Trump’s COVID-19 power grab

In his mind, the coronavirus crisis is just another opportunity.

SOURCERobert Reich
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The utter chaos in America’s response to the pandemic—shortages of equipment to protect hospital workers, dwindling supplies of ventilators and critical medications, and jaw-dropping confusion over how the $2.2 trillion of aid in the recent coronavirus law will be distributed—was perhaps predictable in a nation that prides itself on competitive individualism and hates centralized power.

But it is also tailor-made for Donald Trump, who has spent a lifetime exploiting chaos for personal gain and blaming others for losses.

“I take no responsibility at all” for the slow rate of coronavirus testing in the United States, he said.

On Friday, when asked if he could assure New Yorkers there would be enough ventilators next week when virus victims are expected to overwhelm city hospitals, he replied, “No. They should have had more ventilators.”

Trump has told governors to find ventilators and other life-saving equipment on their own. He refuses to create a central bargaining agent for what’s needed, arguing the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” This has left states and cities bidding against each other, driving up prices.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described how ventilators went from $25,000 to $45,000 “because we bid $25,000. California says, ‘I’ll give you $30,000’ and Illinois says, ‘I’ll give you $35,000’ and Florida says ‘I’ll give you $40,000. And then, FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] gets involved and FEMA starts bidding! And now FEMA is bidding on top of the 50! So FEMA is driving up the price. What sense does this make? We’re literally bidding up the prices ourselves.”

New York state is paying 20 cents for gloves that normally cost less than 5 cents, $7.50 for masks that normally go for 50 cents, $2,795 for infusion pumps that normally cost half that, $248,841 for a portable X-ray machine that typically sells for $30,000 to $80,000.

Who’s pocketing all this? An array of producers, importers, wholesalers, and speculators. State laws against price gouging usually don’t apply to government purchases.

Some of it may be finding its way into this fall’s election campaigns. Veteran Republican fundraiser Mike Gula and Republican political operative John Thomas just started a company selling coronavirus testing kits, personal protective equipment and other “hard to find medical supplies to beat the outbreak.” They call themselves “the largest global network of COVID-19 medical suppliers.”

Asked how he’d found such equipment, Gula explains “I have relationships with a lot of people.” Thomas says “in politics—especially if you’re at a high enough level—you are one phone call away from anybody in the world.”

Meanwhile, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—who’s one phone call away from anyone—is running a “shadow” coronavirus task force that’s been enlisting the private sector and overseeing the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies, all out of public view. “It’s supposed to be our stockpile—it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles,” he said cryptically on Thursday.

Oh, and let’s not forget the giant coronavirus bill Trump signed into law on March 28, which created a $500 billion fund that Trump and his Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, will distribute to the private sector.

In a signing statement, Trump said he wouldn’t agree to provisions in the bill for congressional oversight—meaning the wheeling-and-dealing will be in secret.

To oversee the slush fund, Trump has picked one of his White House lawyer lackeys who played a key role in shaping his impeachment defense. Then Trump fired the inspector general for the intelligence community who first told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment.

Is there any doubt Trump will try to use this money, as well as his son-in-law’s secretive dealings, to improve his odds of reelection?  

Recall that Trump was impeached on charges of abuse of power and obstructing investigations. Eight months ago, he phoned Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking dirt on Joe Biden and threatening to hold up military aid to get it.

In June 2016, his son, Donald Jr., and Jared Kushner met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, after a Russian intermediary contacted Trump Jr. with a promise to provide material that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton and be “very useful to your father,” adding it was part of the Russian government’s “support” for Trump.

Donald Trump calls allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election a “hoax.” He called his impeachment a “hoax.” He initially called the coronavirus a “hoax.”

But the real hoax is Trump’s commitment to America. In reality he will do anything—anything—to hold on to power. In his mind, the coronavirus crisis is just another opportunity.


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.