Congress was slow to understand the threat from coronavirus, and now Republicans want to blame impeachment.
Back in January, as Democrats presented their evidence in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, only a few lawmakers from both parties were urging action against the highly contagious virus that had shut down parts of China and recently arrived in the United States, reported Politico.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) became alarmed over Martin Luther King Day weekend reading reports about the coronavirus in China, which he noticed a disconnect between China’s rosy statements about the outbreak and the drastic steps it was taking to contain it.
The Arkansas Republican started pressing the White House to ban travel from China, and he called Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner and privately warned them about the coronavirus, and he also urged action from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other top officials.
Publicly, however, Trump said Jan. 22 that his team had the U.S. outbreak “totally under control,” and only 14 senators showed up for an all-Senate briefing requested by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and held on Jan. 24, which was the deadline for senators to turn in their impeachment questions.
“The initial thought from the Dems, I think, is that we were trying to distract from impeachment,” a Republican Senate aide said.
However, Democrats started stepping up their warnings shortly afterward, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 26 to declare coronavirus a public health emergency, which would free up $85 million in funding to control the outbreak.
Both of Washington state’s senators — Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — demanded Jan. 28 that Azar keep them up to date on his agency’s efforts to fight the outbreak, and the White House did heed Cotton’s advice and banned most travel from China on Jan. 31.
The impeachment trial ended Feb. 5 with Trump’s acquittal, and Cotton and other Republicans insist the process distracted lawmakers and the president — but Democrats disagree, saying the House wasn’t even briefed on the virus until the Senate trial was over.
Democrats started asking for emergency funding for the outbreak on Feb. 5, the last day of the impeachment trial, after Azar held a closed-door briefing, and they also point out that Trump and most other Republicans continued to downplay the threat well into March.
“Senate Republicans were not using February to pressure the president to get serious about an early supplemental [appropriations] request,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who tweeted out a complaint after that briefing that the administration wasn’t taking the threat seriously enough.
Democrats say, even if impeachment had never happened, they doubt Republicans would have been willing to take dramatic steps to fight a viral outbreak they mocked and downplayed until it had wrecked the economy and forced the shutdown of schools and businesses.
“In an alternate world in which impeachment wasn’t happening, I don’t think the replacement would have been an earlier bill on coronavirus,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA). “Even as we were passing our Phase 1 coronavirus bill many House Republicans were not taking coronavirus seriously, even mocking the issue.”