In July, she left the administration. On Thursday, she publicly criticized how the government — and, in particular, President Trump — had handled the pandemic. Trump, she told The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, had as his main concern “the economy and his reelection” and not the health and safety of the public.
“The president’s rhetoric and his own attacks against people in his administration trying to do the work, as well as the promulgation of false narratives and incorrect information of the virus have made this ongoing response a failure,” she said.
Despite Trump’s repeated assertions to the contrary, the existing public record strongly supports Troye’s contention that the president fumbled the government’s response.
We can start with the first public action the president took, one he refers back to over and over again. On Jan. 31, the administration announced a ban on travel to the United States from China, where the virus first emerged. This, Trump has claimed, was a dramatic and important action that marked his forward thinking.
Trump, though, didn’t announce the ban. It was announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar shortly before Trump decamped for Mar-a-Lago. Nor was it an actual ban on travel from China, as Trump has claimed. Tens of thousands of people came from China to the United States after the travel restrictions were put in place. Nor was this Trump’s idea, as Post journalist Bob Woodward details in his new book, “Rage.” It was, instead, recommended by Azar and Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, among others.
The president has repeatedly claimed that he bucked internal consensus to institute the restrictions, including from Fauci. There’s no evidence this is true.
Over the next few weeks, despite Trump’s having told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the pandemic posed a significant risk and was easily transmissible through the air, the administration failed to take significant actions to prepare for a surge in cases, which Troye says was understood as inevitable by the middle of that month. In fact, the administration was actively depleting the available resources, shipping massive amounts of protective equipment to China well into February.
The administration could have pushed for a surge in funding to purchase existing supplies of masks, gowns and face shields. Azar recommended on Feb. 5 that Congress be asked for $2 billion. Trade adviser Peter Navarro recommended in a memo dated Feb. 23 that $1.6 billion would be needed. On Feb. 24, the administration asked Congress for $500 million — and then played defense as Democrats criticized the amount as insufficient.
Trump could also have used the Defense Production Act to spur manufacturers to produce material. He has repeatedly complained that the national stockpile was depleted before he took office, but at no point in his first three years did he seek to bolster it. The government didn’t use this power until late March.
Early in the pandemic, as the United States and other countries were learning about the virus’s effects, it was believed that the disease it caused, covid-19, was primarily respiratory. States seeing quickly rising cases sought large supplies of ventilators, aimed at treating affected patients.
Trump has consistently touted the government’s gearing up of ventilator production in response as a success. In reality, though, the ventilator capacity that was generated came too late and proved to be unnecessary. Had the effort to get manufacturers to produce ventilators begun in February, they would have been ready for deployment by mid-April, but it didn’t exert that pressure until a month later. Ultimately, about 11,000 were distributed from the government’s existing emergency stockpile of nearly 17,000.
In part, that was because we were learning more about the virus. Week after week, doctors learned more about how to treat covid-19 and about its effects and discovered that ventilators weren’t always necessary. States shipped ventilators between themselves and between regions internally, a process the federal government embraced after New York had begun shipping ventilators to other states.
It was an example of interstate cooperation that happened despite the White House’s position. Instead of making the federal government the clearinghouse for the national response, Trump left it up to governors, prompting them to jostle with one another to access increasingly expensive supplies. At times, states found themselves competing against the federal government for protective equipment; at other times, states discovered that material they had purchased was seized by the feds. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) famously arranged a secret shipment of test kits from South Korea, which he then actively hid from the federal government.
The federal government had tried to quickly deploy testing kits to states, but its initial effort was flawed, wasting valuable time. An early example of community spread of the virus was detected by researchers from the University of Washington who had developed their own test. The first acknowledged case of community spread — that is, an infection not linked to international travel — was reported on Feb. 26, as Trump was giving a news briefing in which he insisted that the number of reported cases would soon go from 15 to zero.
This, too, was a pattern. Publicly, Trump repeatedly “played down” the pandemic, as he told Woodward. He insisted that the virus would not expand significantly and repeatedly compared it to the seasonal flu in both spread and fatality. He has since framed this decision as aimed at keeping the public from panicking, but it’s clear that Troye’s point about the economy played a significant role here, too: Trump didn’t want investors to panic.
Once it became clear that something needed to be done, Trump took more significant action. He announced a ban on travel from Europe on March 11, firmly shutting the door of the barn after the virus was already spreading around the country. He declared a national emergency on March 13, and then exulted in the resulting increase in stock prices.
Later that month, he endorsed a broad shutdown of economic activity aimed at containing the virus. In doing so, he cited research suggesting that a failure to take action could result in more than a million deaths by summer. With action, the toll could be as low as 100,000 to 240,000.
It didn’t take long for Trump to lament his decision, however. Shortly after endorsing the shutdown, he began speculating about reopening the economy. At one point he theorized that the country could be back to normal by Easter, April 12 — an obviously unworkable idea. (On April 13, in another private conversation with Woodward, he marveled at how easily the virus spread.) He was convinced to keep the recommendations against normal activity in place through April but, by the end of that month, was again openly agitating for a return to normalcy. There was even discussion of shuttering the White House coronavirus task force that month, even as testing capacity was still limited and thousands of new cases were still emerging.
Over the summer, Trump’s approach to the pandemic has been one of consistent denial. Denial that masks are needed, despite the advice of experts both within and outside the government. A focus on various unproven or invalidated silver bullets, like hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma. Repeated claims that the country had peaked in its death toll, adjusting those claims upward as the death toll continued to climb.
Then there was his insistence that states get back to normal — even states like Florida, which tried to return to normal and contributed to a massive surge in new cases in July and August. He dismissed that surge as being a function of expanded test capacity when, instead, it was obviously a function of a relaxation of containment efforts that he had repeatedly endorsed. Then, as summer wound down, he applied the same just-get-it-open approach to schools.
The repeated refrain, offered both explicitly and through Trump’s public actions, has been that this thing is all but wrapped up. The country still sees about 40,000 new cases a day, twice the level of cases recorded in mid-June, when Pence (with Troye’s assistance) publicly announced that no second wave of infections was coming. But Trump’s back to holding indoor rallies where mask-wearing is purely performative.
Again, it’s obvious why this is Trump’s approach. We’re less than 50 days from an election, and he trails his opponent on handling of the pandemic but generally leads on economic issues. A surge in the economy now would mean a much-needed boost in his political fortunes.
The lesson he should have learned, six months in, is that the best route to restoring the economy is to address the virus. The problem we now face, with the pandemic still raging, is that it’s unlikely it can be controlled enough within the next month and a half to right the economic ship. Meaning that Trump’s damn-the-torpedoes approach to getting the economy ginned up, whatever the cost, may be the best we can expect.
Which, one assumes, is the sort of thing that prompted Troye to speak out.