A new report published on August 5 details months of willful failures to confront the coronavirus pandemic by the White House, and paints President Donald Trump’s authoritarian tactics during that national crisis as an overt assault on the nation’s democratic institutions ahead of elections in November.

The report by Common Cause titled Intentional Disregard: Trump’s Authoritarianism During the Covid-19 Pandemic, highlights Trump’s coronavirus response as part of a larger effort by the president to attack U.S. democracy. As evidence to support its thesis, Common Cause points to the president’s repeated claim that mail-in voting—favored by 58% of Americans according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday — will result in a “rigged” election. The report also shows how the administration is actively undermining the U.S. Postal Service by naming a top GOP donor with no USPS experience as postmaster general.

“The Trump administration’s failed response to the Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented public health crisis leading to a worsening economic crisis. What is becoming clearer each day is President Trump’s intent to use this chaos to create a crisis for our democracy,” said Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn.

“Intentional Disregard” catalogues the administration’s steadfast refusal to treat the pandemic as a serious threat, starting on January 3 when a Chinese official first informed the CDC of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Though the president received several classified, urgent briefings about the threat in early 2020, one of the administration’s earliest responses to the public health crisis was to ignore federal vaccine expert Rick Bright when he “he raised concerns in January about the need to prepare for the coronavirus” and insist that he invest in procuring hydroxychloroquine “without proper scientific vetting.” Bright was dismissed from his role at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) when he refused.

Common Cause writes in its report that Trump’s response to Bright was indicative of a larger attack on inspectors general at federal agencies, including Christi Grimm. Grimm was ousted from her role as principal deputy inspector general at HHS on May 1, weeks after she published a report about Covid-19 testing supply shortages and widespread shortages of personal protective equipment at U.S. hospitals.

“None of President Trump’s efforts to thwart oversight of his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic come as a surprise,” Common Cause reports. “Throughout his presidency, Trump has abused his power to avoid accountability and install loyalists in key oversight positions.”

The administration’s aversion to oversight during the pandemic has extended to the appropriation of funds under the $2 trillion CARES Act in March.

“The ink of President Trump’s signature on the CARES Act was not even dry yet when he issued a statement indicating that he would not comply with the oversight provisions” in the bill, according to the report.

The president named White House lawyer Brian Miller as the inspector general for pandemic recovery, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin only agreed to release the names of companies which received aid under the CARES Act after public outcry over his initial refusal to disclose the names. In a number of ways, the report explains, Trump and his top officials have used the pandemic to divide rather than unite people across the U.S. and to use the crisis to his own political advantage, even as the death toll rose to 1,000 people per day in July.

“We know the government can do better,” said Paul Seamus Ryan, Common Cause vice president for policy and litigation. “Other governments around the world are doing a much better job than our own handling this pandemic. Trump’s decision to politicize everything, including public health guidance, sets us apart from the world.”

The report detailed the president’s politicization tactics including:

  • his refusal to wear a protective face mask as advised by the CDC, pitting Trump supporters and detractors against one another by speculating in June “that people were wearing masks not as a preventive measure but as a way to signal disapproval of him”
  • his claim that Democrats are pushing to keep public schools closed unless the federal government devises and fully funds a plan to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in classrooms
  • his stoking of outrage over state and local lockdown measures, with groups affiliated with the Trump campaign bankrolling sometimes-violent anti-quarantine protests attended by a small, vocal minority of Americans

“These groups have had the advantage of being amplified through the social media platform of President Trump,” the report states. “This includes the president tweeting things such as ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ and ‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA!’ When asked about whether he would urge protesters to follow the rules of local authorities, Trump all but confirmed that the protesters are following his rhetoric closely by saying, ‘I think they listen to me. They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion.'”

A section of the report draws attention to the president’s attempts at “information manipulation,” including his undermining of the USPS. As reported recently, following Trump’s appointment of former Republican National Committee chair Louis DeJoy as postmaster general, members of the postal workers union have raised alarm about new mail sorting procedures and overtime cuts that have already led to mail delivery delays in battleground states.

“Congress must step up to stop Trump from undermining the postal service by turning it into a partisan weapon as we head toward national elections, which will depend on the postal service more than ever,” Common Cause writes, as voters across the country will rely on a vote-by-mail system during the 2020 elections to cast ballots without risking Covid-19 infection.

Although Trump himself voted by mail in the 2018 election and several states including solidly-red Utah have held elections via mail for years, the president has repeatedly claimed voting by mail will be used to rig the presidential election in Democrats’ favor.

“Trump’s claims against vote-by-mail are simply NOT true,” tweeted Bette Marchant, chief financial officer at Common Cause.

The report alleges that Trump “continues to spread lies” and rebukes the president for threatening to withhold federal assistance to states that implement robust vote-by-mail strategies. “It seems that he believes he is the only person who should be allowed to exercise his right to vote while protecting his health during the Covid-19 pandemic,” it states.

Ryan, speaking for Common Cause, said the November elections will be the “opportunity for Americans to hold government accountable” and that his group’s focus nationwide will be that “every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot safely and securely.”

In its report, Common Cause recommends a number of steps lawmakers must take to ensure U.S. democracy survives the coronavirus pandemic and that Americans are afforded the opportunity to remove Trump from office in November, including:

  • passing the HEROES Act and the For the People Act, both of which have been approved by the Democratic-led House and would expand vote-by-mail and fund this year’s elections
  • ensuring federal oversight of Covid-19 relief through the passage of the Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act of 2020 (CORE Act)
  • protecting inspectors general from firing without cause by passing the Inspector General Independence Act

“Enactment of these reforms would make the government more responsive and accountable to the American people and less susceptible to authoritarians like President Trump,” the group said.

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January 2020. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following year, we have published hundreds of articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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