Trump's Cabinet remains largely sidelined in coronavirus fight

As the federal response is criticized on several fronts, the president's Cabinet is also drawing fire for lack of action.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald Trump and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross at the White House on June 12, 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — Amid a federal coronavirus response that has been criticized for missteps such as ignoring warnings of a coming pandemic, a failure to procure adequate medical supplies and a severe lack of testing, there’s nearly an entire arm of President Donald Trump’s administration effectively sitting on the sidelines — his Cabinet.

Missing from roles in the official White House Coronavirus Task Force, many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries have remained less than fixated on rapid pandemic response.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, for example, has rebuffed pleas for new workplace safety mandates from meatpackers, other front-line workers and congressional Democrats. Critics also claim that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been slow to release billions in federal funding to struggling farmers. And Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, encamped at his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, has hardly been heard from amid the biggest economic crisis in a generation.

Trump has been eager to tout his administration’s pandemic response, insisting that the federal government is fully engaged in rescuing Americans from the worst public health crisis in 100 years.

But a review of efforts of several Cabinet departments with tools and enforcement powers to address the pandemic found delayed and uneven assistance or support.

The Labor Department has issued safety recommendations and enforcement guidelines for meatpacking plants to follow but isn’t mandating infectious disease protections for meat and poultry facility workers, even though Trump ordered the plants to reopen despite a spike in coronavirus cases.

Many small businesses are still unable to obtain federal aid as the Small Business Administration comes under a crush of applications and funding debates in Congress. Many of the neediest college students are still awaiting aid promised from the Department of Education.

And only in mid-April did the Department of Agriculture start addressing disruptions to the food supply chain even as farmers destroy crops and grocery stores cite food shortages.

“It’s not fixed in one agency or one issue but about how you are coordinating resources and working with state and local governments,” said Jacob Leibenluft, who worked in the Treasury Department during the 2009 financial crisis under President Barack Obama and later in the National Economic Council.

The White House says the president has harnessed an "all-of-America" effort. "President Trump’s Administration is leading the largest mobilization of resources since World War II to win the war against COVID-19 and keep Americans safe," White House spokesman Judd Deere told NBC News. "The all-of-America response (individuals, academia, the private sector, etc.) was guided by the Trump Administration’s whole-of-Government approach that utilized the expertise of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the weight of various departments and agencies."

Trump last convened his Cabinet on Nov. 19, 2019, months before the administration acknowledged coronavirus as a public health threat.

The hands-off approach is especially relevant given the president’s indications that he plans to eventually wind down the task force, or at least shift its focus more toward reopening the economy, putting the onus for response efforts on federal agencies. On Wednesday, Trump reversed his earlier statements indicating that the task force would soon end, saying it will continue working “indefinitely.”

Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary during Obama’s first term, said Cabinet members in the Obama administration were fully engaged during emergencies. “Every power in the federal arsenal” was activated, Lu said.

Andrew Card, who was chief of staff to President George W. Bush, described a similar “whole of government” response within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush, Card said, held a Cabinet meeting and, “with phenomenal specificity,” addressed each member.

“It was a tour-de-force of knowledge of what the work of governing was while we were at war,” Card said. “There were no responsibilities taken away. There were just things added.”

It’s been a different story under the Trump administration.

Scalia, for example, has been working from Washington and has not personally visited any site where workers have complained about health safety measures, but he did accompany the president to Arizona on Tuesday to tour a mask-making factory.

Perdue’s office says the secretary has "responsibly practiced social distancing" during the pandemic and while has not traveled to meet with farmers, he has participated in over 60 "stakeholder" calls and three task force briefings as well as many media interviews. And Perdue traveled with Vice President Mike Pence to Iowa Friday, which has been hard hit by coronavirus infections at meat packing plants.

"It is blatantly false to say that Secretary Perdue has been sidelined," a USDA spokesperson told NBC News. "Secretary Perdue has led the Department of Agriculture in ensuring American families are fed and farmers are able to supply this nation with an affordable, safe and nutritious food supply."

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who’s had an empty public schedule for weeks and last appeared at the White House on March 27, is working from home in Michigan. Groups funded by the billionaire DeVos family, among Michigan’s richest, helped promote a mid-April protest against stay-at-home orders that drew thousands and sparked protests in a number of other states. Her office did not respond to requests about her schedule.

Ross, another Trump Cabinet billionaire and, at 82, its oldest member, is teleworking from Florida to “the extent possible,” according to his office.

As the first president with no previous government or military experience, Trump has defined his tenure in office by a steadfast commitment to shrinking the very agencies Americans are now dependent on during the pandemic, along with record-setting levels of staff turnover in the Cabinet.

While some Cabinet officials are members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, others with direct responsibility for aspects of the government’s pandemic response, including the secretaries of Labor and Agriculture and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, were not included.

All told, Cabinet secretaries have made a handful of appearances at the daily White House task force briefings to inform Americans about what their departments are doing to help.

But they continue to gut or enforce rules that critics argue are unrelated to the pandemic and are championed by conservatives.

Perdue was stopped by a federal court in March from instituting cuts to the federal food assistance program. While USDA recently touted an increase in SNAP benefits, it was as a provision inserted by House Democrats and later mandated by Congress.

Scalia has pressed forward with a new labor union financial reporting requirement championed by conservative groups. And while COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory ailment, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently rolled back standards for fossil fuel emissions, among the biggest contributors to air pollution.

“Many of the most powerful Cabinet agencies are totally asleep at the wheel, or worse, using the pandemic to jam through a host of pro-industry policies,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.us, a progressive watchdog.