WASHINGTON — Man bites watchdog.
In firing one inspector general, sidelining another and assailing a third, President Donald Trump in recent days has put his aversion to agents of federal accountability on stark display in a country consumed by the coronavirus.
Clearly displeased when inspectors general come to independent conclusions that don’t fit the stories he tells, Trump employs a tactic to mar their credibility. If public servants worked for the government in the Obama era, they are subject to being painted as Obama loyalists out to get him.
And they’re not insulated if they worked for Republican presidents, too, as the three targeted IGs found out.
So it went over the past week as Trump distorted key elements of the pandemic response and the few other political subjects that got any attention in the pandemic.
TRUMP, on his decision to remove Glenn Fine, acting Defense Department inspector general who was tapped to lead a special oversight board of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package: “Well, we have IGs in from the Obama era.” — news briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Fine is not a creature of the Obama era.
He is a career government official who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations and was selected by his peers for the virus oversight board. Trump distorts that record to make Fine and other public servants look like plants or holdovers from President Barack Obama.
Fine has been acting Pentagon inspector general for more than four years, and before that was inspector general at the Justice Department for a decade, including the entire duration of the George W. Bush administration. He now reverts to the position of principal deputy inspector general at the Pentagon.
Though inspectors general are presidential appointees, many serve presidents of both parties. All are expected to be nonpartisan. They operate as independent investigators in departments, shedding light on deficiencies in their agencies.
TRUMP, on a report from the Health and Human Services Department’s watchdog that found hospitals faced severe shortages of coronavirus test supplies: “Did I hear the word inspector general? Really? It’s wrong. … Could politics be entered into that?” — news briefing April 6.
TRUMP, referring to the HHS report: “Another Fake Dossier!” — tweet Tuesday.
TRUMP: “You didn’t tell me also that this inspector general came out of the Obama administration.” — news briefing on April 6.
THE FACTS: His claims are groundless. There is no evidence that the report was “wrong” or politically motivated. Again, he insinuates that a longtime civil servant is an Obama loyalist out to get him. The inspector general in charge of the report is a government employee whose tenure predates the Obama administration.
The report was based on a survey of 323 hospitals around the country in late March and reported conditions they described. It did not make any judgments about the federal health department or the Trump administration.
With coronavirus cases rocketing toward their expected peak, the inspector general’s office reported that a shortage of tests and long waits for results were at the root of mounting problems faced by hospitals.
Overseeing the report was Christi A. Grimm, who is acting as HHS inspector general. She is a career government manager who took over the position early this year in an interim capacity. Grimm began her career with the agency in 1999, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.
A week ago Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who forwarded to Congress a whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment in the House. His career at the Justice Department dated back to the early Bush administration, and it was Trump who nominated him as inspector general for intelligence.
TRUMP: “Initially speaking, the tests were old, obsolete, and not really prepared. We have a brand-new testing system that we developed very quickly, and that’s your result.” — news briefing on April 6.
TRUMP: “This administration inherited a broken system, a system that was obsolete, a system that didn’t work.” — news briefing on March 30.
THE FACTS: His assertion that he inherited a “broken” and “obsolete” COVID-19 test from the Obama administration is false. The novel coronavirus did not exist until late last year, so there was no test to inherit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instead struggled to develop its own test for the coronavirus in January, later discovering problems in its kits sent to state and county public health labs in early February.
It took the CDC more than two weeks to come up with a fix to the test kits, leading to delays in diagnoses through February, a critical month when the virus took root in the U.S. Not until Feb. 29 did the Food and Drug Administration decide to allow labs to develop and use their own coronavirus diagnostic tests before the agency reviews them, speeding up the supply. Previously, the FDA had only authorized use of a government test developed by the CDC.
Meantime the U.S. bypassed a test that the World Health Organization quickly made available internationally. Trump has said that test was flawed; it wasn’t.
TRUMP: ”“We are leading the world now in testing by far.” — news briefing Friday.
TRUMP: “America continues to perform more tests than any other nation in the world. … Now we’re performing them at a level that nobody has ever seen before.” — news briefing Tuesday.
TRUMP: “Nobody has done more testing. … If (other countries) did the kind of testing proportionally that we are doing, they’d have many more cases than us.” — briefing on April 6.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong to say the U.S. has done more tests “proportionally” than other countries. More broadly, his frequent boasts about testing mask what his own officials have called a failure of the system. The U.S. has notably lagged on this vital front.
As for proportional testing, South Korea is just one of the countries with better testing rates. It also has fewer known cases of COVID-19, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its population.
One test has been done for every 100 South Koreans, compared with one for every 150 Americans, according to figures in recent days.
Altogether, South Korea has conducted nearly 500,000 tests; the U.S. has conducted over 2.2 million. But South Korea’s population is six times smaller.
The U.S. only recently surpassed South Korea in the total number of tests, even though both countries reported their first confirmed cases on the same day in January.
U.S. testing continues to be constrained by shortages of key supplies, including sampling swabs, and backlogs of unprocessed tests.
TRUMP, with his daughter Ivanka in the Roosevelt Room of the White House: “She created over 15 million jobs.” — speaking Tuesday with bankers via video conference about virus aid for small businesses.
THE FACTS: That’s a complete illusion. Before the coronavirus became widespread, less than half that many jobs were added to the entire U.S. workforce during Trump’s presidency, and his daughter was not responsible for them.
The president is referring to a White House initiative led by Ivanka Trump that garnered nonbinding commitments from companies to provide 14 million or so training opportunities in the years ahead. Training for a job is not working at a job for money.
There’s no telling how many workers were already going to be trained, absent the initiative. In many cases, the pledge simply confers a presidential seal of approval on what some companies were doing anyway. By having companies sign the pledge, the administration is relying on the private sector to take on more of the financial burden of training workers.
(And now, job gains under Trump have been more than wiped out by the pandemic.)
TRUMP, on a federal emergency lending program for small businesses: “I’m hearing it’s a very, very successful rollout.” — news briefing Thursday.
TRUMP: “As of today, Small Business (Administration) has processed more than $70 billion in guaranteed loans and will provide much-needed relief for nearly a quarter of a million businesses already … we’re way ahead of schedule.” — news briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He’s glossing over reality. There have been substantial delays, with few loans issued.
The $349 billion emergency lending program just began operating April 3, but the rollout has been plagued by a host of problems. Small-business owners have complained that they are unable to get through to the SBA or the banks to apply for loans or that they are being rejected by banks that say they are accepting applications only from businesses that are already customers of the bank.
Two of the nation’s largest banks, JPMorgan Chase and Citibank, weren’t initially set up to take applications.
The SBA’s loan processing system then stopped working early in the week, making it impossible for loans to be approved and money distributed, while confusion spread about the documents that lenders needed from customers to complete loan transactions. That’s according to a trade group for community bankers and the CEO of an online lending marketplace.
Trump was actually citing the value of applications received at the time but yet to be fully administered.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had predicted before the program started that loans could be turned around and money transferred to businesses’ bank accounts the same day as applications were received.
TRUMP, saying his administration is doing a “great job” handling the coronavirus: “Take a look at the swine flu. That’s H1N1. … It was a disaster. … The other administration, they didn’t even know — it was like they didn’t even know it was here.” — news briefing on April 6.
THE FACTS: His suggestion that the Obama administration was oblivious and did nothing during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, initially called “swine flu,” is wrong.
Then, the CDC’s flu surveillance network actually sounded the alarm, spotting two children in California who were the first diagnosed cases of the new flu strain. About two weeks later, the U.S. declared a public health emergency and CDC began releasing anti-flu drugs from the national stockpile to help hospitals get ready. In contrast, Trump declared a state of emergency in early March, seven weeks after the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was announced.
THE VIRUS THREAT
TRUMP, referring to his past comparisons of the coronavirus to the flu: “You said I said it was just like a flu. So the worst pandemic we ever had in this world was a flu. … It was in 1917, 1918. And anywhere from 50 to 100 million people died. That was a flu, OK? So, you could say that I said it was a flu, or you could say, ‘The flu is nothing to sneeze at.’” — briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He’s revising history — both his own and that of the century-old pandemic.
Trump never suggested the coronavirus was akin to the pandemic Spanish flu, which spread from early 1918 to late 1920 and killed over 50 million worldwide. On the contrary, he repeatedly dismissed COVID-19 from January until mid-March as being less of a danger than the common flu and something that would mysteriously disappear soon enough.
In February, he asserted that coronavirus cases were going “very substantially down, not up,” and told Fox Business it will be fine because “in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather.”
“It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for,” he told reporters on Feb. 26. “And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.”
Two days before the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Trump still presented a sunny outlook on COVID-19.
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” he tweeted March 9. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
And in a Fox News virtual town hall March 24, Trump rejected likening the coronavirus to the 1918 pandemic. “You can’t compare this to 1918 where close to 100 million people died. That was a flu, which — a little different,” he said, overstating the likely death toll of that pandemic.
TRUMP, asked about the wisdom of freezing funding to the WHO during a pandemic: “I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we’re going to look at it.” Told he had said minutes earlier he would freeze funding, he said, “No, I didn’t. I said we’re going to look at it.” — briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Actually, he said earlier in the briefing that he was going to freeze U.S funding to the organization.
“We’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO,” he said. ”We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it.”
He’s unhappy with the organization’s coronavirus recommendations. The United States contributed nearly $900 million to its budget for 2018-19, according to information on the agency’s website, an amount that represented one-fifth of the WHO’s total budget for those years.
On Friday, Trump said he’ll make an announcement about WHO soon. “We’re going to be talking about that subject next week,” he told reporters. “We’ll have a lot to say about it. We’ll hold it.”
TRUMP, on the government’s decision to stockpile millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine to make it available for patients with COVID-19: “You’re not going to die from this pill. … I really think it’s a great thing to try, just based on what I know. Again, I’m not a doctor.” — news briefing Tuesday.
TRUMP: “What do you have to lose? I’ll say it again: What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice and it’s their doctor’s choice, or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine — try it, if you’d like.” — news briefing on April 4.
TRUMP: “They say taking it before the fact is good. … It can help them but it’s not going to hurt them.” — news briefing on April 5.
THE FACTS: He’s making unverified claims about a drug that can have serious side effects and may not work. The drug has not been approved as a treatment for COVID-19, and Trump’s own health experts say more studies are needed to know whether it’s safe and effective to use.
The president has been talking up hydroxychloroquine, a drug long used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, after very small preliminary studies suggested it might help prevent coronavirus from entering cells and possibly help patients clear the virus sooner.
Doctors can already prescribe the malaria drug to patients with COVID-19, a practice known as off-label prescribing. Research studies are now beginning to test if the drugs truly help COVID-19 patients, and the FDA has allowed the drugs into the national stockpile as an option for doctors to consider for patients who cannot get into one of the studies.
But the drug has major potential side effects, especially for the heart, and large studies are underway. The FDA says people should not take it without a prescription and emphasizes that the malaria drugs being explored “are not FDA-approved for treatment of COVID-19.”
The American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists in a joint statement warned against “prophylactically prescribing medications currently identified as potential treatments for COVID-19.” That means prescribing a medicine for the purpose of warding off a disease or preventing its spread.
TRUMP, explaining his hesitancy to suspend U.S. domestic flights to stem spread of the virus: “They’re generally very, very empty planes. … There’s also testing done when people get onto those planes and also when people get off the planes.” — news briefing on April 6.
THE FACTS: False. There’s no evidence to support his suggestion that travelers at U.S. airports are being regularly tested, let alone when they both get on and off the planes.
There are coronavirus screenings of some passengers arriving at 13 major U.S. airports on international flights, which involve temperature checks and questioning by U.S. agents about possible symptoms. Some states are also screening passengers who are arriving from hard-hit coronavirus areas in the U.S. and asking them to self-isolate. None of that is the same as getting a COVID-19 test, and there are plenty of gaps in containment.
The screenings, for instance, can miss people who don’t yet show symptoms of COVID-19; while symptoms often appear within five or six days of exposure, the incubation period is 14 days.
The checks on international travelers are primarily conducted for American citizens, legal permanent residents, and their immediate families who recently visited certain countries — many parts of Europe, as well as China and Iran.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Christoper Rugaber, Josh Boak, Matthew Perrone, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Lauran Neergaard and Colleen Long in Washington and Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this report.