For weeks, Rep. Andy Kim has been pushing the federal government to open up a site in his district for coronavirus testing. The freshman Democrat represents a portion of south and central New Jersey, one of the states hardest-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, and federal officials have been warning that the nearest big city, Philadelphia, could become a major hotspot for the disease.
There is no COVID-19 testing site in this part of the state—both facilities are closer to New York City—and state and local officials are concerned about what could happen when the disease spreads. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said they’ll get moving on the third site, but Kim has found it difficult to get answers.
“When we do push up a request, they sit on it for weeks,” Kim said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “For weeks we’ve put in this request for a third site, and they weren’t being responsive… I find that to be deeply frustrating. On the one hand, the White House is saying that testing is important, and we need to be out there testing in places where there are hotspots. Then they say my area is about to be one of the biggest hotspots in the country, and there’s no follow-through.”
Contrast that with the experience of another congressman: Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican who represents eastern Long Island, about 180 miles up the road from Kim’s district. From the White House briefing room podium last week, President Trump announced he’d be sending 200,000 N95 protective masks to Suffolk County, New York, “at the request” of Zeldin, who is a close White House ally. In a Facebook post touting the news, Zeldin said he got a call from Jared Kushner, a COVID-19 task-force leader, “within minutes” of issuing a call for personal protective equipment for his district.
Kim did not attribute his difficulty to any partisan bias on the administration’s behalf, instead blaming failures of organization and leadership. But looking at other examples of the White House appearing to prioritize Republicans—Trump announced he sent ventilators to Colorado at the request of Sen. Cory Gardner, and Sen. Martha McSally said she got Trump to do the same for Arizona—other Democrats are having a hard time ignoring the appearance of politics in the way the administration has responded to the virus’ outbreak.
“It’s almost immoral,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), “to favor—to do that kind of thing.”
As the coronavirus outbreak ravages the country, many members of Congress are finding themselves working with state and local officials as they push the federal government to deliver much-needed ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other medical essentials to their constituents.
Of course, there are Democrats getting help and personal calls from top officials like Vice President Mike Pence, and there are Republicans who are frustrated at the lack of responsiveness from the administration.
But the awarding of credit from the president appears conspicuous to some Democrats, who are encountering struggles of their own as they balance criticism of the president with working with his administration to help their states.
“It’s my responsibility to call out this administration when I think they’ve done something wrong,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) to The Daily Beast. “I’m not gonna pull punches because I think I’d be violating my responsibility as a legislator. Regardless of what I say, I am worried that the president is attempting to use his power during this crisis to reward his friends and hurt his enemies.”
Most Democrats don’t expect, or even necessarily want, a public presidential thumbs-up for their efforts to get supplies and information to their home states and districts. What they say they’d prefer, however, is their calls returned, clear answers to their questions about what the government is doing, and timely information about how federal programs are affecting their constituents.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, more than a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides described the state of their efforts to get what they need from the administration. While they point out bright spots, they point out plenty of sore points, too—things like federal foot-dragging in getting COVID-19 test sites set up in their districts, watching Republican colleagues get important information before they do, and simply hoping that GOP officials in their states make use of their closer ties with President Trump.
Shalala, a Miami Democrat, is both a former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and a representative in a COVID-19 hotspot in Florida—a state run by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally. When it came to getting Florida hospitals more relief from the federal government, for example, Shalala said that despite her contacts in Washington, she knew efforts were best directed through Florida Republicans.
“I knew they’d have better access,” Shalala told The Daily Beast in an interview. “Has that happened in previous administrations? Probably to some degree, but not in this kind of situation… I know how we behaved in the Clinton administration—I responded to Republican requests as quickly as I did to Democratic requests. I could call the Bush administration and get a fair hearing.”
Trump’s handling of Republicans and Democrats in the COVID-19 crisis, meanwhile, “is very political,” said Shalala.
The White House, meanwhile, rejects any suggestion that their approach to handling the virus has been informed by political concerns.
“It’s outrageous that some would even speculate that the resources being delivered by the federal government to the states is somehow based on politics,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. “This is about saving lives and the Trump administration has been working with governors and their teams since January on COVID-19 coordination. Every level of government needs to deliver data-driven solutions and that is what we are doing in partnership.”
Team Trump stresses, too, that its phone lines have been open to state and local officials through the pandemic, and that the hardest-hit areas early on, like New York and Washington state, are controlled by Democrats—something they say didn’t block the flow of resources to those places. Some of those state governments, particularly in the West, are now directing ventilators to other states that are bearing the brunt of the disease now.
Democrats’ views on the administration’s response, of course, are hardly all negative. In particular, there’s gratitude on all sides for the hard-working career officials across various federal agencies responding to the outbreak.
“I don’t think there’s politics among the professional class by any stretch of the imagination,” said a congressional staffer, who requested anonymity to talk candidly about discussions with the administration. “We’ve been gaining access to people, and those who are non-political are trying their asses off.”
But even then, that impression is balanced with what’s perceived as a transparently political approach to COVID-19 relief in the higher echelons of the administration. “Trump has said and done stuff that has put a thumb on the scale of prioritizing things around politics. It’s haphazardly transcendent across the administration,” said the congressional staffer.
Members of Congress who have been spending their days on the phone in frantic attempts to get resources to their constituents, like Kim, have apparently not benefited from the open lines of communication that the administration touts.
There are other examples that rankle Democrats and fuel suspicions that the White House is not treating them fairly. Some Democratic offices that had spent days pressing the administration for state-specific figures on the amount of small-business relief that would come after the passage of the $2 trillion stimulus bill, for example, were surprised this week to see GOP lawmakers tweeting out those same figures for their own states—before they got responses themselves.
But to the Democrats engaging with the federal government, any partisan concerns that may be evident in Trump’s COVID-19 response are overshadowed by what they believe has been a disorganized trainwreck of a federal response.
Murphy said he’s gotten conflicting answers to basic questions from different components of the same federal agencies. “It’s never clear who’s in charge,” he told The Daily Beast. “There’s zero transparency on how the administration is making decisions about where to send supplies. The president has been pretty open about his desire to move supplies to his friends and away from his political adversaries… There still exists no document that spells out how the administration is directing the supply chain, how they are making decisions about where supplies go.”
“The fact there’s even a story being written about this is evidence of the most fundamental problem,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told The Daily Beast. “There’s a tremendous shortage of medical supplies as a result of a lack of preparation. It’s a total, complete failure in leadership… We’re pleading, imploring the federal government. I have contacts I’ve reached out to—this is not an efficient way to engage in a procurement practice.”