From pandemic under-preparedness to environmental deregulation, Donald Trump’s federal government is out of the business of protecting lives and health.
As I write this, more than 55,000 Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 800 of them have died. More than 200 died yesterday. In many parts of the country, the number of detected infections, and death, are doubling every 3 days. By this weekend, more than 100,000 will have tested positive. Likely more than 1,500 will have died. The rampage of this virus is on a frightening trajectory; we are likely to see days in the month of April where 500 or more, perhaps even 1000, Americans die in a single day.
Unmoved by the carnage mounting all around him, Donald Trump now enlists Americans to “pack the churches” for Easter in 18 days, in the craven hope that they will literally risk their lives in massive congregations, all to provide the photo op he believes will bolster his chances at re-election. Most scientists predict that COVID-19 will be at its most savage right about that time.
It is not Donald Trump’s fault that COVID-19 arrived in America. But it is absolutely his fault that he stripped the Federal government of its power to slow the virus’ spread, and left so many citizens, doctors, and nurses to fend for themselves. Yet, no one who has watched Trump in office these last three years should be surprised. He has made it his business to disarm our government’s capacity to protect us from dangers in our environment – whether disease outbreak or cancer-causing chemicals in our air and water.
And now it’s killing us.
If anyone needed final proof of President Trump’s disregard for the wellbeing of Americans, it came this month. On March 13, Trump was asked whether he accepted any responsibility for his federal government’s shocking failure to provide COVID-19 test kits. “No, I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump replied.
On March 19, in response to urgent pleas from governors and medical professionals to supply desperately needed face masks, cotton swabs, hospital beds, and ventilators, Trump said dismissively that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.”
On March 22, Trump censured governors for the skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths. “Don’t blame me for your shortcomings,” he lashed out.
In other words, not only is the cavalry not riding to the rescue, but the cavalry does not think that riding to the rescue is its job anymore.
The president’s statements are unsettling. Americans believed that the federal government would always have their backs. Confused, they search for signs that Trump didn’t really mean that their government was abandoning them at a time of extraordinary need. They want to dismiss the statements as spur-of-the-moment thoughts of an inarticulate man who got trapped into a defensive crouch by crafty reporters.
But Trump’s words are no mistake. They are not ill-considered. They are entirely in sync with hundreds of his deliberate actions since day one of his presidency.
Since Trump took office, he has purposefully stripped the government of its ability to prepare for, let alone confront, a disease outbreak. He massively defunded or eliminated public health organizations. He ridiculed and fired public safety scientists. He replaced scientific experts with incompetent political hacks too weak to challenge the president when he is wrong. He endorsed the fraudulent reclassification of dangerous chemicals as not really that dangerous after all. And he pushed the passage of a rule that would forbid health agencies from relying on scientific studies used for years to safeguard Americans against toxic chemicals.
The sad truth is that leaving the American people to fend for themselves against a pandemic or cancer-causing pollution was not an ill-considered slip of the presidential tongue.
It was the plan.
The federal government’s inability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis was created by Trump in the spring of 2018 when he did three things.
First, he disbanded the National Security Council’s “Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense,” which President Obama established after the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis. That organization’s mission was to ensure preparedness for disease outbreaks, to marshal resources in a crisis, and to prevent a pandemic from savaging us.
Second, he fired Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert, who had called for a “comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks.”
Third, he fired and never replaced Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who headed the response team that would plan for global health security against a pandemic.
Now we learn of the President’s January reaction to reports a pandemic was about to shut down the country. Instead of consulting experts and planning a response, he told the American people the virus “would just disappear.”
With the same public health disarmament in mind, Trump cut the already subsistence-level budgets of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), the agencies that lead the federal government’s response to any disease outbreak.
Because of all that, America became a sitting duck for COVID-19.
At the same time, Trump was enthusiastically destroying 50 years of environmental protection, not only gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but transforming it into an advocate for the endangerment of Americans through the following ruthless actions:
Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, fraudulently discrediting science as an excuse to justify rollbacks of climate and health regulations while favoring power plants and the oil and gas industry.
He rid the EPA of scientific leadership, handing its authority to the polluting industries the EPA is supposed to police. Then he insisted on cutting EPA’s budget by over 25%, including money to clean up the nation’s most polluted (Superfund) sites and eliminated more than 50 public health programs that fight pollution, protect against the dangers of lead and radon and provide clean water to small and financially disadvantaged communities.
He eliminated funding for centers researching how children’s health is damaged by exposure to pesticides, traffic emissions, tobacco smoke, and industrial solvents.
He increased by 100 times the “acceptable cancer risk” industrial carcinogens cause, allowing polluters greater opportunity to use the chemicals in their profit-making. For the first time in its history, EPA now endorses “safe levels” of human carcinogens and wants that “safe level” to be the level to which Americans are already exposed.
Against the advice of scientists and lawyers, Trump decided to continue the import and use of the known killer asbestos. Similarly, Trump’s EPA has chosen to disregard its barely three-year-old finding that ethylene oxide is one of the most dangerous cancer-causers, and instead is working to relax restrictions on industry’s use of the chemical, even in residential neighborhoods.
Perhaps most diabolical, Trump concocted the “Secret Science Rule,” which forbids EPA and other federal government agencies from relying on the scientific studies it has trusted for years to determine the “safe levels” of industrial chemicals.
Trump’s determined dismantling of the last half-century of environmental protections will decimate our health. Pollution deregulation doesn’t generate COVID-19’s anxiety-inducing headlines. It hardly makes the front page. But it will almost certainly claim more American lives than the coronavirus.
I’ll sidestep the debate over why Trump is purposely leaving Americans unprotected by demobilizing almost every agency and silencing every person with the ability to ride to the rescue. The reason doesn’t matter right now.
We have to save ourselves.
Shawn Collins is a Chicago-based environmental and toxic torts lawyer who represents plaintiffs against polluters.