May 18, 2020
FEMA can find no records of criteria it uses to make distributions to states from the Strategic National Stockpile to address the coronavirus pandemic or records of any communication with the White House about making the distributions, according to a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, which FEMA is a part of.
This claim is odd, as one would imagine the agency in charge of distributing the nation’s stockpile of supplies during the worst pandemic in a century would have something to say about how it is done. And it’s especially concerning because the president has made statements suggesting that states should get federal assistance based on how he feels about the states’ governors.
Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. Her state has received far less from the National Stockpile than it needs to fight the coronavirus. Back in March, Trump explicitly named Whitmer as someone he instructed Vice President Pence’s commission not to help, due to her criticism.
This leads to some uncomfortable questions: is President Trump pressuring the agencies in charge of the nation’s response to the pandemic to base the response on his own political whims? How could there be no records at FEMA for how the agency is enacting a major part of the country’s plan to combat the coronavirus?
One potential answer is that it has deferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the decision making. Before FEMA took over the stockpile in mid-March, it was administered by HHS. FEMA sent our records request to DHS to respond, which in turn, after being unable to find any records, suggested requesting records from HHS. We already had, and so far we haven’t received any. It’s possible that HHS decided the measures that unevenly benefit some states when it ran the stockpile, and that FEMA did not change any criteria or have contact with the White House about it. However, reports suggest that FEMA may in fact have a different formula from HHS, which would mean either that the criteria exists somewhere that DHS did not search, that DHS found some loophole to avoid finding it, or that the criteria was put together in a way that there is no record of it to give us.
There are significant questions about how HHS managed the stockpile. Rick Bright, the former director of HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was ousted from that role after raising concerns about cronyism in the Trump administration’s pandemic response. Last week, Bright testified before Congress that one of the elements lacking in the government’s coronavirus response is a fair process for allocating PPE to different states. For a recent top HHS official to testify that a standard of disbursement for these resources has yet to be established raises serious alarms. Especially given that FEMA apparently also may not have a standard of disbursement, and directed CREW to ask HHS.
If FEMA were using HHS’ criteria, that would be interesting in and of itself. Is it FEMA’s standard operating procedure not to have any say in how things are being done? Given the apparent uneven distribution of supplies, if FEMA is following a playbook it was handed, why doesn’t it appear to have done anything to address the issue? Or did orders come down from the White House in a way to avoid FEMA from having any records of them? We know Jared Kushner’s task force appears to have gone out of its way—and may have violated the law—in its action to keep some of its dealings secret.
This isn’t just a question of proper governmental process and the intricacies of bureaucratic morass; tens of thousands of lives are on the line. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency tells us it has no records of criteria for distributing the nation’s stockpile of protective equipment or records of discussing it with the White House. So if they aren’t making the decision, who is? If they are, why aren’t they making it public? If FEMA doesn’t have any criteria for how they’re distributing the nation’s stockpile of PPE, does that mean states are left crossing their fingers and hoping for the supplies they need?