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The federal government is nowhere near ready for the kind of widespread coronavirus infestation Washington now finds itself confronting.
What once sounded like a far-fetched nightmare scenario became an entirely plausible reality after President Donald Trump, the first lady, a senior White House staffer and at least one Senate Republican announced positive tests in rapid-fire succession starting late Thursday night for COVID-19.
“Yesterday, we had a health crisis and an education crisis and a job crisis,” said Howard Koh, who was assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. “Now, we have a potential crisis with continuity of government.”
And while White House officials on Friday tried to downplay the severity of the situation, a much different interpretation is coming from influential members of Congress, experts on federal agencies, and former senior health officials who say the wave of new cases in the Trump administration underscore the vulnerability of pretty much the entire US government.
“You’re talking about an administration where there is tremendous turnover, there is very little government experience in the background of the people that they have running important agencies and departments and there have been years of demoralization of the staff, so I’m really worried about what it would mean if you had a severe outbreak of COVID-19 through the top ranks of government,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the House government watchdog committee, told Insider.
Trump’s diagnosis underscores what Washington insiders say is a serious issue that potentially weakens US national security. The top brass at government agencies ranging from defense and intelligence operations to the departments overseeing the pandemic response are vulnerable to outbreaks. Every federal agency has a succession plan in place, but the power structure could get complicated, particularly if any particular agency — or the White House — gets blindsided by a wave of infections, as has happened in the last 24 hours.
“The fact is that we have all kinds of gaps, and we have no idea what happens if we had a serious spread of this virus that could incapacitate large numbers of people who are in decision making points in the White House or the executive branch,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a government operations expert.
“You may have people who are okay one day and then not okay the next, which means that we could be in a real fog in a lot of these agencies,” Ornstein added.
The White House declined to comment Friday on whether it’s taking any new steps to ensure the safety of Cabinet officials or whether the administration feels prepared to manage potential outbreaks in federal agencies.
‘There’s only one Dr. Fauci’
More than 100 top political positions are already empty in the Trump administration’s upper echelons. With Trump’s term drawing to a close, more than 133 senior posts are currently vacant with no replacement nominated, said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
A leadership vacuum at a public health agency would be particularly disastrous in the midst of the pandemic.
“In the time of any health crisis, but particularly the worst pandemic we’ve had in a century, you need the top public health scientists working at the highest level,” Koh said. “This is only going to potentially complicate the response.”
He pointed to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease, as one official who can’t be replaced. “There’s only one Dr. Fauci,” Koh said. “He’s probably the leading infectious disease expert in the world.”
When he was at the Department of Health and Human Services, Koh recalled, they held preparedness and continuity of government exercises. But those are drills, he said. “This is something completely different, of course.”
Paul Light, a public policy expert and a professor at New York University, warned that the country is “absolutely” at risk of major government breakdowns at critical agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC or the Department of Homeland Security. Such breakdowns could include problems with distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) — critical supplies during a public health pandemic.
“It would send a terrifying signal to the country,” if an outbreak impacted top officials at the National Institutes of Health, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Department of Health and Human Services,” Light said.
Government employees are also worried about risks to their own health.
On Friday, a major union that represents federal workers, pointed to Trump’s diagnosis while urging the government to use “science and data, not political pressure” when deciding when to send employees back to work.
“Each of us also has an individual responsibility to protect one another by wearing a mask while in public, frequently washing our hands, and practicing physical distancing,” American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.
‘Imagine Mark Meadows saying, “I’m the chief of staff, I’ll take over.'”
Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, stressed on Friday that the president is still on the job.
“The great thing about this president is not only is he staying committed to working very hard on behalf of the American people, his first question to me this morning was: ‘How is the economy doing, how are the stimulus talks going on Capitol Hill?'” Meadows told reporters during a brief morning gaggle on the White House driveway.
“The American people can rest assured we have a president that is not only on the job, will remain on the job — and I’m optimistic he’ll have a very quick and speedy recovery,” he added.
Meadows said he tested negative for the virus, and he explained that top White House staffers continue to be tested daily. He warned that further spread in Trump’s inner circle is likely. “I fully expect that as this virus continues to go on, other people in the White House will certainly have a positive test result.”
One scenario that has insiders worried: a potential power vacuum if Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are too sick to run the government. For now, Trump’s symptoms are mild, according to the White House. The White House physician said Friday afternoon that he was “fatigued but in good spirits.” Pence tested negative for coronavirus on Friday.
But the two most powerful men in the country are often in close proximity to each other. And while they work in perhaps the world’s most secure building when it comes to preventing physical intrusions from the outside, it’s also renowned for its cramped quarters on the inside that ex-Secret Service officials told Insider make it susceptible to the spread of a virus. What’s more, Trump has openly discouraged his staff from wearing masks and taking other precautions like social distancing that experts say can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Imagine a scenario which is still unlikely — but not that unlikely — that we had both Donald Trump and Mike Pence on ventilators,” Ornstein said.
The 25th Amendment of the Constitution lays out the presidential order of succession in the event of a president’s death or incapacity (it was most recently used twice during George W. Bush’s presidency to temporarily hand over the reins to then-Vice President Dick Cheney during Bush’s medical procedures). But things could get murky in terms of determining incapacitation if both Trump and Pence are ill and top administration officials start jockeying for power.
“You can imagine [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo trying to do an Al Haig,” Ornstein said, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s then-secretary of state incorrectly insisting he was in charge after the president was shot. “You can imagine Mark Meadows saying, ‘I’m the chief of staff, I’ll take over.”
Democrats push for clear plan on government continuity
Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, said in an interview Friday that he plans to push legislation that would set up a congressional body — as laid out in the 25th Amendment — to determine along with the vice president whether the president is incapacitated.
The Constitution allows either the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet or the vice president and a congressionally-appointed “body” to determine that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
Trump’s illness “definitely” underscores the need for the House to pass his bill, he said, which he’s circulating among colleagues.
The president’s COVID diagnosis also raises concerns about national security, and political insiders stressed the need for the Trump administration to demonstrate the government is still running smoothly.
“We do have troops all around the world right now, we have allies all around the world, and I would expect to see communication … from the White House to our allies that obviously work continues here, official business continues here,” said Denis McDonough, who served as an Obama White House chief of staff. He spoke Friday morning at a virtual event on presidential transitions hosted by the Partnership for Public Service.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy welcomed reports Friday morning that Trump was awake and alert, despite his mild coronavirus symptoms.
“That’s important for our allies and adversaries to hear,” Murphy said on CNN.
Confidence is low among Democrats that Trump’s government will be transparent about its effectiveness while its leader faces a deadly illness.
House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees government agencies, told Insider in a statement on Friday that they “have repeatedly raised concerns about the federal government’s preparedness during the coronavirus pandemic, and have met resistance by the Trump administration.”
But Congressional Republicans on Friday came to the Trump administration’s defense that it could still govern effectively despite the president’s diagnosis.
“I think the president is doing exactly the right thing to isolate and to handle it the way it’s recommended,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, told Insider in a brief interview on Capitol Hill.
“While the timing could be better,” Brady added, “I have every confidence the White House can not only battle this COVID, lead our economic recovery, but make the case for the president’s re-election.” Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: July 15 is Tax Day — here’s what it’s like to do your own taxes for the very first time