Would Trump turn medical supplies into a patronage system?

"Trump is treating life-saving medical equipment as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists," a Denver Post editorial argued.
Image: Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2019.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP file

Last September, Donald Trump announced that he'd approved an emergency declaration for North Carolina in response to Hurricane Dorian, but the president thought it'd be a good idea to add an electoral twist to the news: Trump said he'd moved forward "at the request of" Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

In reality, North Carolina's Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, had made the federal request, but the president wanted to boost Tillis, who's a GOP incumbent and White House ally facing a tough re-election bid this year.

In October, after the storm hit the Tar Heel State, Trump did it again, connecting federal disaster aid directly to Thom Tillis -- as if emergency assistance were somehow part of a White House political patronage system.

All of this came to mind this week when the president published a tweet saying the administration was dispatching 100 ventilators to Colorado -- "at the request of" Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who's facing an uphill climb in his re-election campaign this fall. The political message was hardly subtle: Trump seemed to be signaling that Colorado is receiving medical equipment during a pandemic because of his political connection to a GOP senator.

Except, that's not how the United States is supposed to function. It led the editorial board of the Denver Post to publish an unrestrained piece yesterday on the White House's tactics.

President Donald Trump is treating life-saving medical equipment as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists. It's the worst imaginable form of corruption -- playing political games with lives. For the good of this nation during what should be a time of unity, he must stop.... The federal government should be procuring medicine, masks, and ventilators and distributing them to states on a set formula based on population, rate of infection and need.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) issued a related statement this week, highlighting the larger context and events that preceded the president's misplaced tweet.

"Governor Polis and our Congressional delegation have been working to get more ventilators to Colorado for weeks," the congresswoman said. "In fact, Colorado was set to receive 500 ventilators until FEMA blocked the shipment. Now, President Trump says we will get 100 as a courtesy to Senator Gardner. That means, because the president is playing politics with public health, we're still 400 ventilators short from what we should have received. His mismanagement of this crisis is costing lives and livelihoods."

All of this comes on the heels of Trump admitting that he's urged Vice President Mike Pence not to call Democratic governors who fail to show proper levels of "appreciation" to the White House. It was soon followed by a Washington Post report that raised related concerns about political favoritism.

As states across the country have pleaded for critical medical equipment from a key national stockpile, Florida has promptly received 100 percent of its first two requests -- with President Trump and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis both touting their close relationship. States including Oklahoma and Kentucky have received more of some equipment than they requested, while others such as Illinois, Massachusetts and Maine have secured only a fraction of their requests.

It's tempting to think there will come a day at which the pandemic ends and there will be a full accounting of the federal response. But to a very real degree, we don't have to wait that long to see some of the serious mistakes Trump is making right now.