Swept into a Covid Hell of Profits

Nina Burleigh says that what looked like chaos or ad-hoc decision-making by Trump in the early days of the pandemic was, in fact, deeply rooted in ideology.

President Donald Trump, center, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, left, and Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC director, during a visit to the CDC on March 6, 2020, in Atlanta. (White House, Shealah Craighead)

By Nina Burleigh

Now that we’re all unmasking and the economy seems set to roar into the 2020s, what will we remember about how disastrously, how malignantly, the Trump administration behaved as the pandemic took hold? And will anyone be held to account for it?

The instinct to forget pandemics, as I’ve pointed out when it came to the 1918 “Spanish flu,” has historically been strong indeed. In these years, the urge to forget official malfeasance and move on has, it turns out, been at least as strong. Washington’s failure to investigate and bring to account those who led the nation and ultimately the world into the folly of the Iraq War may be the most egregious recent example of this.

In the end, that’s why I wrote my new book Virus — to memorialize a clear and accessible historical record of the deliberate and deadly decision-making that swept us all into a kind of hell. I had the urge to try to stop what happened to us from being instantly buried in the next round of daily reporting or, as appears likely now, relegated to the occasional voluminous government or foundation report on how to do things better.

In the early months of 2020, as rumors of distant death morphed into announcements of an imminent pandemic, followed by a patchwork of state and local lockdowns, most Americans were too stunned by daily events to absorb the bigger picture. Memories of those days still click by like surreal snapshots: prepper shopping, toilet-paper hoarders, forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks, and a capricious leader on TV night after endless night talking about quack cureshis own ratings, and how he “liked the numbers low.” Meanwhile, he left desperate states to compete with each other for badly needed protective gear.

What looked like chaos or ad hoc decision-making by an improbably elected fraudster president was, in fact, deeply rooted in ideology; specifically, in the belief that the job of the government was neither to exercise leadership, nor activate government agencies to assist the American people. It was to promote private industry and its profits as thesolution to anything and everything pandemic.

That ideology led to profiteering, politicized science, and mass death. Now, as the pandemic wanes (at least for the time being, though not necessarily for the unvaccinated) in this country, it deserves an investigation.

Somewhere between almost 600,000 and more than 900,000 Americans have died so far from Covid-19, a significant number of those deaths unnecessary, as even the former administration’s medical expert, Dr. Deborah Birx, has said.

 White House moment of silence on Feb. 22 for the 500,000 Americans who had by then died from the Covid-19 virus. (White House, Chandler West)

The virus arrived in America after the Trump administration — steered by right-wing Heritage Foundation policy wonks and their donor-class comrades — had already laid waste to key agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control.

Their instant response to the pandemic was to similarly sideline government emergency-management experts, put inexperienced 20-something volunteers in charge of finding and distributing protective gear, and circulate lists of possible suppliers — one of whom, typically enough, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical contracting experience, snagged a cool $86-million contract from the state of New York for ventilators he would never deliver.

While most of the country hunkered down in a state of stunned paralysis, a faction of Trumpworld recognized the pandemic not for what it took away — human lives and livelihoods — but for what it offered. The chaos of the moment allowed them to road-test their dream system, to prove once and for all that the forces of supply and demand, the instinct to make a buck, could do a better job managing a natural disaster than the government of the United States and its bureaucrats.

Is any of this likely to be investigated? Will anyone be held accountable for what appears to have been a response deliberately mismanaged by religious zealots and crony capitalists, crews equally cynical about expertise, science, and the government’s ability to prevent or ameliorate disaster?

What We Don’t Know

Here, as a start, is a rundown of where inquiries into that disaster now stand.

Buried in the alphabet soup of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act is the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), established in March 2020 to keep track of the federal money (by now $5.5 trillion) that was to be spent on the pandemic.

It’s a consortium of agency inspector generals, headed by Michael Horowitz, a career Department of Justice lawyer. His name will be familiar to anyone who followed the Trump-Russia investigations. He produced a report in 2019 that — to the dismay of Trump’s supporters — failed to conclude that the FBI had begun investigating connections between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Trump campaign without legal cause and as a political dirty trick. 

PRAC is authorized to conduct oversight of pandemic-related emergency spending of any sort. Its inspector generals have already issued nearly 200 pandemic-related oversight reports and charged 474 people with trying to steal more than $569 million. (Details in its quarterly reports are available online.)

While PRAC has been genuinely nonpartisan in its acts, its focus so far has been on the small fry of the pandemic era, not the truly big fish. In its most recent semi-annual report, for example, it makes clear that 55 percent of its charges had to do with fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program and 40 percent were related to fraudulent unemployment assistance claims.

Among the bigger PRAC successes: charging a Texas man in a $24-million Covid-relief fraudulent loan scheme last October and seven men in another fraud scheme in which they used their ill-gotten pandemic gains to buy, among other things, a Porsche and a Lamborghini.

The CARES Act also authorized the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to monitor the federal response to the pandemic. Its most recent semi-annual report included 16 recommendations in selected public-health areas like testing, vaccines and therapeutics, only one of which has so far been implemented. A source at the GAO told me that a report on some contracting irregularities can be expected this summer.

So far, such government self-assessments have shown little appetite for dealing with the true cronyism, profiteering, and disastrous politicization of the federal pandemic response by Trump’s minions.

Among the schemes begging for a deeper look is Operation Airbridge. Led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it was an attempt to use federal funds to underwrite the air-shipping costs of private companies in an effort to speed the delivery of the kinds of personal protective equipment that were in such short supply last spring. That unorthodox effort included large no-bid contracts granted to a small group of private health-care companies without restrictions on pricing or even on where the desperately needed products were to be delivered.

In the spring of 2020, as hospital workers began popping up on social media and network news programs clad only in garbage bags and makeshift or reused face masks, sometimes in tears and pleading for help, the White House maintained its focus on private enterprise as the way out of the disaster. The administration called for volunteers to staff what would become another public/private bonanza, the White House Covid-19 Supply Chain Task Force, also helmed by Trump family fixer, Jared Kushner.

At a UNICEF warehouse in Beirut, a worker sorts personal protective equipment. (UNICEF)

We don’t know what, if anything, Kushner’s group actually accomplished. The audacity of the former administration’s disregard for federal rules and regulations coupled with the scale of the no-bid contracts they issued certainly attracted political pushback at the time. Democrats and civil-society groups in Washington filed requests for more information about how such contracts had eluded federal guidelines, and where the supplies actually went.

It’s possible, however, that we may never know.

Ventilating Money

In April 2020, a group of Democratic senators led by Elizabeth Warren, citing the administration’s secrecy, opened an investigation into the operation. They sent a letter to the six Operation Airbridge beneficiary health-care giants — Cardinal Health, Concordance, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor — requesting explanations for reports of “political favoritism, cronyism, and price-gouging” in the ongoing supply effort. “Taxpayers have shelled out tens of millions of dollars on this secretive project and they deserve to know whether it actually helped get critical supplies to the areas most in need,” Warren said that June.

Three of the six suppliers did, in the end, give the senators copies of memorandums of agreement (MOAs) indicating that they “had complete discretion about how to distribute supplies across hotspot counties” and that “nothing in the MOAs appears to prevent a supplier from sending all of its supplies designated for hotspots to just a single customer in one of the hotspots.” The government hadn’t, in fact, put any kind of conditions on the cost for that protective equipment and the Trump Justice Department would insist that it was none of its business how suppliers arrived at the prices they charged for it.

May 5, 2020: Mask assembly line at Honeywell International in Phoenix on the day President Donald Trump toured the plant. (White House, Shealah Craighead)

Using taxpayer funds to grease private enrichment was, of course, a Trump family tradition, going back to the Eisenhower years when Donald’s father, Fred, fleeced the government of millions of dollars in loans aimed at housing World War II veterans. Hauled down to Capitol Hill to explain himself, the New York builder was unrepentant, arguing that a loophole in the law allowed for his private gain and, under such circumstances, only a fool would have left all that money on the table.

What, from the outside, came to look like White House inspired chaos — of which Operation Airbridge was just one example — should, in fact, be seen as a deliberate effort to disengage the federal government and leave the blame and the logistics problems to Covid-afflicted states, at the time mostly run by Democrats.

On March 24, 2020, for instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begged the federal government to help get more ventilators for what was clearly going to be a surge of coronavirus patients. (New York City’s health-care system was already overwhelmed by then.) At the time, hooking patients up to ventilators seemed like the best way to go, though doctors later realized that, for many patients, the tricky disease could be foiled earlier with anticlotting and steroid medication.

“How can you have New Yorkers possibly dying because they can’t get a ventilator?” asked Cuomo. Three days later, Trump tweeted, “General Motors must… start making ventilators, now! Ford, get going on ventilators, fast!”

Yaron Oren-Pines, an electrical engineer for tech firms like Google, tweeted back at the president, “We can supply ICU ventilators, invasive and non-invasive.” Within days, he turned up on a list vetted by Kushner’s team of volunteers and, at their recommendation, officials in New York closed a deal with him.

The only problem: Oren-Pines had no ventilators and had never been in the medical supply business. When he failed to deliver on the $86 million deal, Wells Fargo froze his account and New York canceled the order, demanding the money back, though by summer 2020, it had yet to collect a final $10 million.

The Great Forgetting?

In addition to making various large or politically well-connected health-care companies far wealthier, the administration also lavished staggering billions on a small group of Big Pharma firms for Operation Warp Speed, the project it backed to develop vaccines and medicines to treat Covid-19. Those contracts, too, were written outside normal government channels and the companies themselves were chosen by a panel of industry insiders without any oversight. Many of them stood to (and did) profit from the soaring stock prices of those firms when the news about clinical trial successes was released.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine meeting, Dec. 8, 2020. (White House, Shealah Craighead)

In November 2020, to launch an investigation into that situation, Warren teamed up with Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) to request copies of all federal contracts for Covid-19 therapeutics and vaccines. “The American people,” they stated, “deserve to know that the federal government is using their tax dollars to develop Covid-19 medical products at the best possible price for the public — not to line the pockets of wealthy companies by cutting corners in consumer protection, pricing, and quality.”

Warren raised questions about a Department of Health and Human Services deal with Gilead Sciences for the pandemic therapeutic remdesivir (part of the “cocktail” of drugs administered to Donald Trump and other Republican insiders like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani when they got Covid). HHS had indeed acquired a large supply of remdesivir at an exorbitant cost to American taxpayers and Gilead itself would charge American hospitals $3,200 per treatment for it, $860 more than its price in other developed countries.

In addition to Warren, who sent a letter to the administration requesting information on HHS’s pricing negotiations with Gilead for the drug, other people also stood up. Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA), for instance, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Dr. Robert Kadlec, a Trump HHS political appointee, had engaged in multiple schemes to funnel contracts to politically connected companies — and that this had begun even before the pandemic was even a reality. According to Bright, Kadlec then pushed him out of the government, despite the fact that federal law officially protects whistleblowers.

In his complaint, among other things, Bright alleged that in 2017, a Kadlec friend and Big Pharma consultant pressured the agency to maintain a contract with a company owned by a friend of Jared Kushner’s, even after an independent review determined it should be cancelled. Bright testified before Congress, and the fate of his whistleblower suit remains to be litigated.

As for the rest of the inquiries, so far, money and power appear to have eluded the investigators. It’s unclear whether Warren’s and Porter’s requests met with any response from the former administration, or even whether they’ve continued their inquiry into Big Pharma and no-bid contracting. They have made no further announcements and neither office replied to requests for updates.

You won’t be surprised to learn, I’m sure, that the name “Jared Kushner” is so far not to be found in GAO or PRAC reports.

The best chance for public accountability — if not legal liability — might be the House of Representatives, especially its Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched in April 2020. The Trump administration blew off its subpoenas for former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield to testify in December 2020, and blocked documents and witnesses related to politicized data, testing, and supply shortages, among other areas of inquiry.

President Donald Trump during a Covid press briefing, March 26, 2020. (White House, Tia Dufour)

But the subcommittee did manage to expose emails from Trump political appointees, revealing efforts to skew CDC data. It is also investigating some whopping no-bid or sole-contractor deals that the former administration cut with preferred businesses. One was a $354-million four-year contract awarded on a non-competitive basis to PHLOW, which was incorporated in January 2020 to manufacture generic medicines to fight Covid. It’s the largest contract ever awarded by BARDA and includes a 10-year option worth $812 million.

And the House has continued to seek transparency. According to a Brookings House Oversight Tracker, as of March 2021, 30 percent of congressional oversight letters and 40 percent of its hearings were related to the federal government’s pandemic response. But there are signs that the Biden administration, while more cooperative, is not eager to force agencies to comply with requests the previous administration ignored.

My sense is that the emergency created by the insurrection at the Capitol last January and the desperate need of the new Biden administration to have palpable policy achievements in order to do well in election 2022 has taken the steam out of any inclination to dig deeper into the profiteering, cronyism, political scheming and chaos with which the Trump administration met the Covid-19 virus. It went far deeper than an article like this can possibly indicate, leaving so many hundreds of thousands of potentially unnecessary deaths in its wake.

Think of it as a memory hole, still brimming with schemes and money.

Nina Burleigh, a TomDispatch regular, is a journalist of American politics and the author of six previous books. Her seventh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic (just published by Seven Stories Press) is a real-life thriller that delves into the official malfeasance behind America’s pandemic chaos and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.

This article is from TomDispatch.com and reprinted with permission. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

11 comments for “Swept into a Covid Hell of Profits

  1. TimN
    June 8, 2021 at 16:01

    Good thing Trump is gone, because now I’m sure there won’t be any profiteering and all that other crooked stuff. Imagine a gang of capitalists doing what comes naturally!

  2. Richard A. Pelto
    June 8, 2021 at 11:28

    Isn’t everything in politics driven by agenda?
    Some are recognizable to some and some are not.

  3. John
    June 8, 2021 at 11:10

    This article is written as though it was all Trump’s fault. Where was team blue pushing cheap effective covid treatments? Oh, they were nowhere to be found, and went right along with the propaganda (mainstream narrative).

  4. vinnieoh
    June 8, 2021 at 10:22

    I recall that on the occasion the first relief act passed Democrats demanded that there be vigorous accountability and tracking of all the money and the contracts that were being handed out. I recall Trump explicitly ridiculing those efforts and saying that he would oppose such oversight and ignore those demands. Miss Burleigh now tells us why that was so.

    Is there a reader/researcher here (possibly Miss Burleigh) who might be able to dig out the actual footage of Trump saying this? I distinctly remember it.

    Thanks to the author for not qualifying her op-ed with passing praise for “some of what Trump accomplished.” The man is a total scumbag and for his die-hard moronic supporters who still believe he was going to “drain the swamp” nothing could be further from the truth. To all the little people who still believe he is some sort of demigod, all I can say is “Get a fucking clue.” The man IS the swamp – the quintessential example of the ultimate type of sociopathic creep US society is capable of producing.

    It is fitting the author mentions the illegal, immoral, and disastrous invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq. There were competing ideological power centers within W’s cabal: the militarists of course, but just as importantly the craven vulture capitalists whose ultimate wet dream was to create a sort of privatization theme park in the rubble of Iraq. They had myriad schemes to privatize all and sundry of everything the former Iraqi government provided to its citizens. And of course the shareholders and profiteers were not going to be Iraqis, but all the friends and hangers-on of W and his criminal cronies. Naomi Klein was generous enough to discuss this with me after her opus delineating disaster capitalism.

    I am sick to death of the American myth and the post-sanitizing of men and women high and low that should be rotting in a federal penitentiary: Reagan, GHWB, Clinton & Clinton, GWB, Barr, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Summers, Diamon (sp?), etc. & anon… Yes, some of those have slipped their mortal bonds without facing justice, but the rest should cease to be lionized. I apologize for this rant; just when you think the BS has reached the tipping point of implausibility the “system” doubles down. Again.

  5. June 8, 2021 at 09:51

    Nina Burleigh is right.

    “Now, as the pandemic wanes (at least for the time being, though not necessarily for the unvaccinated) in this country, it deserves an investigation.”

    It doesn’t deserve another Trump hit piece, however. but it does deserve an investigation as apolitical as possible. Whether that is possible is unlikely. There clearly is a need to dig into all aspects including why the United States populace suffered so much more than most of the rest of the world, the interaction of scientists and the scientific bureaucracy, the management of crisis and on and on. Perhaps something akin to the Hoover Commission as I understand it where there were multiple findings released over time.

    There also needs to be acceptance that stuff happens beyond our control and like the climate there are no gods among that can protect us from everything. Not something to live by, to become fatalists but something to acknowledge. We can do a lot but not everything.

    • June 8, 2021 at 16:15

      Does vaccination stop transmission?

      • Helga I. Fellay
        June 8, 2021 at 22:58

        It’s supposed to do that as it is supposed to keep people from catching it, thus reducing the number of sick who can spread it. But in the case of this particular virus, it doesn’t work that way. Even after being vaccinated, people can still catch it and spread it.

  6. Victor
    June 8, 2021 at 09:50

    The reason there will be no accountability for this massive mismanagement is because the Democrats decided to join in on the fraud and now they’re running it.

    There are four basic components of any public health response to a suspected pandemic. First, detection. We are beginning to see that WHO efforts were only partially effective. We have yet to discover patent number one. Our efforts were slow and uncoordinated. Definitely Trump’s responsibility.

    The second component is containment. Trump truly boggled this. Halting flights from China made sense, but allowing Chinese citizens to enter via Europe defeated the original plan. We are also beginning to see that lockdowns were fear based rather than science based responses. Current studies show that there was almost no difference in cases fatalities from lockdown jurisdictions and others that remained at least partially open. And that data emerged last summer. Despite this, we spent all our time condemning countries and states that didn’t lockdown while ignoring the data.

    The medical crisis was allowed to become an economic crisis.

    Third, treatment. This was the first major disease for which the CDC and the NHI did not issue treatment guidelines. Even worse, once the vaccination train had left the station these agencies repressed information about viable treatments developed by local clinicians.

    This shifted the stage from incompetent to criminal. But this is also where the Dem’s joined in. By promoting vaccination as the only means of containing the virus, Big Pharma made billions. Meanwhile, developing counties who were forced to use the nine repurposed drugs as their treatment method had a 60% lower case fatality rate than the US. Current studies on Ivermectin showed a potentially 80% reduction in case fatalities. But despite over 46 peer reviewed studies, CDC and NHI still have not encouraged its use.

    The CDC and the NHI are literally condemning patients to death so they can promote the vaccine industry. Will there ever be accountability for this?

    Just like WMD’s when the crime is big enough, pervasive enough and produces mountains of slush money Washington has no interest in uncovering the criminals because the entire system became part of the crime.

    Finally prevention. Vaccination is a key component of preventing future outbreaks. But there are two problems. First, it’s not the only preventive method. But you would never know that from current White House reports.

    Secondly, we (the public) became the clinical trials. The law is clear. If you are part of a clinical trial it can only be with informed consent. This has yet to happen.

    And of equal if not greater impotence, vaccine safety data won’t be available until 2023. But the Dem’s continue to claim (with no scientific studies) that this medical device is safe for children and pregnant women. Never before in medicine have we made such a claim with no safety data. To date the CDC has recorded over 4,000 vaccine related fatalities. those are people who died within three days of being vaccinated. The injury rate is well over a quarter million and a Harvard study showed that the injury rate may be an undercount as high as 80%.

    And this is why there will be no real accountability. When you start with Trump’s willful malfeasance you inevitably get to key Democratic players that have sold the public’s safety for the campaign contributions that will pore in from Big Pharma.

    I truly hope the scientists who are offering warnings about possible harm are wrong and that there won’t be any long term disabilities from mass vaccination. But we are rolling the dice on this one and simply hoping for the best. Meanwhile, the worldwide market for Covid vaccines is around 150 billion dollars. This could be the largest transfer of public dollars into private hands in history.

    Welcome to guinea pig nation.

  7. James Simpson
    June 8, 2021 at 04:44

    Similar attitudes by our capitalist government here in the UK have resulted in mind-boggling levels of fraud and government largesse to its mates and families. Yet BoJo is vastly popular. I quote from Adam Ramsay in Open Democracy on 5 June:

    “The current state of British politics only makes sense once you understand that the country is becoming increasingly feudal. After a long year of allegations of Covid cronyism, donation scandals and the bizarre story of the Downing Street refurb, Boris Johnson is still strolling out ahead in the polls. How to explain this solidity of support other than to see Johnson as the booze-swilling, raucously shagging clan chieftain that this moment demands?”

  8. KiwiAntz
    June 8, 2021 at 00:27

    The malfeasance & utter negligence of the Trump Administration’s COVID Response should be investigated & charges of manslaughter laid to those responsible for this shambles? The Narcissist POTUS Trump should be held accountable for every American that has died from COVID, every single death is a result of this Man’s idiocy & ego? That Trump can scurry off like a rat & escape to Florida & avoid any criminal charges for his wilful ignorance is a stain on America that can never be expunged from the Public record? Only in America, is white collar criminality by America’s elites, celebrated & tossed into a memory blackhole? Trump’s negligence, as the article implies, was idealogical & the fact that serial killer Trump, gets the opportunity to run for President again in 2024, shows how pathetic & sick America is as a Country! This lunatic should be dressed in a Orange jumpsuit & thrown into Rikers Island Jail, where he belongs, along with other Members of the Trump Mafia Administration!

  9. Taras77
    June 7, 2021 at 19:26

    On the subject of covid profiteering, the names of grifter in residence kushner (and his brother, a ceo of a med support group), must loom large. But as the author implies, we may never know the details.

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