business lending money to airlines. The CARES Act, which was signed in late March, provides for $50 billion in grants and loans to the airline industry, to be distributed by the Treasury, with almost no transparency or clarity on process.
  • Muzinich told Congressional Democrats in his confirmation hearing that he believed the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would pay for itself. It has not.

JOE GROGAN, Director of the Domestic Policy Council

Prior Job: Lobbyist for Gilead Sciences, a pharmaceutical corporation

  • On Monday, March 2nd, Trump hosted executives from Gilead, along with other pharma giants, to discuss a vaccine.
  • Gilead was eyeing a merger with Kite Pharma right before Grogan joined the Trump administration. He immediately worked on a project with HHS related to Kite Pharma’s CAR-T cancer treatment, and only left the project after Gilead finalized its merger.
  • At Gilead, Grogan lobbied HHS about the 340B drug discount program. In the Trump administration, Grogan led a working group which considered reforms to 340B.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Pence task force member.

Notes: 

  • Grogan went even further than Vice President Pence or Attorney General Barr in his enthusiasm to kill the Affordable Care Act.
  • Like Seema Verma, Grogan is in a grudge match with Health and Human Services Secretary Azar. Grogan frequently supersedes Azar in matters of the latter’s jurisdiction.
  • Grogan was a longtime loyalist to former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. With Mulvaney out, Grogan’s position in the White House is more tenuous. 

LARRY KUDLOW, Director of the National Economic Council

Prior Job: Financial commentator on CNBC.

  • Kudlow was a part of Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget.
  • Kudlow was the chief economist at Bear Stearns from 1987 – 1994. He was also an economics counsel at A.B. Laffer & Associates, whose founder proposed the infamous “Laffer Curve.” Notably, Kudlow has no formal degree in economics.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • Kudlow has echoed Trump’s calls to restart economic activity far earlier than public health experts recommend, despite the massive risk of high death tolls. On March 25, Kudlow claimed that after the White House’s guidances on social distancing expire in early April, states with low numbers of confirmed cases can end social distancing quickly. He even said that the economic stimulus bill might lead to a rebound in the economy by late 2020. An Imperial College analysis found that ending social distancing early, even with precautionary measures similar to what Kudlow proposes, could lead to 2.2 million deaths, or a scale one-third the size of the Holocaust.
  • Kudlow was added to the task force after Pence took over its leadership.
  • As stocks fell on Feb. 25, 2020 Kudlow said “The virus story is not going to last forever. To me, if you are an investor out there and you have a long-term point of view, I would suggest very seriously taking a look at the market, the stock market, that is a lot cheaper than it was a week or two ago.”
  • Three days before the March 9, 2020 stock meltdown — the single largest stock market drop since 2008 — Kudlow told CNBC that the virus was “relatively contained … pretty close to airtight” and that he would “prefer a targeted approach, a rather micro approach” to economic relief. He urged Americans to “stay at work. We should stay at work.”

Notes:

  • Trump’s economic relief proposal appears to be centered on a payroll tax cut. Kudlow has a long association with supply-side economics and prescribing tax cuts as a panacea to all economic woes. 

JEROME ADAMS, Surgeon General of the United States

Prior Job: Indiana State Health Commissioner, initially appointed by Governor Mike Pence in 2017.

  • He was the top health official during the HIV outbreak. In an NPR interview he didn’t say if he would advise setting up a needle exchange to stop an outbreak (even though this is shown to prevent HIV spread.)
  • He has since rebranded himself as “a strong proponent of needle exchanges.”

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.


BEN CARSON, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Prior Job: Neurosurgeon and 2016 candidate for President.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • In an interview on Sunday, March 8th, Carson refused to explain what, if any, plan the administration had for handling the Grand Princess cruise ship scheduled to dock in Oakland, California the next day.

Notes:


ANTHONY CUCCINELLI, Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services

Prior Job: Attorney General of Virginia and Republican political operative.

  • He ran for Governor in 2013 and came within 2.5 points of winning.
  • Cuccinelli’s history in politics includes homophobia, xenophobia, and litigation against climate scientists.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • In a Fox News interview, he did not rule out an unfounded conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese biochemical lab.
  • In a CPAC panel discussion, he tied the coronavirus to xenophobic border crisis fears despite no evidence whatsoever indicating that coronavirus entered the US across the Mexican or Canadian borders: “When you are talking about a pandemic, and you have a border crisis … we do not have facilities that can quarantine tens, scores, hundreds, or thousands of people.”
  • While on the task force, he sent a tweet expressing confusion about a paywalled map of the virus’ spread developed by the University of Maryland. Cuccinelli appeared unaware of what a paywall is. 

Notes:

  • In 2004, Cuccinelli claimed that same-sex marriage activists planned to “dismantle sodomy laws” and “get education about homosexuals and AIDS in public schools.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security, which houses Citizenship and Immigration Services, ran regular simulations and models on what would happen if a pandemic struck American soil from at least 2005 – 2017. But in May 2016, the Department appointed Robert Hanson to manage this and other programs. He let the pandemic response simulations gather dust in favor of pursuing cybersecurity projects because “cyber is the magic word to attract money,” according to one anonymous official. Now, DHS is having trouble even locating the files on older pandemic simulations to guide policymakers. Said one Obama-era DHS official, “We should not be surprised that a department that has for the last three and a half years viewed itself solely as a border enforcement agency seems ill-equipped to address a much greater threat to the homeland.”

ROBERT O’BRIEN, National Security Adviser

Prior Job: Founder of white-collar criminal defense and arbitration law firm Larson O’Brien

  • Appointed by President George W. Bush to a position at the United Nations, and later the State Department’s Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan. (Yes, that was a real thing.)
  • Advisor to Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz’s presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2016 respectively.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • The National Security Council, which O’Brien chairs, ordered federal health officials to treat planning meetings as highly classified. They’ve even demanded officials use a SCIF, a room for top-secret deliberations, to plan out coronavirus policy. Because of this, health experts and doctors without top-secret clearance (because why would they need it before now) have been unable to join important planning meetings. One unnamed senior official theorized that the meetings were so highly classified to prevent leaks, a known anxiety of the President’s, but one which seems irrelevant in a pandemic situation.
  • In early February, O’Brien acknowledged on a panel that the coronavirus would likely impact Chinese-American trade relations and Chinese purchases of agriculture exports.

Notes:

  • O’Brien publicly defended Trump’s pardon for accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher.
  • Trump sent O’Brien to the Swedish trial of rapper A$AP Rocky. O’Brien told the press “The president sent me here, so it’s totally appropriate. I also help free people that are held by governments, so unjustly detained Americans.”

STEVE BIEGUN, Deputy Secretary of State

Prior Job: International lobbyist for Ford Motor Company.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • Biegun carried out Pence’s decision to advise Americans against cruise ship travel in early March. The decision did not reach President Trump’s desk.

Notes:

  • Before assuming the Deputy Secretary position, Biegun directed the Trump administration’s North Korea policy.

JOEL SZABAT, Acting Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy and Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs

Prior Job: Transportation department member since 2002. Has served as secretary of several sub-divisions, including Management and Budget and Maritime Administration.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

  • No reporting has indicated that Szabat was consulted about how to handle either high-profile cruise ship outbreak.

Notes:

  • The Trump administration is weighing a bailout of the airline industry due to coronavirus. Congressional Republican leaders appear open to the idea. 
  • As Assistant Secretary for Aviation, Szabat has direct jurisdiction over airline consolidation and regulation. Decades of permissive aviation policy enabled the deaths and chaos caused by the Boeing 737 meltdown, documented here.

MATTHEW POTTINGER, Deputy National Security Adviser

Prior Job: Senior Associate with hedge fund Davidson Kempner Capital Management. Hired as NSC staff in 2017.

  • Military intelligence officer from 2005 – 2010. Co-wrote a report on Afghanistan with Michael Flynn.
  • Before service, he was a reporter for Reuters and Wall Street Journal. Covered SARS outbreak. 

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

Notes:

  • The Chinese government expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in late February over a Journal column headlined “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” The NSC condemned the decision. Pottinger is a former Journal reporter and a China hardliner on the NSC. 


ROBERT BLAIR, Senior Adviser to the White House Chief of Staff

Prior Job: Associate Director for National Security Programs in Office of Management and Budget.

  • Blair followed former Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to the White House. Now that Mulvaney has been fired, Blair’s current status is unclear.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

Notes:


CHRISTOPHER LIDDELL, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination

Prior Job: Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer of General Motors. 

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

Notes: 

  • In 2018, Politico reported that “multiple people have complained that Liddell, who came from the business world, knows very little about policy” and that Liddell himself has “acknowledged his lack of policy credentials in conversations with other administration officials.” His job title is “Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination.”

DEREK KAN, Executive Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget

Prior Job: Undersecretary of Transportation. Kan was a General Manager at Lyft before joining the Trump administration in 2017.

  • Kan has also been a management consultant at Bain & Company and a policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Role in COVID-19 Response: Task force member.

Notes:

  • Rumors circulated that the White House considered Kan for a Fed Board seat in 2019.
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