Grifts in the Time of Pandemics

The Congresswoman is pissed.

Yes, Trump sent 17.8 tons of medical supplies to China early in 2020.

I foresee investigations to come. But with the Trumpers, it’s hard to know where the grift ends and sheer incompetence begins. This is from Politico, yesterday:

Last week, a Trump administration official working to secure much-needed protective gear for doctors and nurses in the United States had a startling encounter with counterparts in Thailand.

The official asked the Thais for help—only to be informed by the puzzled voices on the other side of the line that a U.S. shipment of the same supplies, the second of two so far, was already on its way to Bangkok.

The official then went to Mike Pence, who didn’t know about the assistance to Thailand, either. The shipments of supplies to other countries were initiated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent government agency with a budget of over $27 billion. It is part of our government’s foreign policy apparatus and is supposed to be overseen by the State Department. The USAID website brags about the assistance U.S. taxpayers are providing to help other countries fight the pandemic. And, really, we should be helping other countries fight the pandemic; this needs to be an internationally coordinated effort and not every country for itself.

But I’m not seeing any coordinating going on. It’s just chaos.

There’s currently a hold on USAID shipments as Trumpers try to figure out what’s going on. Back to Politico:

President Donald Trump seems attuned to the political hazards. During Monday’s task force briefing, he emphasized that the U.S. was sending only “things that we don’t need” to other countries. “We’re going to be sending approximately $100 million worth of things – of surgical and medical and hospital things to Italy,” he announced.

The Politico reporting suggests that the “medical things” really are things we need here, though.

“The problem is, there’s not one person who’s in charge of this, which is why we’re instituting a review process that is led by the White House coronavirus task force,” a person directly involved with the review said.

Officials close to USAID say the ongoing review is more akin to a hold, as the task force examines the aid agency’s procurement of supplies and asks aid officials to alert them if there are other such shipments in the works.

But then if you keep reading the Politico article, it turns out that the State Department knew all about it.

America’s diplomats are also grappling with China’s attempts to exploit the shortages by supplying aid to Western countries, keenly aware of Beijing’s interest in showing it is supplanting the United States as a global leader.

Just days before a load of medical supplies from China arrived in the U.S. for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the State Department boasted in a press release that the United States was “Leading the Humanitarian and Health Assistance Response to COVID-19.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted the aid in a press conference on Tuesday, noting, “We’ve now made available a total of $274 million in funding to as many as 64 countries,” money he said “would go to some of the world’s most at-risk peoples.”

In the last two months, at least five U.S. embassies, including in MyanmarTajikistanUzbekistanKyrgyzstan and Laos, all announced in press releases that the U.S. government had given protective gear to their host countries, sometimes including pictures of boxes of the donations.

So at least some Trumpers did know that these much-needed resources were going overseas, and mostly this was being done so that China couldn’t make us look bad.

It’s crazy out there. There are reports a company in Texas is sitting on 2 million N95 masks and is ready to sell them — at six times the normal price. Meanwhile, medical personnel around the country are reporting that they are risking their lives caring for coronavirus patients without enough personal protection equipment. Hospitals are threatening to fire these same people if they keep talking to reporters. Vox reports that a huge gray market in medical supplies has emerged as all sorts of random people — some hoping to do good, some hoping to make a quick buck — jump into the medical supplies business.

Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single entity coordinating all this stuff? Like, you know, a government?

And this takes us to Charles Pierce and his must-read All the President*’s Excuses for Not Using the Defense Production Act Were Absolute Moonshine. Pierce begins by pointing to a New York Times report saying that the dreaded Defense Production Act is used all the time.

Chemicals used to construct military missiles. Materials needed to build drones. Body armor for agents patrolling the southwest border. Equipment for natural disaster response.

A Korean War-era law called the Defense Production Act has been used to place hundreds of thousands of orders by President Trump and his administration to ensure the procurement of vital equipment, according to reports submitted to Congress and interviews with former government officials.

Yet as governors and members of Congress plead with the president to use the law to force the production of ventilators and other medical equipment to combat the coronavirus pandemic, he has for weeks treated it like a “break the glass” last resort, to be invoked only when all else fails.

“You know, we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Mr. Trump said earlier this month. “Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.”

To which Charles Pierce responds,

Therefore, all the excuses that the president* has used for not using the DPA more widely in response to this pandemic, and in response to desperate pleas from the country’s governors, are absolute moonshine. He prefers the way things are working now. He wants governors to compete against FEMA, lose, and then have to beg for ventilators and PPE, which he can dole out like pork-barrel projects to help his re-election campaign.

Yep, one suspects that’s exactly the scam he’s planning. Because Trump doesn’t know how to do anything else.

See also:

Desperate lawmakers hunt for medical supplies as Trump takes hands-off approach, posted today in Politico.

History’s verdict on Trump will be devastating by Michael D’Antonio at CNN.

Greg Sargent, A White House report blows up Trump’s latest coronavirus defense