Partisan Rift Emerges Over Private COVID-19 Task Force Briefings to States

September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

The Trump administration warned states in private briefings that they were becoming COVID-19 hotspots while publicly striking a less alarmist tone, a Democrat-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis revealed.

On Monday, eight weeks of reports were obtained from the Trump administration’s task force, showing how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus spread across states.

Democrats have accused the administration of downplaying the severity of the outbreak, but Republicans have dismissed the claims as “another phony scandal.”

“The Task Force reports released today show the White House has known since June that coronavirus cases were surging across the country and many states were becoming dangerous ‘red zones’ where the virus was spreading fast,” said the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), in a statement.

A “red zone” designation is where there are more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population and/or where more than 10 percent of new tests come in positive. Regions with between 10 and 100 new cases per 100,000 population and/or test positivity between 5 and 10 percent are defined by the task force as a “yellow zone.”

Clayburn accused the Trump administration of neglecting to provide “these alarming reports” to the public and therefore putting Americans at risk.

“Rather than being straight with the American people and creating a national plan to fix the problem, the President and his enablers kept these alarming reports private while publicly downplaying the threat to millions of Americans,” Clayburn added.

As an example of the claimed contradiction, the House Committee pointed to a June 29 task force report (pdf), which showed that 10 states were in the “red zone,” with “significant” increases in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Yet on June 26, Vice President Mike Pence stated: “All 50 states are opening up safely and responsibly.”

The subcommittee found another supposed contradiction between an Aug. 2 report (pdf), which showed that 23 states were in the “red zone,” and said that “the virus is spreading deeper into the rural areas” of Oklahoma, and a statement by President Donald Trump in a July 28 interview with Axios, in which he said that “[T[hey are dying, that’s true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

U.S. President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump holds a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Fla., on July 31, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The Trump administration has taken a range of measures in response to the outbreak, including taking early action to cut off travel from China, the origin of the virus, mobilizing public and private sectors to secure supplies in the face of a shortage, enacting the Defense Production Act over 30 times, and fast-tracking the development of a CCP virus vaccine.

White House spokesman Judd Deere, in a statement to The Center for Public Integrity, called the subcommittee action “a partisan report completely for the purpose of falsely distorting the President’s record to protect the health and safety of the American people and save millions of lives.”

“The Coronavirus Task Force has been providing tailored recommendations to individual states for months encouraging Governors and local health officials to act immediately while at the same time President Trump and the entire administration has reminded Americans to follow CDC recommendations and best practices to slow the spread as we work to reopen,” Deere added.

The committee’s top-ranking Republican, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, denied the Trump administration was withholding data on the pandemic and dismissed Democrat claims as the “latest fake news.”

“Democrats again have created another phony scandal, this time claiming they’ve unearthed individual state coronavirus data when in fact the data was publicly available all along,” he said in a statement. “Data on cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations, and deaths are widely available and have never been hidden from the American people nor from state and local governments.”

The White House has insisted that the pandemic response be led by states and while it has issued guidance on recommended precautions like wearing facial coverings, it has not imposed measures like nationwide mask-wearing mandates.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @OZImekTOM