The Department of Homeland Security is coordinating the U.S. government’s response to the increasing threat of the novel coronavirus. The agency has also been under the control of acting head Chad Wolf for more than four months, with no full-time replacement selected.
And Wolf’s testimony Tuesday morning wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring — particularly for one GOP senator.
Appearing in front of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Wolf was on the receiving end of a brutal line of questioning from Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). Throughout the exchange, Wolf struggled to produce basic facts and projections about the disease. Perhaps most strikingly, the hearing came at a time of heightened fears about the disease, with the stock market plunging over new estimates about its spread into the United States. It’s a moment in which you’d expect such things to be top of mind for someone in Wolf’s position.
Wolf got started on the wrong foot almost immediately, when Kennedy asked him how many cases of the coronavirus there were in the United States. Wolf stated there were 14 but was uncertain about how many cases had been repatriated back to the United States from cruise ships, placing the number at “20- or 30-some-odd.”
Asked how many DHS was anticipating, Wolf didn’t have an answer and suggested this was the Department of Health and Human Services’ territory. “We do anticipate the number will grow; I don’t have an exact figure for you, though,” Wolf said.
“You’re head of Homeland Security, and your job is to keep us safe,” Kennedy responded, asking him again what the estimates might be. Wolf talked around the question, which led Kennedy to say, “Don’t you think you ought to check on that, as the head of Homeland Security?”
“We will,” Wolf responded. He referred to a task force that is working on that issue.
“I’m all for committees and task forces,” Kennedy said. “I think you ought to know that answer.”
Things didn’t get much better from there.
Kennedy then asked Wolf how the coronavirus was transmitted, to which Wolf responded that there were “a variety of ways” including “human to human.” That, though, wasn’t what Kennedy was asking; he was asking how it was transmitted between humans.
“How is it transmitted?” Kennedy cut in, making clear he wanted specifics.
“A variety of different ways,” Wolf again responded.
“Tell me what they are,” Kennedy quizzed him, clearly skeptical that Wolf knew the answer.
When Wolf again referred to “human-to-human” transmissions, Kennedy cut in. “Well, obviously human to human,” Kennedy said. “How?”
Wolf could muster only that it was “being in the same vicinity” and “physical contact.”
Kennedy then sought to compare mortality rates for the coronavirus — which is about 2 percent — and for influenza “over the last 10 years in America.” Wolf, who was clearly on his heels, responded somewhat haltingly that the flu was “also right around that percentage, as well” — referring to the 2 percent.
“You sure of that?” Kennedy asked.
“Yes, sir,” Wolf said.
The mortality rate for influenza in the United States is significantly lower than that — only around 0.1 percent, according to the CDC, with some differences depending on how you define an influenza-related death. In other words, while about 1 in 50 people are dying from the coronavirus, only about 1 in 1,000 Americans die of the flu. Wolf may have been referring to the worldwide flu mortality rate, which is indeed significantly higher than in the United States. He began answering the question as Kennedy was saying “America.”
It was more of the same from there. Kennedy asked whether we have enough respirators, and Wolf again wasn’t totally sure. “To my knowledge, we do.” Kennedy responded the committee had been told that wasn’t the case. Wolf seemed to think Kennedy was asking only about equipment for DHS officials and not the broader public.
A similar exchange occurred on masks. Wolf then tried to push back, noting Kennedy was asking him about “a number of medical questions.”
“I’m asking you questions because you’re the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” Kennedy shot back, “and you’re supposed to keep us safe. And you need to know the answers to these questions.”
Kennedy then asked when a vaccine for the disease might be ready, and Wolf said “several months.” Kennedy again said that conflicted with what the committee had been told elsewhere.
“Your numbers aren’t the same as CDC’s,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy concluded by again begging Wolf to have answers to these questions. But as Wolf tried to respond, Kennedy was apparently finished with the whole thing, and he instead yielded his time back.
The scene was jarring, but it wasn’t without precedent from Kennedy. The Louisiana senator has occasionally sent a message to the Trump administration by lighting into the president’s judicial picks — including in 2017 and last year. He also told administration officials during a hearing on the opioid crisis two months ago, “I don’t speak B.S.”
Tuesday was particularly striking, though, given who Wolf is. President Trump has left acting officials in charge of major departments and in other Cabinet-level jobs for months and months without picking successors that people like Kennedy would vote to confirm. The downside of that is the people in charge haven’t been vetted as closely for situations such as a potential outbreak of a disease. (DHS has actually been under acting control for more than 10 months now.)
Whether any one of Kennedy’s individual questions was fair or not, Wolf’s exchange with Kennedy suggested someone who was wasn’t terribly plugged in to what’s going on. That’s not a great sign.