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Trump’s chaotic COVID-19 response is no surprise | COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump addresses a news conference on the coronavirus at the White House in Washington.
President Donald Trump addresses a news conference on the coronavirus at the White House in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The utter chaos in America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — shortages of equipment to protect hospital workers, dwindling supplies of ventilators and critical medications, and jaw-dropping confusion over how the $2.2 trillion of aid in the economic relief package will be distributed — was perhaps predictable in a nation that prides itself on competitive individualism and hates centralized power.

But it is also tailor-made for President Donald Trump, who has spent a lifetime exploiting chaos for personal gain and blaming others for losses.

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"I don't take responsibility at all" for the slow rate of coronavirus testing in the United States, he said last month.

On Friday, when asked if he could assure New Yorkers there would be enough ventilators this week, when virus victims are expected to overwhelm city hospitals, he replied, "No. They should have had more ventilators."

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Mr. Trump has told governors to find ventilators and other life-saving equipment on their own. He refuses to create a central bargaining agent for what’s needed, arguing that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” This has left states and cities bidding against each other, driving up prices.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described how ventilators went from $25,000 to $45,000: “Because we bid $25,000. California says, ‘I’ll give you $30,000,’ and Illinois says, ‘I’ll give you $35,000,’ and Florida says, 'I’ll give you $40,000. … And then FEMA gets involved, and FEMA starts bidding! ... So FEMA is driving up the price. What sense does this make? We’re literally bidding up the prices ourselves.”

New York state is paying 20 cents for gloves that normally cost less than 5 cents, $7.50 for masks that normally go for about 50 cents, $2,795 for infusion pumps that normally cost half that, and $248,841 for a portable X-ray machine that usually sells for $30,000 to $80,000, according to ProPublica.

Who's pocketing all of this money? An array of producers, importers, wholesalers and speculators. State laws against price gouging usually don't apply to government purchases.

Some of it may be finding its way into this fall’s election campaigns. Veteran Republican fundraiser Mike Gula and Republican political operative John Thomas just started a company selling coronavirus testing kits, personal protective equipment and other “hard-to-find medical supplies to beat the outbreak.” Mr. Thomas told Politico the new company is probably “the largest global supply chain for COVID-19 medical supplies right now.”

Asked how the company had found such equipment, Mr. Gula said, “I have relationships with a lot of people.”

Mr. Thomas told The New York Times: “In politics — especially if you’re at a high enough level — you are one phone call away from anybody in the world.”

Meanwhile, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who’s one phone call away from anyone, is running a shadow coronavirus task force that’s been enlisting the private sector and overseeing the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies, all out of public view. “It’s supposed to be our stockpile — it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use,” Mr. Kushner said cryptically last week.

Oh, and let’s not forget the giant coronavirus bill Mr. Trump signed into law on March 27. It created a $500 billion fund that Mr. Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin will distribute to the private sector. Most of it will backstop up to $4.5 trillion of subsidized loans (i.e., bailout money) coming from the Federal Reserve, also distributed by the Treasury.

In a signing statement, Mr. Trump said he wouldn’t agree to provisions in the bill for congressional oversight — meaning the wheeling and dealing will be in secret. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’d form a special select committee to watch how the money is spent, Mr. Trump accused her of conducting “partisan investigations in the middle of a pandemic,” adding “Here we go again. It’s witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt.”

Is there any doubt Mr. Trump will try to use this money, as well as his son-in-law’s secretive dealings, to improve his odds of re-election?

Mr. Trump was impeached a mere three and a half months ago on charges of abuse of power and obstructing a congressional investigation. Eight months ago, he phoned Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy seeking dirt on Joe Biden and threatening to hold up military aid to get it.

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In June 2016, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump’s son Donald Jr. met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after an intermediary contacted Trump Jr. with a promise to provide material that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton and be “very useful to your father,” adding that it was part of the Russian government’s “support” for Mr. Trump.

Donald Trump calls allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election a "hoax." He called his impeachment a "hoax." He initially called the coronavirus a "hoax."

But the real hoax is Mr. Trump’s commitment to America. In reality he will do anything — anything — to hold on to power. In his mind, the coronavirus crisis is just another opportunity.

Robert B. Reich’s new book, “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It,” will be out in March.

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