WASHINGTON — The federal government placed orders for well over 100,000 new body bags to hold victims of COVID-19 in April, according to internal administration documents obtained by NBC News, as well as public records. The biggest set was earmarked for purchase the day after President Donald Trump projected that the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus might not exceed 50,000 or 60,000 people.
That batch is a pending $5.1 million purchase order placed by the Department of Homeland Security on April 21 with E.M. Oil Transport Inc. of Montebello, California, which advertises construction vehicles, building materials and electronics on its website. The “human remains pouches” have not been paid for or shipped to the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet, according to the company’s marketing manager, Mike Pryor.
“I hope to God that they don’t need my order and that they cancel it,” Pryor said in a text message exchange with NBC News.
Body bag contracts bid by Homeland Security and the Veterans Affairs Department are just one illustration of how Trump’s sunny confidence about the nation’s readiness to reopen is in conflict with the views of officials in his own administration who are quietly preparing for a far worse outcome.
Around the same time it wrote the contract for the body bags, FEMA opened up bidding to provide about 200 rented refrigerated trailers for locations around the country. The request for proposals specifies a preference for 53-foot trailers, which, at 3,600 cubic feet, are the largest in their class.
The cache of internal documents obtained by NBC News includes an April 25 “pre-decisional draft” of the coronavirus task force’s “incident outlook” for the response, a summary of the task force leaders’ meeting the same day and various communications among officials at several agencies. The documents show that task force members remain worried about several major risks ahead, including insufficient availability of coronavirus tests, the absence of a vaccine or proven treatments for the coronavirus, and the possibility of a “catastrophic resurgence” of COVID-19.
When asked in the past about the contrast between his assessments and those of senior officials on his task force, Trump has described his role as “cheerleader” for the country. “I want to give people in this country hope,” he said in March.
The president has also said testing “is not going to be a problem at all.” But officials from FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services clearly disagree. They flagged concerns with the testing plan in the draft of the incident outlook report, which was circulated to task force members along with a summary of the meeting.
The list of testing problems includes: “Limited number of diagnostic supplies. Limited capacity of test facilities. Limited trained response personnel to administer the tests. Unknown epidemiological information regarding COVID-19. Access to testing sites by underserved areas and at risk populations. Effective vaccines and therapeutics will not be available in sufficient quantities to meet the need. PPE is required by [medical countermeasures] developers and manufacturers.”
Task force officials raised those possibilities as they developed the “incident outlook” two days before Trump unveiled his “Reopening America Again” plan Monday. That strategy is designed to hand off more responsibility for the response to governors and local officials.
The documents show that the White House and its coronavirus task force are making a quick transition toward an advisory role in public health decisions made by states while maintaining the power to acquire goods and allocate them. Simultaneously, the administration is preparing for many more casualties.
The body bag order, confirmed by internal administration communications obtained by NBC News, is in addition to shipments of several thousand more body bags from vendors for the General Services Administration and the Defense Logistics Agency.
The VA, meanwhile, paid the supply distributor ISO Group $293,780 for an unknown number of body bags to be fully delivered Thursday. The contract states that the purchase is “in response to COVID-19.” ISO notes on its website that the federal government has awarded eight contracts for that specific body bag in the past 90 days for a total of $12.1 million.
The VA and ISO did not respond to NBC News’ inquiries about the contracts. A senior White House official declined to comment on the body bags.
Sam Imbriale, a senior aide at Health and Human Services, told members of the federal response team over the weekend that all resource request forms used by state, local and private-sector officials to seek federal supplies and other assistance must now be routed to the White House, according to a person who heard his remark to dozens of people on a phone conference.
NBC News’ request to HHS for an interview with Imbriale was routed to FEMA’s media relations team, which did not respond, and the senior White House official did not reply to a question about the remark.
The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump is taking into account the dangers associated with loosening stay-at-home restrictions and is following the advice of the coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, and other doctors on his task force in moving forward.
“At each of the three phases, they make recommendations for what needs to be done to safely begin reopening, while keeping in place mitigation efforts like social distancing,” the official said in an email. “Dr. Birx, for example, has been in consultation with states, on behalf of the White House, to advise if they are ready to move toward reopening based on a number of factors, one of which is testing capacity.”
Trump and his top advisers have long said more widespread testing is the predicate for resuming commercial activities paused by efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.
“We want to reopen, and the testing is not going to be a problem at all,” he declared Monday, adding later that “the fact that people aren’t allowed to have their freedom causes a tremendous amount of problems, including death.”
The White House official said the federal government is “ramping up” testing capacity rather than “slowing down” and noted a new deal with the Maine-based company Puritan to produce an additional 40 million testing swabs. The administration says 5 million tests have been administered so far — a number equal to about 1.5 percent of the national population — and that the goal for states to be ready to reopen is the ability to test 2 percent of their populations per month.
The push to kick-start an economy that is hemorrhaging workers as it shrinks has drawn little public criticism from within the administration, even as many health experts say loosening stay-at-home rules could greatly increase the number of casualties from a pandemic that has already claimed more than 62,000 lives. But similar concerns were flagged in the preliminary version of the document supporting his strategy that was developed by sub-units of the coronavirus task force made up of employees of FEMA, the Defense Department, HHS and other federal agencies.
The interagency teams concluded that governors, mayors, community leaders and individual Americans may resist Trump’s pressure precisely because they believe it will lead to more death.
“Late indicators and human decision making may delay mitigation to prevent catastrophic resurgence,” the “incident outlook” report developed by FEMA and HHS says in a subsection titled “risks/limiting factors” for the objective of “minimizing transmission & risks to public health.”
The other listed reasons demonstrate federal officials’ fears that reversing stay-at-home rules and social distancing guidelines could have fatal consequences.
“States may not be following the recommended ‘gating’ process to make community mitigation adjustments,” the document says. “Individual mitigation measures (e.g. hand washing) are often easy to support, but stricter community mitigation measures (e.g. social distancing) can be disruptive making them difficult to sustain. Individuals travelling from high impact areas to low impact areas may have contracted COVID-19 but are asymptomatic. Mitigation fatigue. Community mitigation measures may not have the desired impact. Insufficient [state and local] staff to implement moderate mitigation measures.”
The president is aware of the worries and shares concerns about the potential for a resurgence, the White House official said.
“Our guidelines are based on strong public health science and have been vetted through the interagency,” the official said. “But we also understand the novel nature of this virus and that nothing is foolproof. We are encouraging extensive mitigation efforts in the public space to ensure health and safety.”
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Some of Trump’s advisers have put more emphasis on health risks and less on immediate economic peril. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that there could be “a bad fall” if states and cities reopen too early.
“If by that time we have put into place all of the countermeasures that you need to address this, we should do reasonably well,” Fauci said in remarks to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. “If we don’t do that successfully, we could be in for a bad fall and a bad winter.”
The April 25 meeting was attended by, among others, FEMA Director Pete Gaynor; Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services for health; Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, vice director for logistics of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is the supply-chain lead for the coronavirus task force; and staff from the White House’s National Security Council. The NSC staff members dialed in by videoconference, according to the summary of the session.
The preliminary incident outlook draft also laid out challenges to stabilizing the medical supply chain and health care systems — including the risk of disasters on top of the COVID-19 crisis — as Trump tries to reduce the federal role in the response and put more responsibility on state and local governments.
“Food/water or other large commodity mission resulting from an additional disaster declaration would reduce response capabilities for COVID-19,” the document says.
The resiliency of the U.S. health care system faces hurdles, too, according to the incident outlook draft.
“Additional disasters may further stress the healthcare system,” the document says. “Lack of [personal protective equipment] will decrease effectiveness of proposed strategies. Essential pharmaceutical supply shortages. Infection rate and absenteeism of workforce. Non-pharmaceutical interventions may not have the desired impact.”
The primary complication for communications during the period of transition to more localized control of the response, according to the incident outlook report, is “lack of trust in government messaging.”
Jonathan Allen reported from Washington, Phil McCausland from New York and Cyrus Farivar from Oakland, California.
Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel
The cabinet on Sunday approved widespread fiscal reforms that will cut the budgets of most ministries in order to fund the establishment of six new ministries, including the office of the “alternate prime minister,” in a series of controversial decisions.
A unity coalition deal between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in earlier this month. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s 33 ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.
The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million) over its three-year span. There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the new offices created Sunday was the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, which will be held by Defense Minister Gantz for 18 months and then be transferred to Netanyahu as part of a power-sharing deal designed to allow him to keep the prime ministerial title even after vacating the post. Unlike other ministers, a prime minister can remain in his post even after he is indicted on criminal charges.
Other offices are Ze’ev Elkin’s Water Resources and Higher Education ministries; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Ministry of Community Empowerment; David Amsalem’s Cyber Ministry; and Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi’s Settlements Ministry.
Gantz — who is currently defense minister, in addition to the new post of alternate premier — is set to take over as prime minister in 18 months under the coalition deal, at which point Netanyahu will become alternate prime minister.
As the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office was approved, Netanyahu on Sunday denied reports that the alternate prime minister would also be granted an alternate prime minister’s residence. “It’s not true. It didn’t come up and it won’t,” he said.
In order to create the new posts, ministers approved a government decision that will see a 1.5% cut to the budgets of all government offices, specifically at the upper personnel level. The move will slash 300 posts from the various offices to free up some NIS 100 million ($28.5 million).
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the budget cuts to foreign service, whereupon the cuts to his ministry were reduced from NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) to NIS 4.8 million ($1.3 million), the Walla news site reported.
On the 22-item agenda, the cabinet was also voting on filling the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, and other ministerial panels; appointing directors general of the defense and economy ministries; and giving the green light to new Finance Minister Israel Katz’s program to encourage employment amid the pandemic.
In a Saturday night address, Katz presented his new Finance Ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May. Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.
Economy Minister Amir Peretz opposed the treasury proposal during the meeting, arguing that it rewards employers who dropped their workers while harming those who kept their employees on the payroll even at a loss, according to the Globes business daily.
Katz retorted: “There is an alternate prime minister. There is no alternate finance minister. I am the finance minister and I will lead the implementation of the government decisions, which I proposed, and which were accepted by an overwhelming majority,” the Ynet news site reported.
Sunday’s cabinet meeting also saw Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri receive building and planning powers that were previously under the treasury’s purview, while the Health Ministry was granted additional powers to combat the coronavirus.
The meeting on Sunday was held in the Foreign Ministry’s auditorium as the regular cabinet meeting rooms were not large enough to accommodate all the ministers while maintaining social distancing, according to reports.
Opposition chairman Yair Lapid issued a statement blasting the government after ministers approved funding for the newly formed offices created by the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal.
“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself,” said Lapid.
“For redundant offices like the Water Resources Ministry, the nonexistent Community Empowerment Ministry and for deputy ministers that no one needs. Detached lawmakers, we’ve had enough of you.”
Separately, last Wednesday, a bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading. The so-called Norwegian Law — which still requires three more votes to become law — would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead.
The opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.
Tapper: Some of Trump’s allies think he’s not up to the task – CNN
In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times
WASHINGTON — With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.
Over the last week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man. But Mr. Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organization, Big Tech, former President Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.
While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr. Trump plays with matches. He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.
As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with the police, Mr. Trump made no appeal for calm. Instead in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even suggested his own supporters mount a counterdemonstration.
The turmoil came right to Mr. Trump’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. Trump, ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.
The police cordoned off several blocks around the Executive Mansion as a phalanx of camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched across nearby Lafayette Square. A man strode through the streets yelling, “Time for a revolution!” The image of the White House surrounded by police in helmets and riot gear behind plastic shields fueled the sense of a nation torn apart.
Mr. Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help on Friday night, which she denied. While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr. Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.
“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the president wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”
His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors. “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters. “They love African-American people,” he said. “They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” By evening, however, Mr. Trump’s supporters were not in evidence among the crowds at the White House.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington responded sharply on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the president, and by Saturday evening her officers were out in force around the White House.
But she called the president a source of division. “While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”
After his morning barrage, Mr. Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.
“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.”
The days of discord have put the president’s leadership style on vivid display. From the start of his ascension to power, Mr. Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker. That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.
But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.
“The president seems more out-of-touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the president is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”
Such a moment would challenge any president, of course. It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout. Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.
It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people. But in some ways, Mr. Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarization rather than a mender of it.
“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”
As the nation has confronted a coronavirus pandemic at the same time as the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, whatever unified resolve that existed at the beginning of the twin crises quickly evaporated into yet another cultural clash. And the president has made everything into just another partisan dispute rather than a source of consensus, from when and how to reopen to whether to wear a mask in public.
Mr. Trump led no national mourning as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000 beyond lowering the flags at the White House, posting a single tweet and offering a passing comment on camera only when asked about it. Rather than seek agreement on the best and safest way to restore daily life, he threatened to “override” governors who prevented places of worship from resuming crowded services.
“Crisis leadership demands much more from the White House than irresponsible threats on social media,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.
Mr. Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the president’s most instinctive response to national challenges. Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.
“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few if any of his critics.
Even some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were distressed at the original shooting tweet. Geraldo Rivera, the television and radio host who often spends time with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, decried “the recklessness” of that message and called on the president “to self-censor himself.”
“Come on, what is this, sixth grade?” Mr. Rivera said on Fox News. “You don’t put gasoline on the fire. That’s not calming anybody.” He added: “All he does is diminish himself.”
But many of the president’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Portland and other cities.
“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”
Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter. “It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”
Mr. Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Saturday.
With crowds visible from his upstairs windows, Mr. Trump reached for his phone and again assailed the “Democrat Mayor” of Minneapolis for not responding more vigorously and called on New York to unleash its police against crowds. “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he wrote. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”
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