He did not tweet: Wear a mask.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a history of helping to lead the U.S. response to public-health threats such as swine flu and Ebola, standing with the nation’s top medical experts to emphasize that the threat to the nation is severe. But during the months-long coronavirus pandemic that has affected much of American society, one of the country’s largest federal agencies has instead publicly promoted immigrants, anarchists and smugglers as more dangerous to the United States than a virus with a death toll that experts say could double to 410,000 by the end of the year.
“I don’t know what role, if any, DHS is playing” in the coronavirus response, said Janet Napolitano, President Barack Obama’s first DHS secretary and a former governor of Arizona. “They’re kind of MIA.”
Wolf, who led a news conference Tuesday to talk about human trafficking, did not take questions afterward.
“We’re going to keep it focused on human trafficking today. Thank you,” he said as he left a U.S. Coast Guard building on the DHS campus in Southeast D.C.
As the national agency in charge of domestic security, DHS typically plays a major role coordinating emergency supplies and amplifying urgent health messages such as the need for wearing masks and social distancing, former senior officials said. DHS can use its gravitas as an anti-terrorism agency to make clear to the public — and even to the president — that the threat is real, especially at a time when President Trump and others have played down the threat. After contracting the virus in recent weeks and recovering from a brief illness, Trump tweeted: “Don’t be afraid of covid.”
DHS spokesman Chase Jennings said in a statement Tuesday that the agency “has taken unprecedented measures to combat COVID-19, including limiting foreign travel, distributing PPE, securing the supply chain for PPE, and dispersing billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief.” He said criticism of the DHS response is “shameful” and ignores “the robust number of DHS public reports outlining DHS actions to combat COVID-19.”
Napolitano said DHS led the way in 2009, mere months after Obama took office, when swine flu began to infect millions of Americans, hospitalizing more than 270,000, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The swine flu killed nearly 12,500 before a vaccine brought it under control the next year.
Training and pandemic guides from the administration of President George W. Bush had helped the Obama administration prepare for the outbreak, she said. But one of the most important things she did, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, Napolitano said, was to appear at media briefings and on the national news to emphasize that people should stay home if they were ill, and should wash their hands and cover their sneezes to prevent spread.
She said she has seen little of that from DHS this year.
“It’s the third-largest department of the federal government, it’s got massive responsibilities and capabilities, and they should all have been marshaled on this pandemic,” she said.
DHS took a similar role when Ebola surfaced in 2014; officials scrambled to keep the deadly pathogen out of the United States and to inform the public about the virus’s spread.
Wolf did appear at White House task force briefings, when they were being held. DHS has promoted mask-wearing and other precautions on its website and has disseminated information, including through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to disasters such as hurricanes. DHS also produces a weekly report outlining its efforts to combat the virus. Last week’s mentioned an updated question-and-answer list and seizures of counterfeit masks.
But these have not been the attention-grabbing messages on the Twitter feeds of Wolf and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli, or on the DHS’s main Twitter account, which has 2.1 million followers. Wolf rarely mentions coronavirus on Twitter, though he sent well-wishes to Trump and first lady Melania Trump when they recently contracted the virus.
Cuccinelli has pointed out the threats of the spread of the novel coronavirus at the border, which has been effectively shut down under the Trump administration’s emergency measures. He also mentioned a crowded water park in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first detected, saying in August: “What could go wrong?”
But DHS officials have not trained that critical lens inward, such as toward Trump’s rallies or elsewhere in the United States, where the virus has run wild.
Wolf and his deputies routinely peel off their masks during public events to speak to indoor audiences — as they did again Tuesday despite signs inside the agency saying: “If you’re moving, you’re masked.”
“The overarching messages from DHS are to prop up the president in his reelection bid,” said David Lapan, a retired Marine who served as a DHS spokesman during the Trump administration. “They’re about sanctuary cities. They’re about human trafficking. They’re about protests. All the things you’re hearing from Wolf and Cuccinelli are playing right to the president’s primary focus. The president doesn’t want to talk about coronavirus; he doesn’t want to talk about masks.”
Some former officials do not fault DHS for paying attention to its other duties, since it is a massive agency responsible for patrolling borders and coasts, maintaining airport security and investigating human trafficking. The agency this year also has contended with hurricanes, wildfires and ballot-box security with a national election two weeks away.
And the agency just unveiled the Center for Countering Human Trafficking, an agency to oversee work that victims say has saved lives.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and others praised Wolf late last month at his nomination hearing, saying the department has worked “tirelessly” to protect the nation from the virus and has done an “extraordinary job” screening travelers, distributing protective equipment and targeting fraud.
“I know that’s the not the narrative in the mainstream media or from many of my colleagues,” Johnson said. He would days later test positive for the novel coronavirus. “Covid’s an act of God.”
But others said the agency should have been more prepared for the pandemic and was slow to respond and to provide protective equipment at the outset.
Wolf had a challenging exchange in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in February when he struggled to answer questions about the coronavirus at a time when fears were intensifying worldwide. Days later, a city outside Seattle would have the first major covid-19 outbreak in the United States.
The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security is so concerned about the department that it convened the Future of DHS Project to gather insights from former secretaries and acting secretaries of DHS and a bipartisan group of more than 100 homeland and national security experts to plot a path forward in November.
In a report, the experts ticked off a litany of government failures: A faster response could have cut the death toll by at least half, according to one model. Detailed pandemic playbooks published between 2006 and 2016 were not activated or publicized, and covid-19 has cost the economy trillions of dollars in lost productivity.
“The American people are paying a terrible price,” the report said.
Tom Warrick, a former top DHS official and an author of the report, said the agency should treat the coronavirus as seriously as a terrorism threat because it has killed more people many times over.
“This is the priority with which the department should be treating this kind of a threat,” he said.