The White House has tried to reassure the public that it’s on top of the coronavirus pandemic, declaring it an “all-hands-on-deck effort.” Yet as the disease has ripped through the country, many of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members have been largely absent or have failed to use the powers of their agencies to respond to a crisis that has shut down the economy and killed more than 20,000 Americans.
“The absence of Trump’s Cabinet has been a staggering, if not unsurprising, abdication of leadership,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “With millions of Americans losing their jobs and health care, the entire education system shifting to remote learning, and working people across the country struggling to pay rent, you’d think the Cabinet would show some urgency in upholding their oaths and helping the country navigate this crisis.”
A few Cabinet secretaries ― Steve Mnuchin at Treasury and Alex Azar at Health and Human Services, for example ― are on the White House’s coronavirus task force and in the thick of the response.
But for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, the muted response from a number of other secretaries is noticeable. While they may execute response initiatives here and there, the overall approach has been to let the crisis sort itself out and assume that everything will eventually go back to normal. The disjointed approach from the Cabinet is consistent, however, with the White House’s lack of any clear plan for ending the crisis.
Chris Lu was President Barack Obama’s Cabinet secretary, his point person to the federal agencies who coordinated the work of the Cabinet. He later served as deputy secretary in the Labor Department.
Lu said that every few months, the senior White House staff and Cabinet secretaries would get together in a big room and go through exercises about what to do in situations like an earthquake or failure of the power grid ― in addition to dealing with real crises like the H1N1 flu pandemic.
“The White House functionally can’t do anything,” he said. “The White House can only act through agencies, because agencies have money, programs, enforcement powers. This was drilled into us. It was understood that look, even if your agency isn’t on the front line of responding to a crisis, it would be involved in the relief effort in some way.”
Lu said there were two key components that made the Obama team work and that the Trump administration is missing: continuity among the political appointees and a willingness to trust career civil servants.
Trump has had higher turnover among Cabinet secretaries and senior staff than any other recent president, making it more difficult for that group of top officials to develop strong working relationships and understand how the machinery of government works.
The president has also decimated the ranks of career civil servants, questioning federal bureaucrats’ loyalty, denigrating their work and just generally trying to make their lives so miserable that they quit. Ideally, these people should be some of the greatest resources for the White House.
“Within every agency, I guarantee you there’s institutional knowledge ― or there should be institutional knowledge ― of people who have gone through … comparable crises who can tell you here’s exactly all the levers that you can push and pull to help improve things,” Lu said.
In late February, when Trump was still downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, a sizable chunk of the Cabinet did appear in public ― but it was to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a partisan gathering of right-wing activists that ended up having a coronavirus scare.
Eugene Scalia – Labor
As the nation’s top workplace safety official, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia would seem like a natural fit to be on Trump’s coronavirus task force. Yet though the pandemic has created unprecedented work hazards, the president chose to keep him off it.
Aside from a recent press briefing alongside the president, Scalia has reserved most of his public appearances for the Trump-friendly Fox News. The former management-side employment attorney has spoken mainly about the economic fallout of the virus, as opposed to the dangerous working conditions that have prompted strikes and protests around the country.
Worker safety groups and labor unions have petitioned Scalia to issue an emergency standard for handling infectious disease through the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Such a rule would give health care facilities clear, enforceable standards to protect their workers during the pandemic. Scalia has declined to do that. Instead, OSHA has created a new poster for employers with tips on preventing infections. That agency also put out a temporary enforcement plan for the coronavirus on Monday, a full month after Trump declared a national emergency.
This all seems to fall in line with the administration’s approach to safety enforcement before the pandemic began. Under Trump, the Labor Department has acted more like a friend to employers than a tough watchdog, prioritizing “compliance assistance” over stiff penalties. An analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that enforcement of workplace safety rules has fallen to its lowest level in decades. The top post at OSHA remains vacant.
One occupational health expert who’s unimpressed with Scalia’s coronavirus performance is David Michaels, who ran OSHA throughout the Obama presidency. In a recent op-ed in Politico, Michaels said OSHA has been “almost completely missing from the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Instead of ramping up enforcement, Michaels wrote, Scalia and Trump “have decided to tell workers there is little OSHA can do” to protect them.
Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official now with the National Employment Law Project, told HuffPost that Scalia should be “sounding the alarm” about workplace hazards every chance he gets. Even without an infectious disease standard in place, she said, Scalia could be cracking down on shady employers and trying to enforce the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So many of the vulnerable frontline workers right now, like grocery store employees, are women and people of color earning low wages, she noted.
“The Trump administration has totally abandoned their responsibility to protect workers,” Berkowitz said. “Their silence and their absence is endangering all workers on the job right now.”
Scalia has also drawn heat over his handling of economic issues during the pandemic. Under his leadership, the Labor Department has drawn tight restrictions around unemployment insurance and paid leave. As a result, many workers might not be eligible for those programs. For instance, somebody who quit their job because they were afraid of contracting the virus might not be able to collect unemployment benefits.
A Labor Department spokesperson defended Scalia’s work in an email, saying the agency had taken “swift and direct action to protect America’s workers.” The spokesperson pointed to guidance that loosened the rules for respirator use during a shortage, along with resources like a booklet on the coronavirus for employers.
“Throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, OSHA is employing all inspection and investigation protocols available in order to protect worker health and safety,” the spokesperson said. “Any characterization that claims otherwise is unfortunately misinformed.”
Ben Carson – Housing and Urban Development
In 2009, Ben Carson was a pediatric neurosurgeon who was so famous and well-regarded that TNT made a movie about him. Now, just over a decade later, as a pandemic ravages the population he is tasked with protecting, Carson has emerged as one of Trump’s most reliable purveyors of misinformation.
In the last month alone, the Housing and Urban Development secretary (and member of the White House coronavirus task force) has advised Americans to take the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, praised Trump for his “incredibly courageous” response to the pandemic and reassured Fox News viewers that “about 98%” of people who contract the coronavirus will eventually recover.
In his official role in the Cabinet, however, it’s more difficult to ascertain what Carson has been up to. The coronavirus represents a threat to every aspect of America’s housing sector. Homeowners are struggling to pay their mortgages, tenants are falling behind on rent, the demand for homeless shelters is swelling, and residents of elderly and group homes need extra support. Plus, housing vouchers, in contrast to food aid and Social Security benefits, are not “entitlements” available to every American who qualifies. If the coronavirus triggers a wave of evictions — which looks increasingly likely — more renters could end up competing over a stagnant pool of assistance.
And yet, Carson’s agency has so far responded to the pandemic with programs that include significant loopholes. In March, as part of the stimulus bill, HUD enacted a 60-day eviction and foreclosure moratorium for all properties backed by federal lending agencies. Almost immediately, housing advocates noted that the moratorium applies to only about one-quarter of rental properties — and that most renters don’t have enough information about their landlord’s finances to know if they’re eligible for relief under the moratorium.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act also included more than $3 billion to help the U.S. housing system address the pandemic. The grants will help cities convert hotels into quarantine spaces, build homeless shelters and train medical workers. The package also provides for rental assistance for people with HIV/AIDS, coronavirus training for medical workers, and drug addiction and mental health counseling for the homeless.
But this, too, may be too small and too slow to offer Americans significant relief from COVID-19’s devastating economic impacts. The first round of grants, for example, sent just $92 million to Massachusetts ― roughly 0.2% of the state’s annual budget. HUD’s addition of 1,900 vouchers nationwide for children at risk of homelessness is a fraction of the estimated 54,000 families and 35,000 youth under 25 without shelter.
And while Congress may pass further stimulus bills that offer more relief to renters, Carson, the former physician, remains concerned that shutting down the economy could do more damage than the virus itself.
“We can’t operate out of hysteria,” he told Fox News last week. “When people are hysterical, they don’t do logical things.”
David Bernhardt – Interior
“This virus is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States, and most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus,” Secretary David Bernhardt wrote in guidance to Interior Department staff on March 9, by which point more than 20 deaths and over 400 confirmed cases had been recorded in at least 35 states. On March 11 ― the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic ― Bernhardt told his workforce that “Americans don’t need to change their day-to-day lives but should stay informed and practice good hygiene,” according to a separate memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Bernhardt’s last public appearances were a pair of congressional hearings March 10 and 11 on the Trump administration’s 2021 budget request for the Interior Department. Asked at the Senate committee hearing about Interior’s response to the coronavirus, he said the agency is taking the virus “extremely seriously” but downplayed the threat it poses to Native students at the 164 schools that Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs operates on reservations in 23 states.
“The good news with this particular event, compared to say swine flu or some other things, is it looks like things are pretty good for children,” he said, referring to the low mortality rate among young people.
Since those hearings, Bernhardt has stayed out of the public eye. He has not appeared at any of the daily White House coronavirus task force briefings. A HuffPost search turned up not a single TV appearance and only one radio interview. And Bernhardt’s Twitter presence has largely consisted of retweeting Trump and praising the president’s COVID-19 response.
Behind the scenes, the former oil and gas lobbyist and his team have been busy on other matters. They’ve continued to push fossil fuel production, including offering at auction 78 million acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to oil drillers; approved the expansion of a gold and silver mine on federal lands near Bullhead City, Arizona; closed a public comment period on a proposed rule to permanently slash protections for migratory bird species; and advanced a mining road that will cut through a portion of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
And while Trump reportedly opposes sweeping cuts to the royalty rates that fossil fuel companies pay to drill on federal lands and waters, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told Reuters last week that Bernhardt “promised to quickly process” royalty relief requests from offshore oil and gas producers facing low oil prices brought on by an overseas price war and a steep decline in demand caused by the pandemic.
Environmentalists have found plenty to criticize about Bernhardt’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. But his handling of America’s national parks has perhaps proved to be most controversial. The National Park Service resisted calls to shutter parks and monuments, and on March 18, Bernhardt suspended entrance fees for sites nationwide ― a move that he said would help support social distancing but ultimately sent visitors flocking to already crowded parks.
While many major federal parks, including Yellowstone and Zion, have since closed, dozens more remain open. At least a dozen employees of the National Park Service have tested positive for COVID-19, Sierra magazine reported last week, and calls for all parks to be shuttered have grown louder.
Bernhardt’s lone radio hit was an appearance last Friday on SiriusXM’s Rural Radio to announce expanded hunting and fishing opportunities on dozens of national wildlife refuges. Host Rob Keck, the conservation director at Bass Pro Shops, showered Bernhardt with compliments, and he and Bernhardt praised Trump.
Meanwhile, Bernhardt has yet to respond to an April 1 letter from two Western governors ― Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Kate Brown of Oregon ― requesting that Interior assist rural counties and municipalities in responding to COVID-19, a spokesman for the Western Governors Association confirmed on Monday.
“Bernhardt clearly needs to reassess his priorities to make sure the necessities of American families and workers are met first,” Jayson O’Neill, director of the Western Values Project, one of three watchdog groups under the Accountable.US umbrella, said in an email.
Asked about Bernhardt’s noticeable absence as well as public concerns about Interior priorities, a spokesperson said the agency is following guidance from the White House and health authorities as it implements teleworking, social distancing and virtual meetings. “We will continue to work with our state and local partners throughout the pandemic, doing our part to slow the spread and protect the lives of others,” the spokesperson said.
Andrew Wheeler – EPA
The White House also left Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, off the official coronavirus task force, despite his role as the lead federal regulator of both the pollution that amplifies the threat of COVID-19 to respiratory health and the chemical industry that produces in-demand disinfectants.
The nearly five weeks since Wheeler’s last public calendar entry on March 5 have been filled with activity at the agency. On that same day, the EPA released an official list of registered cleaning products deemed effective at disinfecting surfaces from the coronavirus. Since then, the agency has issued press releases detailing a series of conference calls between the administrator and companies that manufacture or sell disinfectants. Wheeler also took steps to stop the sale of chemicals that companies fraudulently claim can work against the coronavirus and sent a letter to state governments urging them to classify water treatment workers as essential.
But environmentalists accuse Wheeler, previously a lobbyist for one of the coal industry’s most pugnacious opponents of pollution rules, of taking advantage of the pandemic to also push through unpopular regulatory rollbacks.
The same week the United States became the official epicenter of the global health crisis, the EPA ordered the suspension of virtually all enforcement of bedrock clean air and water rules, requesting simply that companies “act responsibly” until the order is lifted. At the end of March, Wheeler held a conference call with reporters to announce the agency’s finalized proposal to dramatically weaken auto emissions standards, marking arguably the most significant climate-related rule change since Trump took office.
Asked about the lack of entries in Wheeler’s public calendar, EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods directed HuffPost to a series of press releases. “EPA regularly updates the Administrator’s public calendar and will continue to do so in the future,” she wrote in an email.
Wheeler took time last Friday to appear on the SiriusXM radio show of David Webb, a right-wing pundit who last year claimed peer-reviewed climate studies were done by “eco-terrorists” and denounced the EPA’s own research on environmental racism as “gobbledygook.” (That research is particularly poignant now as mounting evidence shows that Black and Latino Americans’ disproportionate exposure to air pollution could be one factor translating into higher numbers of severe COVID-19 infections.)
The interview, however, focused on the EPA’s efforts to crack down on fraudulent disinfectant sellers.
“There are certainly some bad actors out there who are trying to make money off of this,” Wheeler said. “We want to make sure that the American public knows what is effective and that they’re able to buy products that will work for the coronavirus.”
Elaine Chao – Transportation
The risk of spreading the coronavirus through travel has been central to the expanding outbreak. Trump closed international borders but his administration, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, has opposed shutting down domestic air travel. Executives in the industry have also argued against such a move.
Flight crew members are less certain that keeping the planes flying is the best decision, as their colleagues begin to die from the coronavirus. As The Washington Post noted, the federal government does not require airlines to report when a crew member or passenger contracts the coronavirus, meaning that workers may have no idea they are flying, or have flown, with someone who later became sick.
According to unions representing flight crew members, 600 have tested positive for the virus. The Air Line Pilots Association, which is the largest pilots union, recently wrote a letter to Chao arguing that the federal government is not doing enough to protect airline workers.
“Airlines are not following the guidance with respect to cleaning and disinfecting our flight decks, failing to use appropriate cleaning and disinfecting agents identified by the EPA and approved by the CDC, as well as failing to notify employees that may have come into contact with a fellow employee who has subsequently tested positive for covid-19,” wrote union president Capt. Joseph DePete.
He said the Federal Aviation Administration ― which is overseen by the Department of Transportation ― “is refusing to act, putting flight crews and the flying public at great risk.”
The Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment.
Truckers, who remain essential workers and are keeping the shelves of grocery stores stocked, have also been worried about getting sick. They can’t do their job from home, and they rely on stops at stations around the country to refuel and recharge.
Chao has waived limitations on hours of service for truckers and freight-railroad crews, and eased some other regulations such as allowing temporary flexibility regarding refresher courses for Hazmat drivers, drug and alcohol testing, and expired commercial driver’s licenses and learner permits.
Some transportation policy experts are concerned, however, that keeping these regulations flexible for an open-ended amount of time ― the pandemic has no end date yet ― could lead to looser rules and oversight of policies that were put in place to ensure public safety.
Sonny Perdue – Agriculture
With lawmakers urging him along, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has waived certain rules for food aid through the USDA’s various anti-hunger initiatives, including the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Some kids who are missing free or reduced-price school lunches, for instance, have been able to pick up meals at their local schools even though all classes are canceled. The USDA has also allowed more states to join a pilot program letting SNAP recipients use their benefits to buy food online. And the department has approved two states’ requests to increase SNAP benefit amounts for households with kids who are missing school meals.
The shutdown of the food service industry has left farmers with a surplus of produce while food banks are swamped with demand from people who’ve lost their livelihoods. House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) urged Perdue on Tuesday to buy more surplus commodities from farmers, noting he could use the same bailout authority he’s used to prop up farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war.
“Farmers and ranchers are all frustrated with the inability to get their dairy, meat, and poultry products as well as fresh fruits and vegetables into the hands of consumers, especially those consumers most in need of food assistance,” Peterson said.
In response, the USDA referred to a Perdue tweet about plans to pay farmers and procure more of their surplus commodities. A spokesperson said details on the new initiative would be “forthcoming shortly.”
Perdue appeared in a March 19 video cheering farmers on National Agriculture Day and praising Trump for “ensuring food and essentials are constantly available.”
But the rosy pictures of family farmers feeding cattle and slaughterhouse workers chatting belied fierce criticism from environmentalists over the USDA’s decision last month to grant Tyson Foods a waiver reducing federal inspections of a beef plant in Holcomb, Kansas. It marked the first time a beef plant received the type of exemption that the USDA last year started giving to pork processors in an effort to deregulate food safety.
In an analysis released Monday as part of a lawsuit, the watchdog group Food & Water Watch found that under the new swine inspection system, “federal government veterinarians were precluded and prevented from adequately inspecting animals and carcasses that had signs of diseases, recent treatment, and other abnormal food-safety and public health-related conditions that would render an animal or its meat not fit for human consumption.”
The policy change, the group said, could open the door to another pandemic like COVID-19, which traces its origins back to wild animals sold in a Chinese meat market. A federal court is set to hear oral arguments in the lawsuit next week.
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