Former White House Chief Of Staff Gives Trump Administration D+ For Coronavirus Response

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President Trump listens to Vice President Mike Pence speak during an unscheduled briefing after a Coronavirus Task Force meeting at the White House on April 5, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump listens to Vice President Mike Pence speak during an unscheduled briefing after a Coronavirus Task Force meeting at the White House on April 5, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

If Leon Panetta had to grade the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, the former secretary of defense under President Barack Obama says he would issue a D+.

“The history of this pandemic, when it's written, will reflect a great deal on the mistakes that were made,” he says, “the failure to pay attention to the warnings, the false hopes that were raised, the lack of preparation in terms of health supplies.”

History will also remember the governors, mayors, health care leaders and federal agencies who stood up to the challenge and helped mitigate the crisis, he says.

But the story doesn’t have an end just yet — and that’s due to the lack of testing, tracking and treatment or vaccine for the disease, he says. He thinks these key factors will determine when the economy can restart.

On top of the health care and economic issues the U.S. faces, Panetta also says he’s questioning the country’s military preparedness.

The U.S. has a lot of enemies — Iran, North Korea, Russia, China — and any of these countries could try to capitalize on vulnerabilities, he says.

“Those adversaries are going to be watching whether or not our readiness has been impacted and whether or not they can take advantage of that lack of readiness,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On whether he would continue Trump’s daily briefings if he was chief of staff today

“I think that the briefings have not been very helpful in terms of really focusing on the information, the facts that are out there and presenting those facts to the American people. The health care officials that are part of the team obviously do a very good job in terms of presenting the facts as they know it and you have a sense of trusting what they say. On the other hand, when the president gets up there, it wanders a great deal. You know, he doesn't just stick to dealing with the pandemic. He talks about politics. He finds blame with people when he's asked questions about whether or not the administration has done a good job. He attacks people during that process and he wanders. And frankly, those briefings last too long. They go on and on and on. And I think the public, even though, you know, the public wants to hear what the situation is. I think the public feels that it can't always trust the information that it's getting. So for that reason, I would keep those briefings a lot tighter. And I would focus specifically on the health care officials to present the facts to the American people. That's what should be happening.”

On balancing the economic effects of a continued shutdown with the health effects

“Well, that is, as the president himself has said, probably the most critical decision that this president is going to make. And it will in many ways determine whether or not this is going to be a success or a failure. And there is no question that you're not going to get the economy started without dealing with the health care impact. The economy in many ways depends on the ability to control the health consequences of the coronavirus. And therefore, I think it's going to be absolutely critical for health officials to be able to say whether or not there is a point at which elements of the economy can be restarted.

“But it's going to depend, I think, more than anything on what I would call the three T's. One, testing — there just has to be a lot more testing going on that determines what the baseline is with regards to the situation and the coronavirus. Secondly, tracking. We've got to be able to track people, those that have the antibodies, those who had the disease, those who don't have the disease. We've got to be able to track people in order to be able to know just exactly whether or not people can come together, whether they can go back to work. And lastly, treatment. I mean, obviously, the ultimate answer is some kind of vaccine, but that's almost 18 months away. So there are a lot of questions that remain here to determine whether or not we are going to effectively implement the health care steps that need to be taken in order to assure that the economy can, in fact, ultimately get back to a halfway normal.”

On if he would have had a plan for this pandemic as secretary of defense

“Well, I've often said that secretary of defense, we spend our lives at [Department Of Defense] basically planning for crisis. There's a plan at DOD to deal with any potential crisis abroad. And that means not only planning how you would deal with that conflict, but relocating the supplies, the weapons necessary, being able to assign the various elements of our force so that they're in place in order to deal with that crisis. So we do an awful lot of planning. With regards to the pandemic, I'm sure there were discussions about the potential for a pandemic. But whether or not the full-scale planning and preparation was done I think is going to be something that history is going to have to look at to determine whether or not enough of that was done to put us in a position to deal with what is without question the most serious pandemic, the most serious crisis we've had to face since World War II.”

On the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt publicizing the coronavirus situation on-board instead of going through the chain of command

“I don't think there's any question that this was badly handled by the Navy, by the Department of Defense. It was irresponsible in the way it was handled and frankly undermines discipline. Military discipline is critical to our ability to be ready to be prepared in order to face any conflict abroad. But that discipline, military discipline, depends on following the rules. You've got to follow rules and you've got to be able to implement those rules and not just do it by the seat of your pants. So there are rules for dealing with situations like this that require an investigation, that require a full study before action is taken. That wasn't done here.

“Secondly, a judgment has to be based on the facts. It can't be based on fears. And too much of what happened here was based on a secretary of the Navy, an acting secretary of the Navy, who is worried more about what the president would do on the issue than on what the facts of that situation call for. And lastly, you've got to rely on the military leaders. You've got to rely on military people to tell you what needs to be done. And the military leaders here were saying, you know, let's investigate this thing before getting rid of the captain because there are some legitimate reasons why this captain did what he did to try to protect his forces. And that's something that now, you know, I think the Navy and the military in general are going to have to do an awful lot of work to make sure that they restore military discipline.”

On his top concern about another country trying to take advantage of the U.S. being consumed by the coronavirus

“Well, I would worry about something, I mean, the president keeps talking about having been able to restore ammunition and readiness in the military. I think the biggest problem today is the issue of readiness for our military. At the same time that our military is out there having to deal with this pandemic, having to deal with the issues regarding whether or not they're caring for the military force we have in place, it is without question impacting on our readiness. What happened on that carrier [the USS Theodore Roosevelt], 5,000 people there impacted by the coronavirus. There's a real question of whether or not, you know, the fleet remains ready to deal with the challenges that are out there. I think the same thing is true in other elements of our military.”

On whether Trump will fire Dr. Anthony Fauci and what that could mean

“Well, you know, you have to look at the record of how this president has dealt with people that he didn't particularly like in terms of their views, and it's never a good ending. And, you know, I suspect that even though Dr. Fauci is really the health care face of the policy of this administration when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, that since there continue to be disagreements, it probably is impacting on the relationship. And as we've seen in the past, if the president doesn't have somebody who agrees with everything he says, it's only a matter of time before that relationship deteriorates and that person is gone.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 13, 2020.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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