Mike Pence’s coronavirus gag order is an act of war against the media, which needs to return fire

In times of crisis, the public desperately needs information to be free.

In times of crisis, an authoritarian government desperately needs to control it.

So after nearly two whole days during which the Department of Health and Human Services and even the White House promised “radical transparency” about the government’s response to the coronavirus (a since-deleted White House memo explained that “rather than keep Americans in the dark, the Administration wants citizens to be able to see inside each step of the process”), Donald Trump nominally put Mike Pence in charge.

And one of Pence’s first official acts was to impose a gag order on the entire U.S. government, except as directed by his office.

That cut off any direct media access during a public-health emergency to anyone in the government with credibility, and gave control of the flow of information to people without any credibility at all.

And then came the marching orders from Trump:

So the job of the Trump political commissars who now have a chokehold on all the information about coronavirus is to make it disappear.

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, one of the few officials apparently not under a gag, followed orders, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday that the coronavirus was “the hoax of the day.”

The applying of the gag

New York Times reporters Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman (showing just how good they can be when they want to be) hit the story hard on Thursday, describing the White House move “to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearance with the office of Vice President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.”

They related how officials “insist the goal is not to control the content of what subject-matter experts and other officials are saying, but to make sure their efforts are being coordinated.”

But they pretty much called bullshit on that, writing that the move “appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of contradictory statements from White House officials and top government health officials that have plagued the administration’s response.”

Those contradictions, of course, came when top health officials spoke factually, and a rambling, often incoherent Trump just made stuff up.

And then came the real punch in the gut to radical transparency:

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.

Fauci, who had corrected and contradicted Trump at Trump’s own news conference the day before, is the real deal. If he’s sidelined, all bets are off.

This is all straight out of the playbook for dictators everywhere.

I asked Steve Aftergood, a secrecy expert for the Federation of American Scientists, for his reaction. He emailed back:

President Xi tried to regulate information about the virus in China, and of course that didn’t work. It made things much worse. Some people in our own government may have to learn the same lesson.

The White House can try to compel government employees to have all statements about the virus pre-reviewed. But that’s hardly the way to promote public confidence.

If anything, it would make a lot more sense to have Fauci review statements by Pence than the other way around.

The Trump Administration may be able to intimidate some members of Congress and some agency heads with mean tweets. But the virus doesn’t care about that. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. And we are going to need competent and courageous health care professionals to do their jobs, no matter which way the political winds blow.

Moment of reckoning

So this is one of those moments when truths are laid bare: That Trump is fundamentally authoritarian by nature; and that in this case, when his political goals and the nation’s public-health needs are in conflict, he could do us all a lot of damage.

This is also one of those moments when the free press needs to rise to the challenge.

Editorial boards and opinion columnists should certainly weigh in – and not with both-sides jibberish like Friday’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times, or the Washington Post editorial board’s laugh-out-loud appeal to Trump’s better nature.

We need stuff like Post op-ed writer Catherine Rampel warning that Trump’s lack of credibility means his entreaties to remain calm are more likely to get interpreted as reasons to panic, and Post opinion writer Paul Waldman’s powerful expression of outrage over the muzzling of trusted officials. He wrote:

[W]hile one certainly wants to avoid contradictory statements from the government, the reason this happens is that Trump keeps saying things that are either blatantly untrue or simply absurd.

This is a persistent theme of the Trump presidency: He says things that are false or ridiculous, and then everyone who works for him has to scramble to either retcon them into existence or just pretend that he’s right and the moon is made of green cheese.

But as I wrote back in 2013 — in the wake of Barack Obama’s clampdown on information about government surveillance — the media’s most powerful weapon against secrecy is not editorials. It is reporting.

That means getting the information out that the Trump administration is trying to hide. That means getting sources who have been gagged to talk anyway – either on the record, or off.

Hopefully some will publicly reject their gag orders and dare the president to fire them – Fauci, I’m looking at you – but many will inevitably be too terrified, and understandably so.

So what reporters need to do is encourage a massive wave of whistleblowing, backed up by reliable and secure measures to protect those whistleblowers’ anonymity.

Reporters at the Post and the Times already connected with one whistleblower on Thursday – somebody with incredibly important information that the government had tried to shut up.

As the Post’s Lena H. Sun and Yasmeen Abutaleb wrote, the whistleblower said she had raised concerns that HHS workers without proper training or gear were exposed to quarantined Americans who had been repatriated from Wuhan – a massive lapse that may have led to an outbreak in California. Her bosses punished her, so she filed a whistleblower complaint, and her lawyer gave a copy to reporters.

As Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent wrote:

These revelations are precisely the sort of thing that would not be coming out, if Trump’s war on the “deep state” unfolded according to his own designs….

[H]aving government insiders alert us about such matters is exactly what we want them to feel free to do amid a crisis like this one, because it allows us to determine whether serious maladministration is occurring in response to it.

But the war that Trump has waged for three years on the “deep state,” which is really a war on accountability in government, is designed to chill exactly this sort of occurrence.

Louis Clark, the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, which provides legal representation for whistleblowers, said in a statement:

Gag orders that attempt to chill employees from blowing the whistle and swift retaliation against those who dare to speak up will only exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the potential danger to public health and the economy. Let’s be crystal clear on this: when it comes to Coronavirus this administration’s aggressive war on whistleblowers, and those who seek to speak the truth, could have grave consequences for public health. Lives are on the line.

He encouraged government workers to come forward:

We not only need an army of dedicated civil servants and contractors to respond to this potential pandemic, but we need an army of employees willing to exercise their rights to raise the alarm about gross mismanagement and dangers to public health so we have the information to contain the crisis.

Politics and the market

The most immediate political issue for Trump is the economy.

In particular, he has effectively turned the stock market into a public barometer of his administration’s success – and the media has gone along with it. Now it’s in apparent free-fall.

So when Politico Playbook on Friday morning asked “How can Trump stem the bleeding?” they didn’t mean stopping the virus.

In the Washington Post, under the headline “Dow’s brutal week raises political risk for Trump,” David J. Lynch, Rachel Siegel and Thomas Heath wrote:

[E]ven as the life-or-death stakes and the financial toll loomed, political considerations were inescapable. In crowded rallies and White House events, the soaring stock market has been a staple of Trump’s reelection pitch to voters. “Highest Stock Market in history, By Far!” the president tweeted just eight days ago.

Similarly, in the New York Times, Jim Tankersley, Alan Rappeport and Jeanna Smialek wrote:

The global spread of the deadly coronavirus is posing a significant economic test for President Trump, whose three-year stretch of robust growth could be shaken by supply chain delays, a tourism slowdown and ruptures in other critical sectors of the American economy.

And sure, after all of Trump’s crowing about the market, a drop will certainly hurt him politically. But I actually think reporters are beating Trump up too much about damage to the economy largely caused by factors beyond his control. It’s a bit of a cheap shot.

What they should be focusing on more is how the government is responding, what the White House is covering up, and what Trump and his loyalists are lying about.

Where the real accountability lies

Trump isn’t nearly as responsible for the stock market declines as he is for what already appears to be a deeply flawed government response. There are a lot of angles here.

Julie Steenhuysen, Andrew Hay, and Brad Brooks reported for Reuters:

Even as U.S. officials warn of an inevitable outbreak of coronavirus in the United States, and are alerting Americans to take precautions, some health agencies charged with protecting the public appear unprepared to deal with the threat.

Barely more than a handful of public health departments across the country are able to test for the novel virus, which began in China and has spread to at least 44 countries. The federal government has less than 10% of the protective masks required to protect healthcare workers and the public. And Washington still does not have adequate funding in place to support health departments’ efforts, though more money is on the way.

Megan Davies reported for Reuters:

Investment-advisers are increasingly worried that U.S. authorities are not be doing enough to prevent a widespread outbreak of coronavirus in the country, potentially adding further downside to already-battered markets.

Their criticisms include the number of people so far tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which some say is too small, the possible difficulties of imposing lockdowns on U.S. cities and concerns that the White House could bungle containment efforts.

Conflicting messaging from the White House and top U.S. officials regarding the severity of the threat has only added to the uncertainty.

This could be the story that exposes the dangers of a hollowed-out government. Beth Reinhard, Emma Brown and Neena Satija reported for the Washington Post:

The White House official charged with leading the U.S. response to deadly pandemics left nearly two years ago as his global health security team was disbanded. Federal funding for preventing and mitigating the spread of infectious disease has been repeatedly threatened since President Trump’s election.

Despite the mounting threat of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Trump said he has no regrets about those actions and that expertise and resources can be quickly ramped up to meet the current needs.

Former federal officials and public-health experts argue that an effective response to a epidemiological crisis demands sustained planning and investment. While the administration’s response to coronavirus has been criticized in recent weeks as slow and disjointed, people in and outside the White House have warned for years that the nation is ill prepared for a dangerous pandemic.

Celebrated science writer Laurie Garrett, who chronicled the Ebola virus, declared as early as a month ago, in an article for Foreign Policy, that “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response.”

And fact-checks of administration claims shouldn’t be segregated on special websites or sidebars.

Especially now that information is being so throttled, every lie should be front-page news. And Pence, given his new role – for which he is notably unsuited – should be given extra scrutiny every single time he opens his mouth.

For instance, Pence told Fox News’s Sean Hannity quite a story on Thursday night:

When we first received word of the outbreak of the coronavirus shortly after the first of the year, the health team came in… I was there in the Oval Office, and they said to the president, ‘Look … what we ought to do is, we ought to end air travel, we ought to close our border and we ought to establish a quarantining process for any American citizens that we allow back in.’

And they said, ‘No president has ever done this before, but we’re recommending out of an abundance of caution that you do it.’ And President Trump didn’t hesitate for one second. He said, ‘Do it.’ … Our health experts told me again yesterday when we huddled right after that [Wednesday] press briefing for the first time — they said we would be in a very different place today if President Trump hadn’t taken the decisive action that we had.

Is any of that true?

It wasn’t until January 31, as the New York Times reported, that the administration “decided to bar entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China and put some American travelers under a quarantine as it declared a rare public health emergency.”

Was that too late? Or was it too early? Did it make any difference at all? Megan Thielking wrote for the STAT health news website at the time that travel restrictions could be of limited use or even counterproductive.

What was the timing exactly? And did “health experts” really tell Pence it made a big difference? Pence lying, at this point, should be front-page news.

Will Pence agree to any non-Fox News interviews? Would it even matter?

[UPDATE at 6:15 p.m. ET: After his appearance with Hannity on Thursday, Pence had a long, platitude-heavy interview with hard-right hate-radio jockey Rush Limbaugh on Friday. He slightly changed his story, this time saying that not just “our health experts” but “every single one of our health experts” at the “White House corona [sic] task force meeting” held at HHS on Thursday said “that if the president had not taken that action in January, we would be in a very different place than we are today.”

That makes it a lot easier to check! In fact, reporters might only have to talk to one of those health experts now to disprove it.

Pence also denied there was a gag order. Rather, he said, “What we want to make sure is happening is that with so many different agencies involved that we’re providing that information in a consistent and systematic way.”]

The public needs to hear from the people who actually know what they’re talking about. But according to NPR, Fauci told lawmakers at a House subcommittee briefing on Friday that he was forced to cancel multiple media appearances he had previously agreed to. And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, in her opening remarks at the briefing, said “I have grave concerns about the lack of transparency and unwillingness to allow public health experts to speak freely about what is happening.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. Re: “But I actually think reporters are beating Trump up too much about damage to the economy largely caused by factors beyond his control. It’s a bit of a cheap shot.”

    Economic damage by Trump’s trade wars was obviously entirely his doing. The only reason he pulled up on them is because they were in the process of triggering a recession, and he was afraid it would therefore negatively affect his reelection effort. Remember — it’s all about him, anything else, including public health, be damned.

  2. Sounds rather like China’s initial approach. . . and may not work out any better than theirs did, unless actual Public Health entities are still given accurate information and kept updated, and allowed in turn to inform the public on the local level. I appreciate the need to counter false “information” – but actual necessary information is essential.

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