There is little continuity in the top levels of the U.S. government when one political party replaces the presidential administration led by another. The natural inclination is to ignore much of the work left behind by the previous folks — and to reinvent the wheel all over again.
But former Obama administration officials cried foul after McConnell’s comments. “We literally left them a 69-page Pandemic Playbook.... that they ignored,” tweeted Ron Klain, the former “Ebola czar” in the Obama administration.
What’s going on?
Klain is referring to a 40-page document (not counting appendixes) first revealed by Politico — a National Security Council staff playbook on fighting pandemics. Now, just about every war plan falls apart with the first battle, but a case could be made that there was certainly useful information in the playbook.
Most notably, the color-coded document lists dozens of pointed and detailed questions that top policymakers should be asking themselves if a novel virus suddenly emerges overseas. For instance:
Is there sufficient personal protective equipment for health-care workers who are providing medical care? If YES: What are the triggers to signal exhaustion of supplies? Are additional supplies available? If NO: Should the Strategic National Stockpile release PPE to states?
Instead, the Trump administration placed a big bet on a limited travel ban on non-U.S. citizens coming from China — and then scrambled to fill gaps in stocks of PPE when cases of covid-19 exploded after the administration failed to rapidly set up a nationwide testing regime. The document laid out other steps, recommending a faster pace than the approach undertaken by the Trump White House.
The playbook also stressed that “early coordination of risk communications through a single federal spokesperson is critical” — certainly not the Trump administration’s style, with its dizzying mix of rotating stars (centered on the president).
The playbook also helpfully details the responsibilities and expertise of each agency that could be tasked with dealing with such a crisis. At the very least, the document could have served as a starting point for action and might have helped officials understand the gravity of the problem sooner.
Still, a Trump NSC official told Politico the plan was of little value. “We are aware of the document, although it’s quite dated and has been superseded by strategic and operational biodefense policies published since,” the official said. “The plan we are executing now is a better fit, more detailed, and applies the relevant lessons learned from the playbook and the most recent Ebola epidemic in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to COVID-19.”
One would certainly hope that three years into the administration, the Trump White House would have developed its own plans. As we have previously reported, Trump folded an NSC office devoted to pandemics into another bureau. The staff slots did not disappear, and at least initially the key mission of team remained a priority, but over time expertise in the issue may have been lost.
The Obama administration also set up an initiative called PREDICT, a $200 million pandemic early-warning program that supported staff in 60 overseas laboratories, including in Wuhan, China. It was launched in 2009 after the 2005 H5N1 outbreak sparked global fears of an epidemic. But the Los Angeles Times reported the Trump administration abandoned the effort two months before the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan.
David Popp, a McConnell spokesman, acknowledged the existence of the playbook but cited a shortage of PPE when Trump took office and said “even the experts underestimated the impact of this virus. This is a unique crisis and we are all adapting to the public health and economic challenges.” He added there was no playbook for the economic aspects of the crisis and “McConnell wrote that playbook — The CARES Act — to help combat the economic fallout from this pandemic.”
The Pinocchio Test
McConnell is wrong to say the Obama administration left “no game plan” to deal with a pandemic; the Obama team crafted a detailed document setting forth questions and policies that should be considered, as well as put in place programs that might have helped spur action sooner. The Trump administration ignored that document and pursued its own course when confronted with a once-a-century health crisis.
Of course, every administration reinvents the wheel and often casts aside the work of its predecessor. White House operations also reflect the personality of the principal. Trump has never been one to rely on planning documents or detailed policy processes, preferring instead to go with his gut. So even if lower-level officials had followed the Obama plan step by step, it’s unclear that it would have made a difference.
McConnell earns Three Pinocchios. There was game plan left behind by the Obama administration, but whether it was suited to the moment is unclear.
Update, May 15: McConnell acknowledged his mistake in a Fox News interview on May 14, after this fact check appeared. “I was wrong,” McConnell said. “They did leave behind a plan. I clearly made a mistake in that regard. As to whether or not the plan was followed and who is the critic and all the rest, I don’t have any observation about that because I don’t know enough about the details of that ... to comment on it in any detail."
Regular readers know that we generally do not award Pinocchios if a politician acknowledges error before the fact check is published. McConnell missed that opportunity but his candor is to be applauded. Too few politicians are willing to say the simple words: “I was wrong.”
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