The safe, timely and equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines to the American people will be an undertaking akin to landing a spacecraft on an asteroid. For every day — even every hour — of delay, lives will be lost, people will suffer and economic misery will continue. Sulking in electoral defeat, the Trump administration is willfully prolonging the agony.
Pfizer announced Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine trials appear to be 90 percent effective in preventing the coronavirus that has infected more than 10 million Americans and killed nearly 250,000. That is indeed great news “for science and humanity,” as Pfizer put it. But creating the vaccine is only the first step — hundreds of millions of doses have to be manufactured and distributed so people can receive them. And the Trump administration is intentionally standing in the way.
Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, is refusing to sign the paperwork authorizing funds, office space and access to government records to smooth the transition for the incoming Biden administration. This violates norms established by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the law: The Presidential Transition Act requires that the outgoing administration provide resources to the incoming administration.
The intention of the law was to prevent a handover of executive power from weakening the country in the face of an ongoing challenge like, say, a global pandemic. The Trump administration, through Murphy, is saying to America: “You didn’t vote for us, so why should we do anything for you? You should have known that the basic functioning of the government would grind to a halt if the president didn’t get his way.”
I’m not surprised.
I was the homeland security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence and his lead adviser and staffer on the White House coronavirus task force. I was involved in the White House’s internal discussions on the pandemic and efforts to mount a massive vaccination effort. While there, I organized and participated in every meeting of the coronavirus task force until I left the administration in August.
I saw firsthand how politics dominated the task force’s work, how the president’s overriding concern for the economy and his re-election rather than the welfare of the American people cost lives. When we briefed the president and vice president on the coronavirus’s ravaging effects on Hispanic and Black communities, their response was only to position minority staffers on the task force more prominently for photo ops.
Public health experts have a saying: Vaccines don’t matter; vaccinations do. Having a viable vaccine in a vial somewhere is nice, but it doesn’t do any good unless it’s reproduced in enough doses for every American (and eventually every human) and distributed in a way that it can be administered everywhere — every apartment building in New York City and every small town in the Rockies.
It’s a logistical effort big enough to make even Amazon blush. While doctors, nurses and state and local public health officials are likely to be the ones administering most of the vaccines, it’s going to take a massive effort by the federal and state government working with the pharmaceutical companies to manufacture and distribute the vaccine. And that doesn’t even consider the nuances, like paying for it all.
Whatever plans the Trump administration might have to execute this Herculean challenge, its official policy is not to share them with the Biden team until they absolutely have to.
In a normal transition, the outgoing policymakers, staffers and experts would already be filling in their successors on what projects are underway, what stages they’re at, what the next steps are, and other information the next administration needs to successfully confront the most urgent threats facing the country.
But the Trump administration has stopped all transition efforts, activities and funding, and that will slow, if not completely halt, efforts to get vaccines to the American people. Since the transition hasn’t been formally approved, the vital information the next administration needs is either being shared in limited ways through unofficial channels, or not at all. The inevitable result if this continues is that the Biden Covid-19 response team will have to waste valuable time getting up to speed and retracing the few steps this administration has already taken.
On top of that, the federal government is scheduled to run out of money on Dec. 11, almost six weeks before the Biden administration takes over. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem to have, in principle, decided to pass new spending bills for 2021 and avert a government shutdown. But if President Donald Trump decides to oppose the legislation, he could force a government shutdown (as he’s done before).
The shutdown could last until after the new Congress takes office, on Jan. 3, and Biden is inaugurated, on Jan. 20. The debate over the details is far from clear, and the budget measures are getting tangled up in a coronavirus relief bill — another urgently needed measure to help Americans struggling from coronavirus and facilitate treatment of the disease. With the parties in Congress unable to come to an agreement on issues such as testing or state and local relief, delaying one until Biden is installed would only extend the timeline of the ongoing hardship.
Americans should breathe a sigh of relief that Trump was defeated at the ballot box last week, and give themselves a pat on the back for participating in an orderly, fair and free election with historic turnout amid a pandemic. But they should not slip into complacency, because Trump will still be in office for more than two months. For his entire presidency, he has made an enemy out of anyone who dared to tell him what he didn’t want to hear. Now that includes the American people.