Why the new effort to blame coronavirus fumbles on the impeachment trial falls so far short

Trump himself made this connection during an interview with Fox News on Monday.

“All she did was focus on impeachment,” Trump said, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “She didn’t focus on anything having to do with pandemics, she didn’t focus on — she focused on impeachment and she lost. And she looked like a fool.”

The message soon propagated outward. Speaking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that the trial following Trump’s impeachment was a distraction from the public health emergency.

“It came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial,” McConnell said. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment.”

The Republican Party’s rapid response director, Steve Guest, subsequently sent out an email criticizing Democrats and impeachment for drawing attention away from the virus.

Identifying Jan. 15 as “[t]he day the CDC reports the coronavirus arrived in America,” the email criticizes Pelosi’s actions the same day.

“What were D.C. Democrats up to?” it reads. “After delaying sending over the articles of impeachment to the Senate for a month, Pelosi was all smiles, gleefully handing out pens while signing her sham articles of impeachment.”

Again, it’s easy to see why this particular line of argument is appealing. It’s similarly easy to see where it comes up short.

The virus emerged in China late last year. On Dec. 31 — after Trump had been impeached by the House — Chinese officials acknowledged that they’d detected a new virus that was making people ill in Wuhan. Within weeks, infections from the new virus were reported around the world, including in the United States.

While Guest points to Jan. 15 as the date of the virus’s arrival in the United States, that wasn’t immediately known. That date marks the arrival of the first known infected patient, a fact that didn’t become known publicly until five days later. In other words, it’s not as though Pelosi was signing the articles of impeachment knowing that the virus had appeared here.

Opening arguments in Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate began on Jan. 22, two days after the announcement of the virus’s American arrival. On Jan. 23, the Senate Health Committee scheduled a briefing for the following day intended to update senators on the virus. Also on Jan. 23, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) requested that the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department provide information “about their response to the novel coronavirus originating out of Wuhan, China.”

Trump spent a big chunk of Jan. 23 flying to Miami for a meeting of the Republican National Committee at his privately owned golf club, Trump National Doral Miami.

Over the course of February and into March, Trump repeatedly traveled to his own properties, including for multiple rounds of golf. He visited Mar-a-Lago three times, his hotel in downtown Washington once and his hotel in Las Vegas for a three-day stay in late February.

The two-week impeachment trial began after noon on each day so that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who presided, could attend to Supreme Court business in the morning. Senate Republicans repeatedly criticized the trial for failing to introduce new evidence and generally for being a waste of time. The trial ended on Feb. 5 with the Senate’s vote to acquit.

That same day, there was a tense meeting in the White House according to a report from The Washington Post.

“[A] shouting match broke out in the White House Situation Room between Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and an Office of Management and Budget official, according to three people aware of the outburst,” Amy Goldstein, Lena H. Sun and Beth Reinhard reported. “Azar had asked OMB that morning for $2 billion to buy respirator masks and other supplies for a depleted federal stockpile of emergency medical equipment. … The $2 billion request from HHS was cut to $500 million when the White House eventually sent Congress a supplemental budget request weeks later.”

The day after his acquittal, Trump gave a lengthy address at the White House celebrating the outcome of the trial. At no point did he mention the coronavirus which, by that point, had infected 12 people in the United States.

While the trial was ongoing, attention to the virus was growing. On Jan. 26, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the administration to declare a public health emergency focused on the virus. It did so five days later. Former vice president Joe Biden criticized Trump as being the “worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak” in a Jan. 27 op-ed piece in USA Today. Former Obama administration Ebola response coordinator Ronald Klain wrote a piece for the Atlantic on Jan. 30 warning Trump that the virus was coming — and worrying that Trump wasn’t ready for it.

The next day, Trump was back at Mar-a-Lago. Over the course of February, Trump sent 52 tweets that were spurred by something he was watching on television. Between the emergence of the first case on Jan. 20 and early March, Trump also held eight political rallies in eight different states. At one on Feb. 28, Trump decried criticism of his handling of the virus as the new hoax from his Democratic opponents — the most recent prior hoax having been the impeachment.

By then, more than three weeks had passed since the end of the trial. The first public briefing by the White House coronavirus task force came exactly three weeks after Trump’s acquittal on Feb. 26. That same day, the first case of community spread of the virus — transmission not linked to someone traveling from China — was reported. The White House briefing didn’t address it. Three days later, the first coronavirus-related death in the United States was recorded.

Arguing that the impeachment trial was distraction from fighting the virus ignores a few other points. First, that the trial didn’t effect the administration offices which should have been pressing forward on preparing any response and ensuring that material was in place should the virus spread across the country. Second, Trump and his advisers actually held a meeting in the middle of the trial focused on the virus. Trump tweeted about it.

As that meeting was going on, senators were posing questions to Trump’s attorneys about the evidence before them. Somehow, despite what was going on in the Capitol, Trump and his team managed to focus on the threat posed by the coronavirus. Despite that, they failed to scale up production of a working test for the virus and declined to push manufacturers to scale up production of ventilators — decisions that would later prove to be significantly missed opportunities.

It would be useful for Trump and his allies if the impeachment effort could be blamed for the government’s faltering response to the pandemic. Unfortunately, even the neatest rhetorical effort can fall victim to reality.

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