When nothing else matters: Coronavirus fuels a thirst for answers, an effort to spin blame

There is no other topic in the nation, even the world.

In the blink of an eye, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed everything in Washington as it has everyplace else – propelling Congress toward the biggest economic rescue package in history, putting President Donald Trump on a defensive high alert, sidelining the 2020 campaign, disrupting nearly every American’s life.

And fueling a thirst for basic information.

Where are the protective masks for hospital workers? When can everyone who needs a test get one? Can enough ventilators and respirators be produced in time? Is help on the way for displaced workers to pay rent and buy food? What will happen next?

On the Sunday TV shows, every guest on every show was focused on the pandemic, but there were more questions than answers. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency recently tasked with coordinating the federal response, said he couldn’t say how much equipment governors have requested or how many masks had been shipped, not even a rough number. “It is a dynamic and fluid operation,” director Peter Gaynor said on CNN’s State of the Union.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top expert on infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said on CBS’ Face the Nation that it was too early to know if Italy’s pattern of soaring deaths would be replicated here. “I mean, obviously, things are unpredictable,” he said.

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Meanwhile, state and local officials in the places most affected described their situations as dire, and getting worse.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that hospitals in the nation’s biggest city were about 10 days away from widespread shortages of fundamental equipment. So far, more than 8,000 city residents have been diagnosed with the virus.

“April is going to be a lot worse than March, and I fear May could be worse than April,” he warned on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“We are desperate for more PPE equipment, personal protective equipment,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy pleaded on ABC’s This Week. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker complained that states now found themselves bidding against one another for limited supplies, driving up prices. “It’s a wild, wild West out there,” he said.

That got President Trump’s attention.

“JBPritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings,” the president said in one of a series of Sunday tweets.

Pritzker responded in kind, and on the same platform. “You wasted precious months when you could’ve taken action to protect Americans & Illinoisans,” he said in a retweet. “You should be leading a national response instead of throwing tantrums from the back seat. Where were the tests when we needed them? Where’s the PPE? Get off Twitter & do your job.”.

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That contentious exchange made it clear that one more question was being raised: Who’s to blame? Not for the pandemic itself, but for criticism that the response in the United States has been too little and too late.

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Trump has described his administration’s response as “incredible” and predicted the economy will bounce back quickly once “this invisible enemy” has been vanquished. But critics say he lost valuable time by failing to take action as soon as intelligence agencies reported the pandemic in China. Instead, he initially downplayed the threat to the U.S., Saying it was under control and that warm weather in April might make it “miraculously” disappear.

On Sunday, Gaynor also acknowledged that the president hadn’t yet exercised his authority under the Defense Production Act to order the private sector to produce scarce supplies, although Trump on Saturday had indicated to reporters he had. The FEMA chief said instead that the president was using the threat of the act as “leverage.”.

The coronavirus is a test for Trump, a defining moment that may well determine whether he wins his bid for a second term in November. After initially letting Vice President Mike Pence take the lead in public, Trump is now convening daily briefings at the White House, surrounded by top doctors and agency heads. His approval rating in handling the crisis jumped by 12 percentage points in a week in an ABC News/Ipsos Poll released Friday, to 55%.

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It was less than a week ago that former vice president Joe Biden effectively sealed the Democratic nomination against Trump, the sort of development that ordinarily would have gotten attention on the Sunday shows. Last Tuesday, Biden decisively swept the primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, making it mathematically unlikely that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could amass enough convention delegations to challenge him.

Since then, though, eight states have delayed their primaries because of the difficulties and risks of voting during the heart of the pandemic, and Biden’s campaign has been trying to figure out how to command public attention. On Sunday, it released a digital ad to run in battleground states that contrasted clips of Trump’s heated response to a question by NBC News reporter Peter Alexander – denouncing him as “a bad reporter” who worked for “Concast” – with Biden’s more measured comments when he was asked a similar question at the last Democratic debate.

“This moment calls for a President,” the closing caption read. “In November, you can elect one.”.

The pandemic is also a test for a divided Congress. On Fox News Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he had reached a “fundamental understanding” with congressional leaders for a massive economic package of direct aid to taxpayers and assistance for businesses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a Republican, was on board, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a Democrat, raised concerns about several provisions and said Democrats would be presenting their own proposal.

At least for now, there is no other topic in the nation, even the world.