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Opinion ‘No national response’: One senator’s alarming account of the first days

Sen. Chris Murphy (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

In a viral tweet on Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy reminded the political world of a fact that suddenly seems a whole lot more significant than it did when it happened: In early February, the Connecticut Democrat noted, senators were briefed by the administration about the novel coronavirus threat, and there was no palpable alarm.

“On February 5th, I sat in a meeting with top administration officials as Senators pressed them to request emergency funding to hire staff and stockpile supplies for the coming crisis,” Murphy tweeted. “They said they had it covered. Didn’t need any additional funding.”

It turns out there’s a lot more to the story than this. Murphy told me in an interview that there were repeated briefings throughout the early weeks of the crisis. In them, lawmakers — in both parties, though Democrats were more vocal — insistently sounded the alarm, to no avail.

“That briefing was chilling to me,” Murphy recalled about the Feb. 5 meeting. “It was crystal clear that the administration was not taking this seriously.” As it happens, Murphy tweeted this at the time too, which shows this isn’t just convenient hindsight talking.

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Murphy told me that in that briefing — which was attended by two leading officials, Anthony S. Fauci and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — numerous lawmakers demanded to know why the administration wasn’t asking Congress for funding for medical supplies.

“Their position was that this wasn’t the moment to start panicking, staffing up and buying supplies,” Murphy continued.

Crucially, several lawmakers were already telling administration officials that “our local public health systems were fundamentally just not ready,” Murphy told me. “States were beginning to grapple with some of the most thorny questions, and it was clear the administration didn’t understand the scope of what was going to be necessary.”

Murphy said the strong impression administration officials left was that they “just didn’t think that it was ultimately the federal government’s responsibility to solve the problem.”

“I wouldn’t say they were trying to whitewash the problem,” Murphy continued. “I think they felt like they needed to check the box and communicate to Congress that they were working on the problem. But they didn’t seem to have any handle on how big it was.”

Troublingly, Murphy added that there were regular briefings (around half a dozen) from administration officials to senators and committees during the early weeks, but “their alarm never was consistent with what many of us believed to be the size of the threat.”

There was a point at which administration officials did seem to start panicking, Murphy noted, which coincided with the push for the numerous funding packages for equipment and economic rescue efforts that ultimately did pass Congress.

The reason all this matters is that we still have not even begun to have a full reckoning with this fiasco. We’re learning from dogged investigative reporting that early failures to ramp up testing, along with Trump’s serial downplaying of the crisis, resulted in a lost month that allowed the virus to run rampant with minimal mitigation efforts.

The consequences of this are only now becoming clear. In a stunning interview on NBC, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said that if we do things “almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities.” That’s the best case scenario.

Part of this reckoning entails figuring out not just what administration officials were saying and doing early on, but also whether Congress did all it could in real time.

Even today, it’s not clear whether enough Democrats — let alone Republicans — are criticizing the administration’s approach forcefully enough or seeking to exercise the oversight they should.

When I asked Murphy if the Democratic Party as a whole had done all it should have to sound the alarm at the time — he was an early voice, but were there enough others? — he rejected the premise.

“To me the story is not that Congress wasn’t raising the alarm,” Murphy told me. “In every meeting I was in, members of Congress were ringing alarm bells.”

Rather, Murphy argued, the big coronavirus story is that even now, “the administration is still not taking it seriously. They are still treating it as a P.R. problem.”

And it’s true that Trump still has not invoked the Defense Production Act to the degree that he could to get the private sector to deliver supplies to frantic governors. That, plus a bizarrely confused approach from Trump to coordinating efforts from companies that do appear willing to cooperate, is fueling a shortage of life-saving ventilators even as a wave of cases is set to swamp hospitals.

It’s also true that only now has Trump finally stopped trying to push the country to go back to work, agreeing under extreme duress to extend strict social-distancing guidelines. We can only guess at how many people have been misled into thinking coronavirus is no biggie by Trump’s weeks of cavalier communications.

“I don’t feel like the administration is acting today any differently than they were acting on Feb. 5,” Murphy told me. “There is no national response.”

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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Erik Wemple: Trump didn’t need intelligence briefings to appreciate coronavirus. Tucker was on the case!