As the U.S. death toll due to the novel coronavirus climbs, congressional Republicans want to make sure they aren't left holding the bag for the federal government's piss-poor response in the early days of the burgeoning crisis. This week, GOP lawmakers have been trying out a new excuse: impeachment. That's right—that moment when 52 of 53 Senate Republicans voted to acquit Donald Trump, ensuring he would be at the helm right as the country was facing a burgeoning public health crisis unlike any seen in decades.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave their new excuse a test run on Tuesday during an interview with a conservative radio host, arguing impeachment had "diverted the attention of the government.” Later Tuesday, Trump himself shot that idea down, saying, “I don't think I would have done any better had I not been impeached." But after being singularly responsible for voting to keep the most incompetent president in history in charge of the federal response to a pandemic, Senate Republicans are pretty desperate to pin the blame on Democrats.
“It’s unfortunate that during the early days of a global pandemic, the Senate was paralyzed by a partisan impeachment trial,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton told Politico in a deeply reported piece on the congressional response. A GOP aide added, “The entire executive branch was consumed by impeachment, and it totally distracted Congress, too.” But for impeachment, the aide said, there would have been "a lot more public oversight to scrutinize all of this.”
So on one hand, Republicans are pinning the blame on Democrats for being the only party responsible enough to hold Trump accountable for trying to extort a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 elections. On the other hand, Republicans want the public to believe the party that has spent the last decade obsessed with stripping some 20 million Americans of health care access was suddenly going to take a keen and pointed interest in, well, health care.
Of course, when Republicans had the chance to feign interest in the issue, they didn’t. Here’s what happened: On Jan. 24, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held an all-Senators briefing on the novel coronavirus. It was poorly attended, with only about 14 senators present according to Politico. But that was the briefing that first kicked off an urgent round of stock sell-offs by several GOP senators and a Democratic one. Nonetheless, the bipartisan statement following the briefing from U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Patty Murray of Washington, Jim Risch of Idaho, and Bob Menendez of New Jersey was rather bland, saying they were "monitoring the outbreak" and thanking administration officials for the briefing. "The safety of U.S. citizens here domestically, as well as in China and other affected countries, is our first priority," read the statement. "We will continue to work closely with administration officials to ensure the United States is prepared to respond.”
That's about the level of urgency one might expect from any bipartisan statement. But it was Senate Democrats who picked up from there. On Jan. 26, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the federal government to declare the novel coronavirus a public health emergency in order to free up $85 million previously allocated funds to battle infection diseases.
“Should the outbreak get worse they’re going to need immediate access to critical federal funds that at present they can’t access,” Schumer told reporters at his Manhattan office. At that point, just four cases had been confirmed in the U.S. after the first positive test had been confirmed in Washington State on Jan. 20. “We aren’t here to propel panic or stoke fear, but to rather keep a good proactive effort by the CDC from going on interrupted,” Schumer said.
Two days later, Washington Sens. Murray and Maria Cantwell sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar requesting continued updates on the nation's capacity to respond to the highly infectious disease.
“We write to express concern about the rapidly evolving 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), to urge your continued robust and scientifically driven response to the situation, and to assess whether any additional resources or action by Congress are needed at this time,” Murray and Cantwell wrote. “A quick and effective response to the 2019-nCoV requires public health officials around the world work together to share reliable information about the disease and insight into steps taken to prevent, diagnose, and treat it appropriately.”
It was also Democrats that pushed for an emergency supplemental funding bill to combat the virus at a private briefing on the matter with Sec. Azar on Feb. 5—the day Senate Republicans ultimately voted to acquit Trump on charges that he had abused his power and obstructed Congress. After leaving that closed-door meeting, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was apoplectic about the nonchalance of Trump officials. “[T]hey aren’t taking this seriously enough,” he tweeted. “Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.”
The first sign the Trump administration might be taking the novel coronavirus seriously originally came on Jan. 31, when the White House issued a ban on travelers from China and declared the public health emergency Schumer had been pushing for.
However, Trump spent the entirety of the next month downplaying the threat. At a Feb. 10 campaign rally, Trump declared, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away." He mocked "Cryin' Chuck Schumer" on Feb. 25 for urging Trump to ask for more than $2.5 billion for an initial supplemental to respond to the novel coronavirus. On Feb. 26, Trump predicted at a White House briefing that in a couple of days the number of coronavirus cases in the nation would be "down to close to zero," adding, "that’s a pretty good job we’ve done." Mission accomplished.
The only thing Trump was really focused on after Senate Republicans voted to clear him in early February was a complete and total purge of nonloyalists in his administration and getting back to his beloved campaign rallies.
On Feb. 13, Trump tweeted, "We want bad people out of our government!”
On Feb. 21, the Washington Post reported, "President Trump has instructed his White House to identify and force out officials across his administration who are not seen as sufficiently loyal, a post-impeachment escalation that administration officials say reflects a new phase of a campaign of retribution and restructuring ahead of the November election."
Trump tapped Johnny McEntee, a 29-year-old personal aide and former body man to the president, to run that operation. Top officials at the Defense Department and White House National Security Council were forced out. The White House was also combing through people at the Justice and State Departments. No mention in the article of the novel coronavirus or elevating people with solid expertise and time-tested credentials in certain aspects of governing. Trump was laser-focused on beefing up his administration with the lard of loyalists. He needed more sycophantic “yes” men, people who would feed his emaciated ego. That was Trump’s main focus in February as he started eyeing his reelection campaign.
Throughout February, the main thing that became clear both in public and private was that most top Trump officials exhibited a distinct lack of urgency about the coming pandemic. In addition, with very few exceptions, Senate Republicans weren't using any leverage to get Trump to act. Almost to a person, Senate Republicans continued to be dismissive about the threat, especially in their public statements.
Meanwhile, starting in late January, Senate Democrats started sounding the alarm bells both behind closed doors and publicly. Some of the most vocal among them were Sens. Schumer, Murray, Murphy, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was also running for president and pushed hardest on the issue among the remaining Democrats in the race.
Even by March 10, when Trump went to huddle with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, he was still selling the American people a bill of goods about the catastrophe ahead. The novel coronavirus would simply "go away, just stay calm," Trump told reporters, adding, "it's really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen." Senate Republicans just smiled along, giddily grinning ear to ear as Trump minimized the threat. For his part, McConnell announced he would simply step aside and let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi negotiate the first major coronavirus relief package directly with the White House.
By the time Pelosi had finished those painstaking negotiations and passed the relief bill through her chamber on Saturday, March 14, McConnell was nowhere to be found. He had recessed the Senate and skipped town for a long weekend away. Ultimately, the Senate would delay passing the bill—intended in part to help struggling Americans through dire financial times—for another four days.