Amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has been using lifesaving medical equipment as a way to score political points for Republicans at risk of losing their seats in November.
On Friday evening, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) became the latest Republican senator to trumpet the federal government sending fewer ventilators than are needed — and that were promised — to her state.
“Huge news for Arizona,” tweeted McSally, who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018 but was subsequently appointed to the Senate seat vacated by the death of John McCain. “I spoke with @realDonaldTrump on Wednesday afternoon to request additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile. Today, POTUS delivers with 100 ventilators headed to AZ. Thank you to President Trump and @VP for hearing our call.”
Huge news for Arizona! I spoke with @realDonaldTrump on Wednesday afternoon to request additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile. Today, POTUS delivers with 100 ventilators headed to AZ. Thank you to President Trump and @VP for hearing our call. https://t.co/A7gA8yiGvZ— Martha McSally (@SenMcSallyAZ) April 10, 2020
To be clear, with more than 3,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and growing in Arizona, the federal government coming through with 100 ventilators is preferable to none at all. But it’s also worth examining how McSally’s announcement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The state of Arizona, led by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Health Services Department Director Dr. Cara Christ, initially asked the federal government for 5,000 ventilators. That ask was approved by federal officials. But Arizona’s request was dramatically downsized to just 500 ventilators last week as it became clear that the federal government didn’t actually have the resources to follow through on its original agreement. By ultimately sending 100, the feds are fulfilling just 2 percent of what they initially agreed to send and only 20 percent of the request the state made just last week.
So while Ducey praised Trump for his “urgent action and real leadership” in sending ventilators to Arizona and thanked McSally for “advocating for these ventilators and helping to make this happen,” the Associated Press reported that the shipment “falls far short of the number originally approved by federal officials for Arizona and is just one-fifth what the state’s top public health official said is needed quickly.”
Ventilators seem to be doled out based on praise and patronage
Republicans like Ducey and McSally — who currently trails Democratic candidate Mark Kelly by somewhere between five and 12 points — have gone out of their way to avoid criticizing the president. And Trump has made it clear that avoiding criticism is a viable path to receiving what tools a state needs. During an interview with Fox News late last month, he responded to Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo (NY), Gretchen Whitmer (MI), and Jay Inslee (WA) criticizing his coronavirus response by describing his relationship with blue state leaders as “a two-way street.”
“They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that,’” Trump added.
Trump took things up a notch by telling reporters he had directed the official running the White House’s response effort, Vice President Mike Pence, to not call Inslee and Whitmer — even as hospitals in each of their states approached the point of being overwhelmed by coronavirus cases — because they aren’t “appreciative” enough of his efforts.
“When they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps, they’re not appreciative to FEMA,” Trump said. “It’s not right.”
As a result, state leaders have been reluctant to criticize Trump — even as some of them respond to the federal disfunction by banding together on their own.
NEW: @NYGovCuomo says there'll be an announcement later this afternoon on a regional re-opening plan with governors from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware.— Luis Ferré-Sadurní (@luisferre) April 13, 2020
Last month, the Post reported that while staunch Trump ally Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “promptly” received all of the supplies he asked for from the federal government, states with Democratic governors, such as Wisconsin and Illinois (not to mention New York and Michigan), were not having the same luck. It’s not clear that Trump’s political grudges drive disparities of this sort, but the Post reported some officials are “wondering whether politics is playing a role in the response.”
Also of concern is the appearance that Trump is using the equipment in a bid to help the campaigns of imperiled lawmakers like McSally. Her ventilator announcement came two days after another Republican senator facing an uphill battle to keep their seat, Cory Gardner (CO), posted a similar tweet touting a federal shipment of 100 ventilators to his state.
Thank you @realDonaldTrump, 100 ventilators and approval of our National Guard assistance is outstanding news for Colorado.— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) April 8, 2020
Coloradans are standing together as we get through the #COVID19 pandemic, even if we have to stand six feet apart. https://t.co/0d26KtMeEM
As is the case with Arizona, however, Gardner’s announcement is not all that it might appear to be. CNN broke news on April 3 that the federal government swooped in and blew up a deal that Colorado’s state government, led by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, made with a private company to acquire 500 ventilators. FEMA, instead, seized the ventilators for itself, leaving Colorado high and dry.
So the federal government ultimately provided Colorado with only one-fifth of the machines it would’ve acquired on the open market. Trump and Gardner, however, tried to reframe that development as a reflection of how the federal government and states are working together on the coronavirus response.
Some were clear-eyed about what seems to be going on. Following Gardner’s announcement, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) released a statement accusing Trump of “playing politics with public health” and adding that the president’s “mismanagement of this crisis is costing lives and livelihoods.” The Denver Post published a scathing editorial accusing Trump of treating lifesaving medical equipment “as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists. It’s the worst imaginable form of corruption — playing political games with lives. For the good of this nation during what should be a time of unity, he must stop.”
Colorado’s tale has served as a cautionary one for other states. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that officials in one state are worried enough about the federal government interfering in their efforts to buy medical supplies that “they are considering dispatching local police or even the National Guard to greet two chartered FedEx planes scheduled to arrive in the next week with millions of masks from China, according to people familiar with the planning. These people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, asked that their state not be identified to avoid flagging federal officials to their shipment.”
Put it together and the picture that emerges is one where the federal government is seizing orders of medical supplies from hospitals and states, and then at least in some instances, redistributing in a way that gives the appearance of Trump doing favors for his Republican supporters. And in a quintessentially Trumpian twist, even the Republicans who reap the rewards of this flawed system aren’t getting all that much. It’s the Trump University of pandemic responses.