The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: Muddled messaging and general chaos in Trump’s White House hamper coronavirus response

with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning and welcome to Tuesday. Jacqueline Alemany is off for the next two weeks but the newsletter will power on through this week, anchored by some of her excellent Post colleagues, and take a break the next. She'll be back on July 15. Thanks, as always, for waking up with us. 

At The White House

MASK CONFUSION: The White House can’t seem to decide whether wearing a mask is an issue of “personal choice” or a vital component of a nationwide effort to gain control of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. It's a lack of clarity reflected throughout the Trump administration’s disjointed response to the pandemic.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said yesterday Americans should decide for themselves whether to wear a mask “for their safety,” despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a warning from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that mask wearing is critical to protecting others from being infected.

The White House’s long history of muddled messaging, infighting, chaos and confusion has proven especially debilitating in the context of a viral outbreak continuing to infect tens of thousands of Americans daily.

  • “The White House has played a central role in undermining the kind of clear and consistent messaging experts say is necessary to mount a successful public health response to a viral outbreak,” I reported with my colleagues Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb after speaking with dozens of current and former administration officials and public-health experts.

McEnany was forced to address the mask issue after the city of Jacksonville, Fla., where Trump plans to hold the Republican National Convention in August, issued a mandate Monday requiring people outside and inside to wear masks.

Trump, who has declined to wear a mask in public and ridiculed others for doing so, had previously moved the convention festivities out of Charlotte, in part because he did not want to have to follow social distancing and mask-wearing requirements supported by the state’s Democratic governor. 

Whether the mask mandate will apply to the RNC, where Trump has called for a packed house, remains to be seen.

  • “The RNC is still two months away,” Jacksonville city spokeswoman Nikki Kimbleton told my colleague Brittany Shammas, adding a determination about whether the mandate applies to the convention will be addressed “as we get closer to the event.” 

Say what? If you have mask whiplash, it may be because the administration and top Republican officials can't seem to get their stories straight.

  • Vice President Pence appeared to embrace the idea of mask wearing over the weekend, using a visit to virus-plagued Texas to implore Americans to wear face coverings to stem the spread of the disease, my colleagues Felicia Sonmez, Siobhán O’Grady and Derek Hawkins reported. 
  • The veep's message, like many from the administration, was undercut when he attended a “Celebrate Freedom” rally at First Baptist Church in Dallas in which a large choir did not wear masks while singing. The action was at odds with CDC guidance, which warns that unmasked singing and shouting in close proximity is one way the virus can spread. 
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used remarks on the Senate floor to state there should be “no stigma” about wearing masks, declaring: “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
  •  His remarks contradicted comments from Trump, who has dismissed face coverings as a “double-edged sword.”

But it’s not just masks. Public health experts inside and outside the administration describe dismay over a broader lack of consistency from the White House on everything ranging from reopening guidelines to personal protective equipment to whether medical experts should be trusted over politicians.

  • “Top aides to Pence, including his chief of staff, Marc Short, have grown increasingly skeptical of public health officials within the administration, believing they have been wrong too many times about mitigation techniques and transmission of the virus," my colleagues and I reported, citing three officials familiar with the matter.
  • “More than four months into the pandemic, nursing home caregivers say they have been largely left to fend for themselves even as coronavirus outbreaks continue to overwhelm facilities across the country,” Shawn MulcahyAreeba Shah and Joel Jacobs reported Monday.

Too fast, too soon?: The states now suffering the most severe outbreaks pursued aggressive reopening plans in line with Trump's expressed wishes but contrary to the guidelines issued by his own White House. From Florida to Texas to Arizona, state leaders did not build detailed benchmarks into their plans or explain what sort of trends would trigger a reversal. 

As cases surged in recent weeks — battering the Sun Belt and beginning to infect more young people — these governors have reversed course, with some delaying moves to reopen and pledging not to stand in the way of local face covering rules. Yet the governors stopped short of requiring masks statewide, as health-care workers and medical experts said one of the most basic tools to arrest community transmission had been dangerously politicized.  

  • As a health-care provider, it’s very frustrating and discouraging to walk into a public place and sometimes be the only person wearing a mask, Serena Bumpus, the Austin-based director of practice for the Texas Nurses Association, told my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker. 

States to the rescue: Still, some government officials are taking solace from the fact it's states leading the way in protecting their citizens, despite a lack of clear and consistent guidance from Washington.

“Thankfully, it seems states have taken a more aggressive role in making their own decisions, a former senior administration official told my colleagues. The Trump administration, the former official added, needs to be able to be nimble and adapt to the outbreak you have — not the outbreak you wish you had."

TRUMP'S ‘WHITE POWER’ TWEET SET OFF SCRAMBLE: “Trump’s tweet landed at 7:39 a.m. Sunday morning, and senior White House advisers say they immediately realized they had a problem,” Ashley and I report.

  • What unfolded next: “Senior staffers quickly conferred over the phone and then began trying to reach the president to convey their concerns about the tweet. [McEnany], son-in-law Jared Kushner and other senior advisers spoke with president … Roughly three hours later, the president gave the go-ahead to delete his incendiary tweet — moved, in large part, by the public calls from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only black Republican, to do just that, aides said.”

The White House has still not condemned the racist phrase used in the video: “White House spokespeople said Trump didn’t hear his supporter twice shout ‘white power.' But neither the president nor his team publicly condemned the racist phrase, setting off another controversial news cycle for a president already struggling to unite the country amid accusations that he traffics in racist and racially inflammatory language." 

On The Hill

TRUMP WAS TOLD EVEN EARLIER ABOUT RUSSIAN BOUNTY SCHEME: “American officials provided a written briefing in late February to [Trump] laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, two officials familiar with the matter said,” the New York Times's Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman report.

Another report says Trump may have even been told in 2019: “The assessment was included in at least one of [Trump’s] written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials,” the Associated Press's James LaPorta reports.

  • 👀: “Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019,” the AP reports. “ … On Sunday, he suggested to NBC’s'“Meet the Press' that Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of a response.” Bolton declined to comment to the AP about the matter.

THE REACTION: “Senate Republicans are calling for a tougher posture against Russia following reports that the country’s military spy unit offered to pay Taliban-linked militants to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan — putting the GOP lawmakers once again potentially at odds with [Trump] over how to combat Moscow’s aggression toward the United States,” Seung Min Kim reports.

  • A sampling of the what lawmakers said: Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called the reports ‘deeply troubling’ and said he wanted the Senate to pass his legislation that would require the State Department to consider naming Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who like Gardner is in a tough reelection race this fall, similarly called for the U.S. government to treat Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), a former intelligence officer in the Marines, said the Russia-financed bounty effort, if confirmed, ‘deserves a strong and immediate response from our government.’”
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Americans deserve to know what Trump knew: “Who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not? What is going on in that process?” he asked, adding: “What are we going to do to impose proportional cost in response? In a situation like this, that would mean Taliban and GRU body bags.” GRU is the abbreviation for the Russian military spy unit.

Democrats are headed to the White House this morning: “A group of House Democrats, led by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, will be briefed on the issue at the White House at 8 a.m. …,” our colleague writes. Congressional Republicans received their own briefing on Monday, a decision that irked their Democratic colleagues.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) will be among those attending:

From the Courts

ROBERTS CEMENTS HIS RULE: “Every Supreme Court decision seems to confirm Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s pivotal role at the center of the court, and Monday’s ruling on abortion showed that restrictions on a woman’s right to the procedure for now will go only as far as the chief justice allows,” Robert Barnes reports.

There's a new decider: “In a remarkable stretch of decisions over the past two weeks, Roberts has dismayed conservatives and the Trump administration by finding that federal anti-discrimination law protects gay, bisexual and transgender workers and stopping the president from ending the federal program that protects undocumented immigrants brought here as children,” our colleague writes.

  • No, he has not joined the resistance: “The votes do not mean that Roberts, nominated by President George W. Bush, has had an ideological conversion. But they do serve as a reminder of his 2018 rejoinder to [Trump] that 'do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.'”

An expert Roberts watcher's take on the abortion decision: “The chief’s clear message is that is not how justices do their work,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard law professor who has known Roberts since law school days and who has taught summer courses with the chief justice, told our colleague. “It is a shot across the bow at presidential candidates who campaign with lists of nominees based on the assumption that, if confirmed, they will of course necessarily vote based on the preferences of the majority who supported that candidate.” The abortion case was viewed as trying to rehash a decision that was only four-years old.

ON THE RULING ITSELF: “The Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law, a dramatic victory for abortion rights activists and a bitter disappointment to conservatives in the first showdown on the controversial issue since [Trump’s] remake of the court,” Bob reports.

  • The chief justice switched his vote: Roberts had dissented in the court's 2016 decision to overturn a similar Texas law. “He wrote that he continues to ‘believe that the [Texas] case was wrongly decided.’ But he said the question was whether to ‘adhere to it in deciding the present case.’”

In the Media


China has adopted its contentious Hong Kong national security law: The law “will allow Beijing to override Hong Kong’s judicial system and target political opponents in the city, stripping the territory of autonomy promised under the handover agreement with Britain and raising the prospect of further retaliation from Washington,” Eva Dou and Shibani Mahtani report.

  • Expect some dueling responses: “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo [said] on Friday that Washington would place visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong. On Monday, China said it would impose reciprocal measures on unspecified American officials, while the Commerce Department suspended some of Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment under U.S. law.”

Top CDC official delivers sober summary on where we're at: “The coronavirus is spreading too rapidly and too broadly for the U.S. to bring it under control, Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said …,” CNBC's William Feuer reports.

  • Key quote: “We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” she said in an interview with The Journal of the American Medical Association’s Howard Bauchner. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”
  • Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will testify along with other top health officials before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee starting at 10 a.m. today.

Nats will defend their title without the face of their franchise: “Veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and starting pitcher Joe Ross of the Washington Nationals were among the first major leaguers to opt out of the 2020 season because of concerns about the coronavirus — although with players due to begin reporting for mandatory virus testing this week ahead of Friday’s opening of ‘summer camps,’ they almost certainly will not be the last,” Dave Sheinin reports.

  • Zimmerman stressed this is not retirement: “[He] signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Nationals this past winter for what was presumed to be a farewell season, but in his statement Monday he said he was not ruling out playing in 2021. ”