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Image: Peter Navarro and Donald Trump
Peter Navarro, director of the National Trade Council listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with executives of supply chain distributors in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Mar. 29, 2020.Pete Marovich / The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Why Team Trump’s interference with the Covid response still matters

The Trump administration's political interference with the Covid response happened in 2020, but for a few reasons, it's still highly relevant in 2022.


The revelations from House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis haven’t generated front-page attention in recent months, which is a shame because this was a once-in-a-century pandemic — and the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis was a genuine scandal.

Late last year, for example, congressional investigators issued a report that found the former president and his team engaged in “deliberate efforts“ to undermine the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes. NBC News reported at the time the committee concluded that the Trump White House “repeatedly overruled public health and testing guidance by the nation’s top infectious disease experts and silenced officials in order to promote then-President Donald Trump’s political agenda.”

But that’s not all the Republican administration did. The Associated Press reported yesterday on the House panel’s latest findings.

Officials in the Trump White House tried to pressure U.S. health experts into reauthorizing a discredited COVID-19 treatment, according to a congressional investigation that provides new evidence of that administration’s efforts to override Food and Drug Administration decisions early in the pandemic.... The report by the House subcommittee investigating the government’s COVID-19 response focused on pressure at the FDA, which serves as gatekeeper for the drugs, vaccines and other countermeasures against the virus.

The discredited treatment, of course, was hydroxychloroquine, which Team Trump pressured the FDA to support, even after FDA officials had concluded the drug was ineffective against Covid.

It might be tempting for some to question the relevance of such information now. After all, the former president is no longer in office and the FDA is recovering and trying to rebuild its reputation.

But it’s not that simple. For one thing, accountability matters, and Team Trump’s efforts to dictate political shots at the FDA during a deadly public-health crisis represent a controversy that would ordinarily help define an administration.

For another, rumor has it the former president sees himself as a future president, making a record of his catastrophic failures that much more important.

But even putting these truths aside, the select committee’s findings don’t just deal with those who’ve exited the stage.

For example, The Washington Post highlighted what happened when the FDA determined that hydroxychloroquine simply didn’t work against Covid, after initially extending emergency approval in March 2020.

The reversal frustrated [Peter] Navarro, a top trade adviser to Trump, and Steven Hatfill, a deputy and virologist, who strategized on how to get the FDA to reverse its decision, such using allies including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), according to emails obtained by the panel.

In fact, the controversial Wisconsin senator appeared quite a bit in the select committee’s report, with Johnson playing an active, behind-the-scenes role in trying to advance the ineffective treatment. (The GOP senator’s office told the Post he’d been wrongly attacked by the “Covid cartel,” whatever that means.)

Johnson’s not alone. Politico reported yesterday:

Mehmet Oz, the former TV medical personality and current Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, was in touch with the senior-most levels of the Trump White House in March 2020 promoting hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for Covid, emails released by the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Wednesday show. According to the emails, Oz emailed Deborah Birx, the then-White House coronavirus response coordinator, on March 22, 2020, seeking access to medication for trials in patients. “If you don’t wish to put in writing, please call but I need guidance for my show and dozens of media interviews that I am doing tomorrow,” he wrote.

Oz also reportedly contacted Jared Kushner on the matter, and a week later, he followed up with Birx again, claiming the drug was “safe and results are better than expected.”

We now know, of course, that the celebrity doctor was completely wrong at a key time. Oz is now running for the Senate — and much of his campaign is based on his alleged credibility as a medical professional, his highly dubious record notwithstanding.