Cuomo, Whitmer Attribute Coronavirus Deaths to Trump 'Political Self-Dealing,' Call for Congressional Investigation

Lives could have been saved had President Donald Trump put health experts in charge instead of playing politics and it's time for Congress hold him accountable, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

The two officials on Thursday called on Congress to open an investigation into Trump's response to the pandemic, alleging the president allowed "political self-dealing" and not experts to guide his decisions. America leads in new coronavirus cases and more than 200,000 people have died, an "unacceptable scale of this tragedy" that Cuomo and Whitmer attributed to Trump's actions.

"Rather than turning to the advice and direction of public health experts and career public servants, President Trump instead put the health and security of the American people in the hands of political appointees whose first priority was securing the reelection of their benefactor, with predictably tragic results," the two governors said in a statement.

In defending their call for a congressional investigation, Cuomo and Whitmer specifically cited a Washington Post report that the White House blocked universal mask distribution and actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Leaders of the United States Postal Service (USPS) drafted a news release in April detailing plans to distribute 650 million masks nationwide, The Washington Post reported. It would be enough to give each household five face coverings, but the release was never published.

donald trump cuomo whitmer coronavirus investigation congress
President Donald Trump arrives for an event honoring Bay of Pigs veterans in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. On Thursday, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer called for a congressional investigation into Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Mandel Ngan/AFP

An administration official told The Washington Post the White House canceled the program after members of the White House Domestic Policy Council and the vice president's office were concerned it might "create concern or panic." Cuomo and Whitmer called the scraping of the plan "heartbreaking," and said everyone wearing masks at "such a crucial time" could have saved lives.

The same day the Post article was published, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed its August guidance that people who were exposed but not symptomatic did not need to be tested. The updated guidance said anyone, regardless of their symptoms, who was within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or longer needed to be tested.

CDC Director Robert Redfield took flak for the August guidelines, but it's possible the CDC wasn't fully responsible for telling asymptomatic people they didn't need to be tested. On September 17, The New York Times reported the guidance was pushed out by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and ran contrary to input from CDC scientists.

"That was a doc that came from the top-down, from the H.H.S. and the [White House coronavirus] task force," a federal official with knowledge of the matter, told the Times. "That policy does not reflect what many people at the C.D.C. feel should be the policy."

Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the HHS, told the Times the original draft was from the CDC but he "coordinated editing and input from the scientific and medical members of the task force." Redfield defended the guidelines for receiving the "appropriate attention, consultation and input from task force experts."

Cuomo and Whitmer called the guidance "indefensible" and said it was "clear" that Trump was trying to undermine experts because their facts are counter to his political agenda.

Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, told Newsweek, it was "shameful" that Cuomo and Whitmer made the pandemic about politics and were acting like "co-chairs of the DNC," not leaders of their states.

"President Trump and this administration have done nothing but prioritize public health and supported both states robustly to deal with the unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19, including ramping up testing, sending critically needed PPE, providing billions of dollars in aid and relief, and much more," Deere said.

This isn't the first time that Trump's response to the pandemic has been questioned. The release of Bob Woodward's new book Rage called into question the transparency with which the president approached the new coronavirus. Passages from the book were used as evidence that the president downplayed the situation while privately acknowledging the widespread impact it could have.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hasn't always agreed with Trump on the pandemic, but defended Trump against accusations that he misled the public in the early months. He told Fox News that he didn't "recall" huge discrepancies between discussions he had with the president in private and what Trump said publicly.

Fauci praised Cuomo for following guidance put forth by experts and taking New York from the epicenter to a state with fewer than one percent of positive cases each day. The expert's comments haven't shielded him from criticism, though, and the New York governor was widely condemned for having the highest nursing home death toll, in part due to the policy of sending COVID-positive patients to senior living centers.

Whitmer's strict lockdown and restrictions were heavily criticized by constituents, who protested against the orders that they said deprived them of earning a living. Her administration also had to answer for a policy that allowed hospitals to discharge seniors with coronavirus to nursing homes, a move that critics said put those who are elderly and considered high risk at even more risk.

In August, the Department of Justice (DOJ) requested data from Cuomo and Whitmer about orders they issued that "may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents." At the time, the DOJ was evaluating whether to initiate an investigation if the orders were responsible for the deaths of nursing home residents, a move that Cuomo and Whitmer said was motivated by politics.

People anticipated a pandemic for years before the first case of the new coronavirus was reported in the United States, and if history is an indicator of the future, it won't be the last health crisis the nation faces. The next time around, Cuomo and Whitmer said America can't afford to respond by "playing politics, instead of listening to science and facts."

"Our future health and economic security depends on holding the Trump administration accountable today," the governors said.

Updated 4:05 PM ET: with comment from Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary.