WASHINGTON — It sounded like a great deal: The White House coronavirus task force would buy a defense company’s new cleaning machines to allow critical protective masks to be reused up to 20 times. And at $60 million for 60 machines on April 3, the price was right.
But over just a few days, the potential cost to taxpayers exploded to $413 million, according to notes of a coronavirus task force meeting obtained by NBC News. By May 1, the Pentagon pegged the ceiling at $600 million in a justification for awarding the deal without an open bidding process or an actual contract. Even worse, scientists and nurses say the recycled masks treated by these machines begin to degrade after two or three treatments, not 20, and the company says its own recent field testing has only confirmed the integrity of the masks for four cycles of use and decontamination.
Nurses in several places across the country now say they are afraid of being at greater risk of acquiring COVID-19 while using N95 masks, which they say often don’t fit correctly after just a few spins through a cleaning system that uses vapor phase hydrogen peroxide to disinfect them.
The nurses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from their employers or the government, said they believe the machines, which are made by the Battelle Memorial Institute and have been promoted by President Donald Trump, were rushed into service as a shortcut to acquiring and manufacturing protective equipment.
“It’s a fairy tale,” said one nurse in Connecticut who works at a hospital where masks are run through the Battelle decontamination system. “It’s being done because we don’t have the policies in place to do what needs to be done, and people are going to be hurt because of it.”
As Trump has pushed to find silver-bullet solutions to the pandemic during an election year, the speedy decision to activate the machines reflects yet again the problematic decision-making of the White House task force. As a series of NBC News articles have shown, its leaders have looked past financial costs, potential harm to the public and the risk of getting ghosted by bidders in order to give Trump a steady stream of deals to announce, often with major companies.
“They’re always swinging for the fences hoping that one time they’ll hit a grand slam” and not worrying if they strike out, said one administration official familiar with the work of the task force. “They’re gambling that they’ll win one time, and if they don’t they’ll just deflect, which is what we see inside all the time.”
In weeks of interviews, email exchanges and text messages over the last month with scores of people involved at all levels of the coronavirus response — senior White House officials to front-line responders, career federal officials to scientists working in the field, corporate CEOs to front-line responders — a picture of the task force’s methods has come into ever-sharper focus. Working without external oversight, it has pumped billions of dollars into hard-to-trace contracts for COVID-19 supplies that often don’t pan out as advertised.
White House officials have said often that the president is doing everything he can to protect the nation from the twin emergencies of the disease and its effect on the economy, and Trump and his lieutenants have routinely justified waiving safety and contracting rules by pointing to the need to speed supplies to the front lines of the fight. But critics say Trump has prioritized political ends at the expense of sound science and contracting practices that are designed to protect the public.
“They keep saying these recycled masks are still safe after all these cycles, but we don’t know that,” said a nurse in Pennsylvania, whose hospital has used Battelle’s system. “What we do know is that there are not enough masks for medical workers and there are very real consequences if we get sick.”
Battelle stands by its 2016 study of its technology, which used manikins rather than human subjects to determine whether masks lost their fit or were permeated by particles after 20 uses, according to company officials who responded to NBC News’ inquiries in an email. But the company also said it has only verified the purity of masks for four uses in field testing at Massachusetts General Hospital since the machines were built to respond to a pandemic. That puts health care workers in the position of being the first living experimental test subjects.
“To date, Battelle has received and tested samples representative of four actual use cycles from MassGen,” Will Richter, Battelle’s principal research scientist, said. “The goal of this assessment is to determine the impact of actual wear.”
The pursuit of an all-of-the-above approach to finding medical solutions and equipment to slow the spread of the virus has perversely wasted time, money and opportunity, according to critics within the administration who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because they fear losing their jobs.
But some lawmakers, former government officials and a handful of current administration officials have spoken publicly in ways that echo and amplify those concerns.
“It’s just outrageous,” Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. “Over the course of the last few weeks, what this administration has done, how they have done it with contracts and everything, there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability.”
Battelle’s sanitizers were mobilized by a task force designed to execute on Trump’s demands, despite reservations about safety and cost.
On March 29, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, slammed the Food and Drug Administration for limiting a waiver of safety regulations for Battelle, which is based in his state. DeWine had lobbied heavily for the waiver in the first place and was upset that the use of Battelle machines was going to be restricted.
At the time, Trump was highly sensitive to criticism from the nation’s governors, having said that week that they should be “appreciative” of the use of his power to help their states. DeWine went to bat for Battelle, which needed looser rules so that its machines could be deployed outside its main facility and used on more than 10,000 masks a day, according to the FDA and DeWine.
The upbraiding of the administration drew headlines, and DeWine said Trump promised him the ruling would be changed. The president even pressured the FDA on Twitter. The broader waiver lifting the limit was announced by the FDA within hours, and DeWine showed his appreciation by thanking Trump and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn for intervening.
FDA spokesperson Brittney Manchester said that Battelle had originally asked for permission to decontaminate 10,000 masks per day at a single site and that the initial emergency waiver written March 28 covered that. The FDA revised the language after it “learned” the company wanted to use its machines “at an unlimited number of sites with no ceiling on the number of [masks] that may be decontaminated per day,” Manchester said.
Spokespeople for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the task force, declined to answer any of NBC News’ questions about the waiver for Battelle, the federal contract and the safety of masks cleaned by the company’s machines. But with the newly revised waiver in hand, Battelle worked with the task force so it could sell its machines to the government.
Technically, the Defense Logistics Agency, an arm of the Pentagon working with the task force, gave Battelle a “contract letter,” which allows for details of a deal to be finalized after the work starts. When DLA officials submitted a legally required justification explaining the parameters of the deal this month, they wrote that the “maximum dollar value” is now $600 million.
The company says it might not hit the cap.
“As demand ebbs and flows at various sites across the country, Battelle will adjust its staffing accordingly and will bill the government only the actual costs incurred,” company spokesperson Katy Delaney said. “If the contract costs are less than the ceiling cost, then the government will not spend up to the ceiling.”
DLA spokesman Patrick Mackin said the $187 million of extra room is there for flexibility.”To date, the value of the contract remains at $413M,” he said in an email. “The maximum value of the contract is $600M in the event we need to make any adjustments in the support provided by Battelle during the period of performance.”
The task force’s deployment of mask sanitizers, several other versions of which have been given an emergency greenlight since Battelle’s went into service, are now part of a transition to a focus on boosting the economy, because the administration insists they reduce the need to supply fresh masks to health care workers. The president himself has said workers have all the equipment they need.
On May 6, Trump told a group of nurses at the White House that reports of PPE shortages are “fake news,” and on May 14, he said he was winding down an airlift program that brought equipment into the U.S. from overseas “because we’re very stocked up.”
But that’s inconsistent with the experience of many front-line workers, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents the second-largest number of nurses of any union in the country.
There’s still a shortage of PPE, she said, which means that health care workers have little choice but to use masks sanitized by the Battelle machines even though “they really believe that N95s should be used once and that’s it.”
It’s “not ideal” she said of the sanitization. “Is it better than nothing? Yes.”
In fact, Weingarten asked top union officials to create a supply chain for personal protective equipment and kept the operation a secret for several weeks until the first batch of masks, face shields and other items began to arrive earlier this month. She said she feared that the shipments would be seized or rerouted by the administration.
Unproven and expensive
When task force leaders convened at FEMA headquarters on April 8, they faced a conflict over whether to proceed with Battelle’s contract despite the sharp price spike.
Trump clearly wanted the mask sanitizers to be deployed rapidly. It had only been 10 days since he tweeted his support for the FDA waiver, which allowed masks cleaned by the machines to be used in health care facilities and freed the company from existing federal quality-assurance regulations.
But from April 3 to April 8, the price had skyrocketed from $60 million to $413 million. An Ohio-based nonprofit corporation that pays top executives more than $1 million a year and spent $350,000 lobbying Congress and federal agencies from Jan. 1 to March 30, Battelle raised the price for each machine from $1 million to $6.8 million “due to the inclusion of operating costs for six months, shipping, and logistics tails to be covered up front,” according to a summary of the decision-making meeting that was circulated to task force members and obtained by NBC News.
The “logistics tail,” a term the military uses to describe the chain of goods and people supporting combat troops in war, broadly refers to the costs of providing supplies and administrative support for a project. The additional $353 million over six months for the logistics tail, which includes the price of employing and training technicians, is equivalent to the retail value of 278 million new N95 masks.
In addition to operating the machines, maintaining them and shipping masks back and forth to health care systems, Delaney said “each site requires things like portable restrooms, showers, protective equipment and in some cases very large tents to house the operations.”
Battelle has performed countless billions of dollars worth of work for the federal government since its participation in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Much of its work is classified because the company manages eight nuclear labs for the Department of Energy. Battelle also offers private-sector customers in various industries a wide variety of services, including assisting with FDA approval for e-cigarettes. While it enjoys the tax exemptions of a nonprofit, it is a well-established player in the elite spheres of energy and defense contracting, and employs more than 27,000 people.
The company had a powerful customer in the president, and the seven-fold difference between the original estimate on April 3 and the price on April 8 appears to have bothered only one of the senior officials with a seat at the task force’s decision-making table, according to the summary of the debate.
That was Air Force Brig. Gen. John Bartrum, a consultant to the HHS department who oversees the agency’s financial resources, and he raised a formal objection to the task force’s board. He said the government should consider buying 10 of the machines and supporting operational costs for $80 million or $100 million. He advocated for taking time to re-evaluate whether it made sense to go in for the full load, according to the summary of the April 8 meeting.
His concern was consistent with those of a wide variety of federal experts on budgeting, contracting, epidemiology, disease testing, vaccine and drug-therapy development, and public health who have pushed higher-ups to step back and reconsider White House priorities — or at least take more care with taxpayers’ money.
For example, Dr. Rick Bright, who was the head of the federal agency in charge of developing vaccines, testified before Congress last Thursday after filing a whistleblower complaint alleging he was moved from his position in retaliation for objecting to the president’s insistence on purchasing hydroxychloroquine. The drug, which the White House pushed the task force to acquire in tens of millions of doses and which Trump said Monday he has been taking himself, has not been proven to treat COVID-19, and the FDA has issued warnings about its misuse.
But many experts’ voices are being drowned out by the task force’s rush to please a president whose response to the threat of coronavirus was slow and whose recommended remedies have included ingesting disinfectant.
Inside FEMA headquarters, Bartrum was met with resistance by the supply chain unit of the task force, which had recommended the deal in the first place, on the basis that the machines would allow front-line workers to use the same mask up to 20 times. The figure cited was based on Battelle’s study of its own product. The supply chain unit chief, John Polowczyk, has been known to brag that he has a “blank check” from the president and doesn’t care what his group has to spend to acquire goods, according to the person familiar with the task force’s work.
Polowczyk wasn’t present for the meeting, which included senior HHS department, Pentagon, FEMA and National Security Council officials, according to the minutes obtained by NBC News. Members of the president’s National Security Council staff joined the discussion by videoconference.
Bartrum was outgunned. The task force board — FEMA Director Pete Gaynor and HHS Department Assistant Secretaries Robert Kadlec and Brett Giroir — sided with Polowczyk’s team and ordered the purchase to move forward, according to the summary. (Kadlec also clashed with Bright over hydroxychloroquine.)
In a concession to Bartrum, the board said federal agencies should work with Battelle to see if there might be a way to deploy the machines in phases. Two days after the meeting, Battelle and the Defense Department announced the $413 million deal. Over the course of less than two weeks, Battelle had won the emergency waiver from the FDA, struck a deal with the task force, renegotiated that agreement to bring in nearly seven times as much money and released the news to the public.
In justifying the contracting decisions, which ended up raising the cap by another $187 million, Pentagon officials wrote that “under normal conditions, an acquisition with this level of complexity and dollar value would take approximately one year to complete under full and open competition procedures based upon Agency experience.”
If anyone on the task force questioned the company’s statement about the number of times its cleaning machine could treat masks for safe use was reasonable, it was not recorded in the summary of the meeting. Bartrum declined NBC News’ request for an interview through an agency spokesperson.
Retired Adm. Ken Carodine, who worked on logistics at the Pentagon, said in a telephone interview that defense-contracting officials frequently negotiate with companies that bid for work at one price and then jack up the total almost overnight.
“The goal is to never leave,” he said of the practice defense companies use in raising prices to cover employing their workers on government projects for as long as possible. “If anybody should understand the cost of building personal protection equipment and understanding what the entire cost cycle looks like, it’s Battelle.”
Carodine lamented that Pentagon officials routinely refer to defense contract changes of hundreds of millions of dollars as “budget dust” and said that Trump removed a key safeguard with his recent firing of inspectors general who had the power to investigate aspects of the coronavirus response.
“The last person who’s going to take a look is the inspector general,” he said.
‘Real world’ effects
Five days after the deal became public, an NIH-led study concluded that the hydrogen peroxide vapor method of decontamination is only safe for three cycles.
The study, conducted out by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is run by Dr. Anthony Fauci, used different methods than Battelle’s, according to Dr. Seth Judson, a University of Washington internal medicine resident who worked on the evaluation. The NIH version employed special technology to measure exposure of the virus inside masks and tried to replicate how they would maintain their fit on real people, as opposed to the manikins used in Battelle’s study.
“Since the exposure and testing procedures are different, it is difficult to compare the results, but I think the quantitative testing on people reflects a closer to ‘real world’ situation,” Judson said in an email to NBC News. “Health care workers such as myself may wear these masks for long periods of time, and degradation is seen as masks are repeatedly donned and doffed.”
Battelle agrees that its 2016 study, which did not convince the FDA to approve its technology for commercial use until the president stepped in, didn’t use the same methodology as the NIH version.
“The 2016 study simply reports visual inspections of masks,” Richter, the company scientist, said. “Filtration studies are performed using a TSI 8130A, the industry standard for aerosol performance evaluation. … Testing continues to build a data bank on different makes and models” of masks.
After that study was published, Battelle said, it won approval for a real-world test of its technology.
“The overall conclusion from this study was that three cycles of decontamination did not adversely impact the fit performance,” the company said.
Battelle’s system is already in use by over 400 hospitals across California alone, according to state records, and several other companies have won FDA waivers to deploy mask-sanitizing machines since Battelle was granted its exemption.
Front-line health care workers in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Idaho and Virginia who have used masks decontaminated by the Battelle system told NBC News they are concerned about their own safety.
“We are worried about how effective our masks are and if we’ll end up catching COVID,” said one Virginia nurse, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. More “young healthy health care workers are getting it than the general population because we are exposed to a higher viral load.”
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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