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Elizabeth Warren calls for investigation into Trump’s politicization of Covid-19

Exclusive: Trump has repeatedly played politics with American lives, Warren and others say in a new letter.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a podium, backed by an American flag.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a news conference concerning the extension of eviction protections in the next coronavirus bill, at the US Capitol on July 22, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

President Trump has made every aspect of his response to Covid-19 political, from his resistance to mask-wearing to his insistence on reopening schools to his sparring with Democratic governors over lifesaving tests and personal protective equipment.

His administration has even been accused of scrapping a nationwide testing plan after a team convened by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner determined that the epidemic would hit blue states the hardest and Democratic governors could be blamed for it.

Now, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is calling for an investigation of Trump’s politicization of the virus and the unnecessary death and damage it may have caused. In a letter sent on Tuesday and obtained by Vox exclusively ahead of publication, Warren and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) write that “President Trump and his advisors have repeatedly put their partisan political interests ahead of the health and welfare of the American people.”

They detail a host of allegations, including reports that Trump pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to weaken its recommended restrictions for reopening churches, and that he agreed to pay for National Guard troops in only two states, Florida and Texas, because their governors made “special, direct cases to the President.”

Echoing a call that Warren, Blumenthal, and Markey first made in April, the senators ask the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), an oversight body created by the CARES Act, to investigate the Trump administration’s conduct.

It’s unclear whether the PRAC will take up such an investigation or what effect it would have — the committee has not responded publicly to the senators’ April letter. And Trump has already intervened in the operations of the group, removing its leader in April after citing nonspecific “reports of bias.”

Still, the senators’ letter adds to the chorus of voices charging that the president has turned a national crisis into an opportunity for political gain, effectively leaving tens of thousands of Americans to die.

“Americans are seeking trustworthy, objective information and leadership to help them navigate this unprecedented crisis, but the administration’s repeated prioritization of President Trump’s political interests calls into question the integrity of every action of the federal government,” they write. “It will be impossible to develop an effective federal response until this partisan interference is addressed and public trust can be restored.”

Warren and her colleagues say Trump has repeatedly played politics with a national crisis

In addition to a call for an investigation, the letter by Warren and colleagues also serves as a public indictment of the president’s Covid-19 response, during which he has admitted to punishing those he sees as critical of him. These are just some of the ways the senators say the president has put politics ahead of American lives:

  • His administration decided not to implement a nationwide testing plan because it believed mostly Democrats were dying. By early April, such a plan had been developed by a team led by Kushner, Vanity Fair reported in July. But, one expert told the magazine, a member of the team expressed the view that because the virus was hitting blue states hardest, a nationwide strategy didn’t make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” the expert told Vanity Fair. Ultimately, a nationwide plan was largely abandoned and most testing was left to states, resulting in bottlenecks, delays, and, likely, deaths. “The federal government has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility to manage and improve the country’s testing infrastructure, deepening our national emergency and costing lives,” the senators write.
  • He plays favorites among states, rewarding loyal Republican governors with federal dollars. For example, Trump reportedly promised to pay the full cost of sending National Guard troops to Florida and Texas to help with the pandemic response, but did not do the same for other states. “The National Governors Association reported that governors across the country had asked for the same arrangement, including in states with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, but the only requests granted initially were those from Texas and Florida, whose governors enjoy a close personal and political relationship with the President and that had voted for President Trump in the 2016 election,” the senators write; “other states will face 25 percent cuts to their federal support later this month.”
  • He has pressured the CDC to change its guidelines for political ends. For example, after the agency released its initial guidance on school reopenings in July, Trump tweeted, “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” The CDC then issued new, softened guidance, the senators write, and the White House reportedly edited at least one of the documents included. “The Administration appears to have prioritized its political interest in reopening over the advice of the CDC’s public health experts, undermining the public credibility of the guidance issued by the agency and making the ongoing pandemic significantly worse,” the senators continue.
  • He has hyped unproven and potentially dangerous treatments for the virus. Earlier this year, Trump repeatedly touted the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to fight Covid-19, even claiming that he was taking it himself as a preventive measure. The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the drug in March but revoked it in June after reports that the drug was associated with serious heart problems, the senators write. But Trump administration officials criticized the FDA’s move, and Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), has filed a whistleblower complaint, saying he was pressured “to direct resources toward this unproven and ineffective treatment” in violation of FDA rules, the senators write. “These events raise concerns about whether the Trump Administration will respect the scientific process around approval or authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, with President Trump already pushing for a vaccine to be ready before Election Day.”

It’s not clear whether the letter will actually lead to an investigation. Established under the CARES Act to monitor the spending of pandemic relief funds, the PRAC released a report in June warning of delays in processing tax refunds at the IRS and potential fraud in Small Business Administration loans, among other issues. However, its work may have been stymied early on when Trump removed from his position Glenn Fine, an inspector general who had been the PRAC’s chair.

According to the New York Times, Trump did not give a specific reason for the removal, calling it part of a larger reshuffling response to reports of bias, among other issues. But Democrats at the time raised concern that Trump was meddling with the oversight panel, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warning that the president was “abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has defended its response to the Covid-19 crisis. The White House has not responded to Vox’s request for comment for this story, but spokesperson Sarah Matthews previously told Vox’s German Lopez that Trump “has led an historic, whole-of-America coronavirus response” following expert advice, and that “this strong leadership will continue.”

The senators’ letter, however, tells a different story. And whether or not the PRAC ever takes up the call to investigate, the document remains an enumeration of the ways the Trump administration appears to have ignored or actively disregarded science and public health, and the American people have suffered as a result.

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