Trump's 'whole of government' response leaves out parts of the government

We're not just talking about federal efforts falling short. There are also federal agencies whose capacity has gone untapped.
Image: VA Building, Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington on June 21, 2013.Charles Dharapak / AP file
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By Steve Benen

Under the best-case scenario, federal officials and agencies would be working in perfect tandem right now, executing a well-coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis. Even under this best-case scenario, the challenge of responding effectively to a pandemic would be extraordinarily difficult, but it would give us the best chance of success.

The New York Times' report on the federal operation makes clear that we're not witnessing the best-case scenario.

[D]espite promises of a "whole of government" effort, key agencies -- like the Army Corps of Engineers, other parts of the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- had not been asked to play much of a role. Even after Mr. Trump committed to supporting the states on Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it still had not received direction from the administration.

While there's been considerable reporting in recent weeks about federal efforts falling short, what's striking about this latest Times report is the fact it points to something altogether different: federal agencies whose capacity has gone untapped.

Hospital ships are at port. The Department of Veterans Affairs, legally designated as the backup health care system in national emergencies, awaits requests for help. The veterans department has a surplus of beds in many of its 172 hospital centers and a robust number of special rooms for patients with breathing disorders. The sprawling system of emergency doctors and nurses ready to be deployed by the Department of Health and Human Services -- known as the National Disaster Medical System -- is also still waiting for orders, other than to staff locations where passengers offloaded from cruise ships are being quarantined.

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said "is prepared to assist the nation in a time of crisis to the very best of its capabilities. The statement added, "However, at this time, we have not been assigned a mission."

Even FEMA officials said the Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of the federal response, which means that FEMA is also "waiting for orders from the agency before it moves to ramp up assistance."

I'm trying to think of a defense for such widespread mismanagement. Nothing is coming to mind.