The pandemic is playing out in the United States at a time when the country was stripped of vast amounts of administrative leadership as a result of Donald Trump’s failure to appoint people to fill an astonishing array of important governmental posts. He blames it on the Democrats—of course—but the real failure is caused by his lack of appreciation for government. Trump thinks government is all part of a nasty Deep State that should be shredded. So why fill holes?
Trump has been soaked in the right wing ideology of extolling the virtues of small government. To give one example, where many could be given, as soon as he got elected he announced a new policy for regulations. For every new regulation proposed his bureaucrats would have to suggest 2 that could be dropped. That sounds good no doubt to his base, but such arbitrary rules can and did hamstring government. Trump does not realize that there is such a thing as good government and does not appreciate that we need it. At few times do we need it more than during a pandemic. As a result many critical posts have been filled with temporary replacements or none at all.
Garret Graff reported on this issue in depth in Politico. He pointed out that just when we desperately need good, efficient, and compassionate bureaucracy that bureaucracy is in a shambles of Trump’s making. In fact much of it was done deliberately because Trump wanted flexibility. I suspect he likes this so he can fire personnel without going through the embarrassing process of Senate approval for a replacement, even though the Senate is controlled by Republicans.
Graff started with a reference to a concerning statement by the Surgeon General in April of 2020:
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams promised that we’re entering the darkest days of the Covid-19 epidemic: “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that,” Adams told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Adams’ metaphor, evoking the two deadliest—and most shocking—moments of modern American history, came on the fourth consecutive day that U.S. deaths from Covid-19 crossed the 1,000 mark. Across Saturday, Sunday and Monday, more Americans were killed by the novel coronavirus than in either Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks or the Civil War battle of Antietam. The days ahead surely will include an even grimmer toll.
Yet Adams’ metaphor of this as our new “9/11 moment” is more apt than he likely intended: Comparing the events is about more than just a story of casualties—it is also a story about government’s failure. Both Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks occurred, in part, because the U.S. government and intelligence failed to see the attacks looming. We were caught unprepared, and Americans paid for that mistake with their lives.
After 9/11, we swore to never let that happen again. “Never again” was the mantra handed down to the nation’s leaders by George W. Bush in the White House on September 12. We devoted billions—trillions, even—of dollars after 2001 to fixing the intelligence and information-gathering problems identified by the 9/11 Commission, and Congress and George W. Bush worked through the biggest reorganization of the government since 1947 to create two entirely new entities to help prevent “the next 9/11”: The Department of Homeland Security, an attempt to bring together all the agencies tasked with protecting the country at home, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence, a coordinator for the nation’s 17 disparate intelligence agencies to ensure that the country better understood both the big picture and the small picture of what was happening around the world.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s routine, day-to-day mismanagement of the government has left both organizations—the very entities we tasked as a nation to prevent the next 9/11—riddled with vacancies and temporary officials as the novel coronavirus rapidly spread from a small blip in China to a global health and economic catastrophe. In fact, the four top jobs at DHS and ODNI have all been filled with temporary acting officials for literally every day that Covid-19 has been on the world stage.
Those positions were created by George W. Bush—not Obama. As a result Trump’s disdain is less understandable. Nothing Obama did could be good. And they are very important positions and they are not just military or counter terrorist positions either. Intelligence, which Trump has often mocked in favor of getting intelligence from his buddy Putin, is vitally important in many respects, including preparedness for pandemics! Intelligence is broad. And in both senses of the word “intelligence” Trump lacks respect for it, and America, and in fact the world, are paying a heavy price for that disdain. As Graff reported:
While we often think of those jobs as focused on protecting against terrorism, both agencies have critical public health roles, too; U.S. intelligence spent the winter racing to understand how serious a threat Covid-19 truly was and deciphering the extent of China’s cover-up of its epidemic. Just last week, news broke about a special report prepared by U.S. intelligence documenting China’s deception about the disease’s spread—information that, had it been more accurately captured and understood, might have caused a faster, harder response and lessened the economic and personal toll of the epidemic at home.
Yet Trump has churned through officials overseeing the very intelligence that might have helped understand the looming crisis. At Liberty Crossing, the headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the government will have been without a Senate-confirmed director for eight months as of next week; last summer, Trump accepted the resignation of Dan Coats and forced out the career principal deputy of national intelligence, Sue Gordon. Coats’ temporary stand-in, career intelligence official Joseph Maguire, then served so long that he was coming close to timing out of his role—federal law usually lets officials serve only 210 days before relinquishing the acting post—when Trump ousted him too, as well as the acting career principal deputy. In their place, at the end of February—weeks after the U.S. already recorded its first Covid-19 case—Trump installed U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as his latest acting director, the role that by law is meant to be the president’s top intelligence adviser. Grenell has the least intelligence experience of any official ever to occupy director’s suite.
Graff reached the following conclusion in his investigation into this crucial issue: “The government agencies designed to protect us are riddled with vacancies and temporary officials. No wonder we’re facing a catastrophe.”
And we know what that is the case.