At that news briefing, Trump announced his choice to lead the government’s response to the growing threat: Vice President Pence. It would be Pence who would run point — in theory, anyway. As it turned out, Pence’s effort was still subject to the same gravity as everything else in the Trump administration, and messaging and decision-making was still pulled back to the president himself.
On Wednesday night, as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to serve a second term as Trump’s vice president, Pence offered an assessment of the job he and the administration had done in combating the virus. It was an assessment that was predictably rosy but also one with obvious gaps and errors.
Here is the case he made, line by line.
Before the first case of the coronavirus spread within the United States, the president took unprecedented action and suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world.
The most glaring falsehood here is Pence’s assertion that Trump halted all travel from China. The restriction on travel, announced by the secretary of health and human services Jan. 31, restricted most but not all travel. A later analysis by the New York Times determined that almost 40,000 people made their way from China to the United States in the weeks that followed.
But also notice the setup. Pence is trying to argue that Trump acted remarkably swiftly, intervening before the virus took hold. That’s most likely not true.
The first confirmed case of the virus in the United States came 10 days before the travel restrictions were implemented. Pence uses the phrasing “coronavirus spread” specifically to exclude known examples of people who traveled to the United States with the virus. His claim that there was no spread before the restrictions depends entirely on the idea that the only cases that existed were the ones that were confirmed.
Researchers in Washington state, though, suspect that by late January, the virus was already spreading in the wild there. Those cases may not have been detected at the time — this was still during flu season, after all — and may never be confirmed. But epidemiological patterns suggest that it had already infected hundreds of people.
Now, that action saved untold American lives.
This is true: Limiting travel from a known hot spot probably did reduce infections and, therefore, deaths because of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. But this common bit of rhetoric — “things could have been much worse” — is not always an effective rejoinder to “things could have been much better.”
And I can tell you firsthand, it bought us invaluable time to launch the greatest national mobilization since World War II.
Here, again, phrasing is key. Yes, the travel restrictions bought the country time in the now-familiar sense of flattening the curve. The number of infections was lower than it otherwise would have been. But the number of infections was still high and, thanks to the government’s missteps in deploying accurate testing, increasing without measure or containment.
The mobilization, meanwhile, was perhaps comparable to what would be seen in the event of a global conflict but with one difference: The administration declined to use the Defense Production Act to mandate that companies begin making protective equipment or ventilators until well after the travel restrictions were announced. A New York Times report noted that a mandate to produce ventilators in February could have led to the devices being deployed in mid-April, at the height of the daily death toll. But instead the administration held off use of the DPA until late March.
In fact, contrary to Pence’s assertion, what the travel restrictions in late January led to was a month of broad inaction. Trump spent February playing down or ignoring the virus. Manufacturers in fact sent millions of dollars’ worth of face masks to China, with the government’s encouragement.
President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset.
Again, he obviously did not.
He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.
Perhaps Trump did order that a “seamless partnership” be forged. But the administration’s abdication of its role as a clearinghouse led states to compete with one another and the federal government for scarce supplies. States would order critical material only to be undercut. On several occasions, the federal government seized material purchased by states.
In one infamous scene, the governor of Maryland met a flight from South Korea carrying test kits to ensure they weren’t purloined by federal authorities.
“[A] caravan of Maryland National Guard trucks escorted by the Maryland State Police drove the tests from the airport to a refrigerated, secure warehouse at an undisclosed location,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “The federal government had recently seized 3 million N95 masks purchased by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. We weren’t going to let Washington stop us from helping Marylanders.”
We partnered with private industry to reinvent testing and produce supplies that were distributed to hospitals around the land.
This is true but, again, reveals two flaws. The first was that the government again abdicated its leadership role to the private sector. The second and perhaps related flaw is that the delayed rate at which those tests and supplies were dispatched left states and hospitals scrambling for weeks and helped the virus to spread.
Today, we’re conducting more than 800,000 tests a day, and we have coordinated the delivery of billions of pieces of personal protective equipment for our amazing doctors, nurses and health-care workers.
Because the government didn't produce real-time data on coronavirus testing, a volunteer effort was assembled to fill that need. The COVID Tracking Project gets daily reports from states to give a sense of how much testing is being done and what those tests say.
Data from the project indicates that Pence’s number is inflated. There have been only two days on which the country has conducted 800,000 or more tests. In eight of the past 10 days, the figure has been below 700,000.
Why does this distinction matter? Because containing the virus would probably require testing more than 900,000 people a day, to find asymptomatic cases and effect isolation policies. It matters, too, because the government is now actively trying to scale back the number of tests being completed, almost certainly in part because Trump would rather asymptomatic cases not be included in the confirmed totals.
The government has coordinated the delivery of protective equipment, but the question is again whether that dispatch was sufficient. There are still reports of equipment shortages, and the administration's coordinated effort to provide equipment has raised lots of questions about efficiency and effectiveness.
We saw to the manufacture of 100,000 ventilators in 100 days, and no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.
The same question: Was it enough?
To some extent, Trump got lucky with ventilators. The breathing-assistance devices were believed to be essential to handling covid-19 cases when the virus first emerged. Over time, though, doctors learned of other effective treatments and learned of covid-19-related risks for which a ventilator wasn’t useful. There ended up being enough ventilators in most places that existing supplies could handle the need — as the federal government was still figuring out how to get them made.
By the time ventilators were in broad production, the number of deaths had already declined. That's the point to remember when Trump talks about sending ventilators to other countries. It's like seeing how bad the winter was so you stock up on snow shovels in March. Come April, you've got plenty to share.
Pence's assertion about the availability of the devices ignores the extent to which hospitals were forced to fend for themselves. When the virus was at its peak in New York City, for example, hospitals began putting multiple patients on one device in an effort to save lives. Those patients weren't denied ventilators, but it's not the case that there were enough ventilators for every patient.
We built hospitals, surged military medical personnel and enacted an economic rescue package that saved 50 million American jobs.
The point about the hospitals and the medical personnel is accurate. The National Guard converted gyms and convention centers into makeshift hospitals in various cities where the virus spread broadly.
The economic rescue package, though, was not something that the administration did by itself. It was legislation passed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress that Trump then signed into law.
As we speak, we’re developing a growing number of treatments known as therapeutics, including convalescent plasma, that are saving lives all across America.
That therapeutics are under development is certainly true. Though it’s interesting to note how, again, Pence is assuming credit for something that’s largely a function of others, such as biomedical companies.
The inclusion of “convalescent plasma” is pointed. Over the weekend, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would provide emergency-use authorization for the treatment, a decision it made with Trump’s obvious encouragement. Trump wanted a win on the virus coming into his convention this week, and plasma offered him one.
Experts were skeptical, noting both that it had already been used and that its efficacy, though promising, was unproven. That the announcement included an obvious misrepresentation of what was known about plasma's use added a new cloud over Trump's triumph.
After an aside about former vice president Joe Biden, Pence continued.
I'm proud to report that we're on track to have the world's first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.
This is also hopefully true. Trump has been pushing for a vaccine repeatedly, with an urgency that clearly has one eye on the November elections. Nonetheless, there are hopeful signs that a vaccine might be deployed within months.
For all of Pence’s rhetoric about what his team had done, it’s just as important to consider what Pence didn’t say.
He didn’t say, for example, that the administration endorsed broad shutdowns of the economy to contain the virus — a decision that undoubtedly saved thousands of lives but which has become politically unpopular.
It’s become unpopular in large part because of something else the administration did: disparaged the stay-at-home orders. Trump’s demands that states resume economic activity in April and the government’s laissez-faire approach to how states scaled back containment measures helped power a second surge in new cases earlier this summer. The number of new cases being confirmed at this point is still higher than the number we saw in the spring, though there is now a broader ability to test for infections.
Pence also skipped over the fact that neither he nor Trump decided to lead by example on measures such as the use of masks. He and the president insisted that any decisions about how to contain the virus should be left to governors, allowing governors to avoid issuing unpopular mandates on mask-wearing. That contributed to surges in cases in places such as Georgia and Arizona.
The most obvious omission from Pence, though, was that he’s been very wrong on the virus before. In June, he wrote a lengthy op-ed for the Wall Street Journal assuring Americans that no second wave of infections was coming. It was wildly incorrect, touting metrics such as the fact that the number of new cases each day had plateaued at 20,000 and the number of deaths dropped below 800.
Two months later, the number of new cases each day is over 40,000, and about 950 people have died on average over each day of the last week.
On those metrics alone, the administration’s handling of the pandemic speaks for itself.