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Oversight report calls Trump administration response to the pandemic a ‘failure’

Panel Chairman James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) talks as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies Oct. 2 to the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.
Panel Chairman James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) talks as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies Oct. 2 to the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis. (Michael A. Mccoy/New York Times/Pool/AP)
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An interim report released Friday by House Democrats blasts the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, labeling it “among the worst failures of leadership in American history” and an “American fiasco.”

The report, by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, says the administration has consistently misled the country about the severity of the pandemic and that its lack of a national plan has hampered the ability to track, test for, treat and contain the virus. Efforts to provide economic support to Americans have been stymied by a lack of safeguards and policies that favored corporations over small business owners and failed to ensure that workers kept their jobs, the report says.

“President Trump’s decision to mislead the public about the severity of the crisis, his failure to listen to scientists about how to keep Americans healthy, and his refusal to implement a coordinated national plan to stop the coronavirus have all contributed to devastating results: more than 227,000 Americans dead, more than 8.8 million Americans infected, and a dangerous virus that continues to spread out of control nine months after it reached our nation’s shores,” the report’s introduction reads.

The release comes as the United States is experiencing a third wave of infections and hospitalizations. Record numbers of cases have been reported in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, with the more than 80,000 new cases recorded Wednesday pushing the total number of infections past 8.8 million. At least 228,000 deaths have been linked to the novel coronavirus since February.

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“Today’s report exhaustively documents what has long been clear: The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been a tragic failure,” subcommittee Chairman Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in a call with reporters on Friday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- who created the subcommittee over GOP objections -- said she would be recommending its renewal in the next Congress.

“There’s much more work to be done because what you are doing is insisting on the truth,” Pelosi said. “And that is really very important. … It’s a matter of life and death in terms of the consequences.”

But Rep. Steve Scalise, (R-La.). the ranking member on the subcommittee dismissed the report.

“Democrats’ latest partisan report issued just days before the election underscores how they’ve used the Select Subcommittee to attack President Trump and politicize the pandemic to the detriment of the American people,” he said. “Democrats’ scare tactics about schools reopening harm children’s learning and literacy. Their fearmongering on vaccine development and therapeutics undermines public health. And their support for more lockdowns, which are not supported by thousands of doctors and scientists, would destroy jobs and our economy.”

Last month, Republican members of the panel released their own report, which praised the president’s response saying he has carefully balanced health concerns with the need to reopen the economy.

“Contrary to the Democrats’ baseless claims, the facts clearly show that President Trump’s leadership during this unprecedented pandemic has our country on a path to a full recovery,” Scalise said. “From testing to vaccine development to safely reopening our economy and schools, President Trump followed the science to develop national plans that have been rapidly implemented to address an ever-changing situation.”

A White House spokesman said the report is wrong.

“Some Members of Congress have chosen to irresponsibly issue a partisan report four days before an election completely for the purpose of falsely distorting the president’s record to protect the health and safety of the American people and save millions of lives,” said Judd Deere. “From the beginning, this has been a locally executed, state-managed, federally supported response as local leaders are best positioned to make on-the-ground decision for their communities armed with science-based CDC guidelines and best practices.”

The wide-ranging critique by Democrats takes a far different view citing multiple failures by the administration, including examples where officials sidelined top scientists when their advice put them in conflict with the administration’s agenda and repeatedly weakened public health recommendations, including calls to make face coverings mandatory.

It identifies issues with pandemic-related contracting, citing examples in which Trump administration officials awarded contracts without competition to companies that lacked experience in the field or had political connections to the administration.

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In other instances, the report says, companies won contracts but failed to meet their obligations. The subcommittee also indicated it is looking into seven contracts issued by four federal agencies that raise “significant red flags.”

The report says the administration undermined efforts to help Americans who lost their jobs or were at risk of losing their homes because of the pandemic, noting that more than six months after the pandemic relief package known as the Cares Act was signed by Trump, 9 million Americans were still waiting to receive the $1,200 checks they were eligible for under the program. The report says that as a result of the subcommittee’s work, agencies have extended the deadline for individuals to claim their payments.

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And it isn’t just individuals the administration failed, the report contends, saying the Trump administration mishandled programs designed to help small businesses stay afloat.

“The Select Subcommittee’s investigations show that the Trump Administration weakened these programs by prioritizing larger and wealthier businesses over truly struggling small businesses, exacerbating inequity in the economic downturn,” the report says. “The Administration also failed to institute adequate financial controls, leading to significant fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Over the past six months, members of the select subcommittee have launched 30 investigations, sent more than 120 letters and reviewed hundreds and thousands of pages of documents. In addition, it held 15 public hearings and briefings with senior administration officials, experts in public health and economics, and members of the public who have been affected by the pandemic.

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The administration also failed to prevent companies from laying off workers even though they had received funding from a program aimed at keeping people on the job, the panel found.

“Contrary to Congress’s intent, Treasury provided [Payroll Support Program] funds to more than a dozen airline industry contractors that had engaged in mass layoffs,” the report says.

Briefings with Treasury officials and contractors and a review of tens of thousands of documents found that the agency knew companies were conducting layoffs, even as their applications for payroll support were pending, but failed to raise objections or require that furloughed employees be rehired once the money was received.

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The subcommittee sent letters to several aviation contractors that received payroll support funding urging them to halt layoffs or furloughs until the companies had spent all of their remaining PSP funds. Four companies agreed to the committee’s request, but three others declined, including one that told the subcommittee it expects to lay off an additional 125 workers in the next six months.

Despite its concerns, the subcommittee recommended that a second round of payroll support be passed by Congress as part of a broader response to the pandemic. However, it recommended that Congress amend the Cares Act to prohibit involuntary layoffs and furloughs for as long as contractors still have PSP funds.

The panel also investigated issues that have surfaced with voting in four key states, where voters may face long lines and a smaller number of places where they can cast their ballots.

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“Problems during the 2020 primary elections — including closed polling places, long lines, and poll worker shortages — highlighted the risk that some states were not prepared to carry out a free, fair, and safe general election during the pandemic,” the report notes.

The subcommittee urged states to take swift action and that the federal government support those efforts.

Erica Werner contributed to this report.