November marks the one-year birthday of former President Donald Trump’s election fraud lie. That lie, enabled by his supporters at all levels of the GOP, helped spawn the most violent assault on the American seat of government since the War of 1812. On top of the Capitol riot’s damage to democracy, it has also diverted attention away from efforts seeking accountability for the disastrously mishandled Covid-19 pandemic. As of this writing, the pandemic has killed 747,000 Americans — and counting.
As I have noted before, America has a habit of “moving on” from its mistakes and failures. The folly of the Iraq War, for example, never received the kind of comprehensive U.S. public inquiry as the British Chilcot Report. And with each passing month, the likelihood of anyone in power being held accountable for the cavalier profiteering and science denialism that marked the Trump regime’s handling of the pandemic — and the resultant and ongoing Republican Party slide into vaccine hesitancy, misinformation monetization and science rejection — seems to grow dimmer.
Thankfully, there are plenty of watchdogs in journalism and government that are still trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of sketchy contracting, alleged fraud and callous political decision making. Besides excellent investigative journalism from outlets like ProPublica and The New York Times, the General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) are still studying government contracts and looking for fraud among recipients of federal covid relief funds. Composed of federal agency inspectors general and led by Michael Horowitz from the Department of Justice, PRAC’s work has led to criminal charges against hundreds of citizen relief fund fraudsters. The GAO reports continue to point out ways agencies could have done better.
In Congress, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, established in April 2020, is still doggedly pursuing leads, and subpoenaing people and documents. The subcommittee cannot punish, but it can bring public attention to various bad actors who profited from the pandemic, or who failed in their duties to the public in the year of our undoing, 2020.
Last week, the subcommittee requested former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield and three other lower-level CDC political appointees appear for transcribed interviews. On top of these interviews, subcommittee also stated that it “has obtained evidence detailing attempts by Trump White House officials and political appointees to block CDC scientists from speaking to the public for the first three months of the pandemic; to alter or block at least 12 public health guidelines drafted by CDC scientists from being released to the public; to pressure CDC scientists to adopt the Trump Administration’s policy positions and talking points even when they conflicted with science; and to make changes to at least 13 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) related to the pandemic.”
Last month, the subcommittee released more Trump administration emails (not easy to get, as many officials used protonmail and other encrypted platforms in defiance of the Presidential Records Act) suggesting that Trump’s election fraud effort diverted advisers and officials away from the pandemic. Between election day 2020 and inauguration day 2021, 200,000 Americans died of Covid.
According to Trump’s own officials, political distractions like that and failures to follow scientific advice almost certainly added to the death toll. In a transcribed interview released by the subcommittee last month, Trump’s Covid coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx said Trump did not do “everything he could” to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Birx has previously stated that “most” American deaths after the first 100,000 were probably avoidable.
A year ago, Trump’s politicization of science still had the capacity to shock. Today, it has been accepted as a strategic tool of conservatives — and, for some, a way to make money. At the end of October, the House subcommittee requested documents from the founder of one of the most powerful private misinformation factories, America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS). AFLDS leadership gave a talk at a meeting of the secretive rightwing Council of National Policy and has been linked to other conservative organizations that supported efforts to open the economy while the pandemic still raged in spring 2020.
The committee also requested documents from SpeakWithAnMD.com founder Jerome Corsi, an author and longtime political agitator. Lawmakers were responding to a Time Magazine report that AFLDS referred over 255,000 individuals to Corsi’s SpeakWithAnMD.com for consultations with “AFLDS-trained physicians” over just a few months this summer. Approximately 72,000 people paid $90 for initial phone consultations, and many paid another $60 for follow-up consultations. SpeakWithAnMD.com’s “experts” then prescribed unproven coronavirus treatments, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
“Attempts to monetize coronavirus misinformation have eroded public confidence in proven treatments and prevention measures and hindered efforts to control the pandemic,” House subcommittee chair Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., wrote to AFLDS founder Dr. Simone Gold: “[AFLDS] is reportedly among the top purveyors of questionable treatments nationwide and a prominent source of misinformation related to the coronavirus.”
But these so-called “frontline doctors” and Corsi’s squadron of quackery are just two players in the disinformation game. Right-wing media sites like OAN, Newsmax and Fox News have blasted doubt and denialism to hundreds of millions of Americans for months, calling the virus a hoax and calling vaccine and government public health mandates totalitarianism. (Newsmax did just temporarily suspend its star White House reporter for claiming that vaccines contain “Satanic trackers,” an apparent bridge too far.)
Unfortunately, there is no accountability on the horizon for the behemoth at the center of this misinformation campaign. In late August, a Washington state appeals judge confirmed the dismissal of a consumer protection lawsuit against Fox News. The suit alleged that Fox talking heads — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham et. Al. — were liable for the lies they spread about Covid early in the pandemic. But the court responded that Fox had a First Amendment right to report on Covid as it did.
Besides looking into meddling and misinformation, the House subcommittee has also been tracking the money: it recently exposed an election-related pandemic PR stunt: Ivanka Trump’s Food Box project blew $95 million on three “underqualified companies” while claiming to feed hungry Americans, according to the subcommittee.
And it is still investigating how and why top White House officials were intensely involved in an effort to award a trucking mega-company $700 million in federal coronavirus aid loans. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow allegedly all intervened in the bid. The company has turned over emails in which it hails its White House insider connections. While the officials declined to comment, a trucking company spokesman told the Washington Post that “all guidelines were followed, and the due diligence process was extensive.”
Earlier this year, the subcommittee highlighted the alleged contract-steering activities of Trump’s sinophobic trade advisor Peter Navarro, who arranged more than a billion dollars in federal loans to three companies for pharmaceuticals and PPE. But according to evidence recently uncovered by the subcommittee, in the crucial first three months of the pandemic, one of Navarro’s advisors declined to pursue potential N-95 mask suppliers because the masks were not American-made. In one of Navarro’s deals, the subcommitttee determined the U.S. overpaid for PPE by half a billion dollars.
The full extent of Trump political appointees’ efforts to manipulate and politicize scientific data at the CDC and HHS is still being revealed, but perhaps has lost its capacity to shock. The president, as everyone knew, “liked the numbers low.”
In his latest letter last week, Clyburn summed it up thus: “The Select Subcommittee has uncovered a staggering pattern of political interference from Trump Administration officials in critical aspects of CDC’s pandemic response efforts.”
These investigations are important — and, I’d argue, their revelations should be front page news. But attention has mostly been eclipsed by the House committee investigating the Capitol assault. Covid subcommittee announcements barely cause a ripple in the news cycle. And yet, as the pandemic appears to wane, we owe it to ourselves to remember the names and deeds of the rogues’ gallery of Covid vulture capitalists, chaos agents and political hacks, many of whom walked away from the chaos they caused without so much as a backwards glance.