Trump killed plans for a national testing strategy, because COVID-19 ‘hit blue states hardest’

On Thursday, Vanity Fair published a detailed analysis of how the planned federal testing program headed up by Jared Kushner disintegrated into a puddle of mismanagement, hubris, and finger-pointing. As much as any other story over the last three years, it’s instructive in showing how the Trump White House acted as if it were both above the rules and smarter than the experts. Like so many other things that have happened under Trump, it’s ultimately a story about how unwillingness to accept responsibility for anything dooms everything.

Only the utter abandonment of any effort to execute a coherent national testing strategy—a decision that all its own is principally responsible for consigning 160,000 Americans to their deaths—turns out not to be the worst aspect of this story. The worst part is that Trump, Kushner, and everyone involved knew that hundreds of thousands of Americans would die if they failed to act, but they still refused to act out of a political calculation. That calculation was that American deaths in blue states would be good for Trump’s election chances. The worst thing is that Americans did not have to die in vast numbers. The United States’ worst in the world results on COVID-19 were not an accident.

On the day he announced his coronavirus response team, Trump added management of testing for the disease onto the stack of things that son-in-law Kushner was supposed to squeeze in between solving Middle East peace and providing kill lists to authoritarian dictators. Kushner responded by forming a crack team of old college buddies and real estate pals who WhatsApp’d their way to a national testing strategy with the help of advice from billionaire bankers and the occasional health expert. The end result was a plan that recognized that the United States needed a coherent national testing strategy, that states shouldn’t have to compete with each other for protective gear, and that a national contract-tracing database was required to make testing effective.

Then the White House set out to execute that plan. Step one: Illegally purchase over a million Chinese-made COVID-19 tests that turned out to be “contaminated and unusable” in a $52 million taxpayer-funded boondoggle. Step two: Decide that paying any real attention to COVID-19 might be bad for the stock market and just say f-ck it about the whole thing. Seriously.

Trump’s “political instincts” were that it was better to simply continue downplaying concerns about the virus and to keep the federal government out of the testing business. Because, of course, testing for COVID-19 might find COVID-19, which would be “bad publicity.” Besides, Dr. Deborah Birx was backing up Trump, showing models that suggested the virus would just magically disappear with the summer. Trump decided to dump the whole idea of launching any testing plan, forget about contact tracing, and abandon any pretense of a national strategy.

But even that isn’t the worst thing. 

As a member of Kushner’s team made clear, Trump didn’t just decide that turning up cases of COVID-19 by testing for them would lead to bad publicity—he decided that, because it was hitting blue states the hardest, he should just let it burn. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states,” said the source, “that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

Just to repeat that: Trump deliberately decided to let Americans die, in huge numbers, not because there was nothing that could be done, but because it was decided that it would “politically advantageous” to have people dying in states with Democratic governors.

There are acts that go beyond the need for impeachment. There are acts that are so inhumane that they go beyond comprehension. There are actions for which even imprisonment seems inadequate. 

But let’s start with impeachment. The imprisonment can come later.

Trump’s White House is finally preparing for something: Beating back oversight of coronavirus relief

Coronavirus is going to give the Trump White House another opportunity to put into play the obstruction tactics it honed during the impeachment inquiry. There’s $2 trillion in economic stimulus, including a $500 billion relief fund for businesses, about which Trump told reporters “Look, I’ll be the oversight. I’ll be the oversight.” Which, no.

Trump then nominated a White House lawyer, i.e. someone who’s been selected for loyalty to Trump, as special inspector general for pandemic recovery. Brian Miller helped obstruct investigations into Trump’s extortion of Ukraine, and now Trump wants him to do the same for investigations into pandemic recovery funds, in the guise of an inspector general—someone who’s supposed to exercise oversight rather than defend against it.

House Democrats have already started asking for documents relating to Jared Kushner’s work on supply chains for personal protective equipment and ventilators. “We are troubled by reports that Mr. Kushner’s actions—and those of outside advisers he has assembled and tasked—may be ‘circumventing protocols that ensure all states’ requests are handled appropriately,’” Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney wrote. “We are particularly troubled that Mr. Kushner’s work may even involve ‘directing FEMA and HHS officials to prioritize specific requests from people who are able to get Kushner on the phone.’”

But while the Trump White House wasn’t prepared to fight coronavirus, it’s certainly prepared to fight attempts at congressional oversight, including subpoenas.

Much of the House oversight will be run through a special select committee Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last week, to be headed by Rep. Jim Clyburn. Expect it to involve a series of protracted legal battles as White House lawyers move to block any and all information. Can’t have the peons knowing what Prince Jared’s been doing, after all. Let alone the would-be king, Donald.

Trump is using the pardon power to stroke his own ego, not advance mercy or justice

When Donald Trump suddenly gave pardons or commutations to 11 people on Tuesday, you only had to glance at several of the names to know that Trump was doing favors for people in his social circles—people like him. Now we’re getting more information on how Trump made his decisions and on his clemency plans going forward, and it’s all classic Trump.

Bernard Kerik, the corrupt former New York City police commissioner, got a call early Tuesday morning giving him just hours to get supporters to sign a letter backing a pardon. He worked the phones and got some prominent Republicans like Geraldo Rivera and Rep. Peter King to sign, and just before noon he got a personal call from Trump giving him the news. David Safavian, the former Bush administration official who called Kerik and told him to pull together the letter, also got a pardon for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Safavian works at the American Conservative Union, which is headed by the husband of a Trump adviser.

Another of Trump’s corrupt-rich-white-guys-like-me pardons went to Paul Pogue, whose family has given $200,000 to Trump’s reelection effort and whose son and daughter-in-law hang out with Don Jr. And so on. Trump did grant clemency Tuesday to a few people who weren’t corrupt rich white guys—but even they had an inside connection in the form of Alice Johnson, the woman whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018 after lobbying by Kim Kardashian West.

Since Trump seems to enjoy giving clemency—favoring personal phone calls to people not expecting clemency so he can soak up the shock and gratitude—he’ll be doing more of this in the coming months. And he has no plans to revert to the traditional process where the Justice Department vets petitions. Instead the White House is doing the Trump White House thing and having pardons overseen by “essentially an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies.” OBVIOUSLY Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is heavily involved, as is former Florida attorney general and impeachment defense team member Pam Bondi.

Mass incarceration remains out of control and it’s reasonable for presidents to use executive power to mitigate some of the harm while Congress drags its feet about making the degree of change that’s really needed. But that should look like what President Obama did, taking a hard look at excessive sentences and using an actual process to grant clemency to 1,715 people, the vast majority of them nonviolent drug offenders. Obama should have done more, because there was so much to be done, but he did do more than the 12 presidents before him—combined. Trump, instead, is treating the pardon power like another way to do personal favors and soak up the adoration he craves. It’s not about justice, it’s about Donald Trump’s ego.