At the start of the summer, the federal government released guidelines to reopen the US economy, then left it to the states to figure out how the job would be done. The poorly organized reopening eventually resulted in a surge of new infections and thousands of Covid-19 related deaths. While there is a constitutional argument that public health is a state responsibility, recently released audio of Jared Kushner suggests deferring action on reopening to the governors was a political calculation — a successful reopening could be credited to the President, but any failure would be blamed on the governors instead.
In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Kushner discusses the President’s political strategy regarding reopening. “The president…basically [says] no, no, no, no, I own the opening. Because again, the opening is going to be very popular,” Kushner says. “If it opens in the wrong way, the question will be, did the governors follow the guidelines we set out or not?”
This raises questions as to whether all federal policies on Covid-19 were selected with Election Day in mind. On testing, for example, “the states have to own the testing. The federal government should not own the testing…it’s got to be up to the governors,” says Kushner in an apparent attempt to shift any blame for testing failures onto the states.
With Election Day approaching, the Trump administration seems to be pinning its reelection odds to this Covid-19 blame-shifting. The plan is simple: the federal government sets out guidelines for reopening and testing but provides little substantive support; if the states fail to control their outbreaks, they take the blame, and the federal government moves on.
Even as Dr. Fauci and other public health experts were advising Americans to stay home, wear masks, and get tested to keep the outbreak under control, the Trump administration undermined their efforts to get people back to work. “We’ve now put out rules to get back to work. Trump’s now back in charge. It’s not the doctors,” Kushner said. He continues, “The guidelines…[were] like Trump getting the country back from the doctors.” Getting people back to work was a last-ditch effort to revive the dying economy. Ironically, sending people back to work caused the pandemic to strike back with a vengeance.
Compare Trump’s blame-shifting approach to Covid-19 to President Bush’s approach to pandemic preparedness. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and deadly diseases like Avian Flu and SARS, Americans grew more cautious about biological warfare and pandemics. In response, Bush created a national pandemic preparedness strategy. This included a UN partnership on pandemic information transparency, launching a national biosurveillance initiative, stockpiling drugs and vaccines, increasing funding for pandemic preparedness, developing emergency plans for states and localities, and more.
President Bush approached pandemics with federal responsibility. He integrated international cooperation, federal response, and local preparedness in his plan to beat the disease. Alternatively, Trump officials were aware of the virus as early as November 2019 and did not address pandemic preparedness. The federal response was limited to meager stimulus checks and policy guidelines, then states and localities were left to figure out the pandemic response on their own.
With the election looming and the pandemic without an end in sight, it seems the fate of the country rests in the hands of the voters. Trump seems content to allow the virus to continue spreading as a vaccine works towards development. Recently, it seems the President is willing to ignore the threat entirely, pushing a narrative that Covid-19 is on the decline. We know where his approach has led us, with positive Covid-19 test rates higher than ever in the United States. If we want a different outcome than the one we have today, we must vote tomorrow with our health and our future in mind.