McConnell: Impeachment “diverted the attention of the government” from coronavirus early

If Trump’s impeachment trial were such a distraction from COVID-19, it’s strange that Mitch and Senate Republicans didn’t bang that drum at the time. They weren’t shy about using pragmatic arguments against the process. Lindsey Graham, for instance, made the point repeatedly that impeachment is always bitterly divisive and would hurt the country, which is why he wanted the trial over ASAP. If he and his colleagues thought coronavirus were a calamity descending upon America and feared that their trial duties were hampering their and Trump’s ability to respond to it, I feel like we would have heard that from them in January and February.

A lot. Like, every four minutes. Not “no quid pro quo” or “bad, but not impeachable” every four minutes. “WE ARE FACING A ONCE-IN-A-CENTURY THREAT AND NEED TO DEVOTE OUR FULL ATTENTION TO IT” every four minutes.

McConnell has been forced to play defense, though. Democrat Chris Murphy took a hard shot at Trump administration’s yesterday, pointing back to a tweet he sent on February 5 — the day of Trump’s acquittal, coincidentally — warning that the White House seemed unprepared based on a briefing on coronavirus that was given to the Senate that same day.

“That briefing was chilling to me,” Murphy elaborated to WaPo about the briefing. “It was crystal clear that the administration was not taking this seriously.” He said he thought that officials who attended, including Anthony Fauci and Alex Azar, were mostly checking the box in keeping Congress informed and didn’t yet appreciate the potential scope of the problem. Which is … not a good narrative for Trump and the GOP. Partisan recriminations about COVID-19 will be ferocious this fall. If the idea catches on among voters that Trump and his team bungled the period when the epidemic might have been contained, that could flip the White House and the Senate.

Senate Republicans got to work today on Hugh Hewitt’s show with a counter-narrative. Of course Trump and the GOP were distracted. They were bogged down with the Democrats’ impeachment obsession. McConnell to Hewitt:

HH: I hope you are right that we could do it and that we do do it. Let me talk to you a little bit about Senator Cotton. Political yesterday recognized him as the first to the bell. In your experience in the Senate, was Senator Cotton the first one to say hey, Leader, hey Mitch, this is a deadly situation that I do not trust to the Chinese? Was he first?

MM: He was first, and I think Tom was right on the mark. And it came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment. But Tom figured this out early, and he was absolutely right.

Tom Cotton was a guest on Hewitt’s show today as well. He had the same message:

TC: Well Hugh, the first time I recall talking about the China virus in the media was on your show, probably late in January after I had started studying the problem in mid-January. And I have to tell you that in mid-January and late-January, unfortunately, Washington, especially the Congress, was consumed with another matter – you may recall the partisan impeachment of the President. But I was focused on the time on what I thought was going to be a growing crisis coming out Wuhan. And unfortunately, it’s been proven correct.

I’ve seen a dozen people, right and left, on political Twitter make the same point in response to that. Are Senate Republicans now agreeing that the government was asleep at the switch on coronavirus? Trump gave himself a 10 out of 10 recently when a reporter asked him to grade his team’s response thus far. I don’t blame Senate GOPers for finding that ludicrous and wanting to pivot to a less ridiculous spin, but there is in fact an obvious pivot here. It reminds me of the pivot during impeachment from “no quid pro quo” to “bad but not impeachable,” in that once again we have the president pushing a defense that becomes increasingly far-fetched as more facts emerge, forcing Republicans in Congress to shift to a more plausible one. There was a quid pro quo — but it’s not a high crime or misdemeanor. The administration did bungle the COVID-19 response — but you can’t blame them, they were preoccupied with impeachment.

Were Tony Fauci and Alex Azar and Robert Redfield and other members of the public health team, which would have been in the lead on preparations, really preoccupied with impeachment? Why would they have been more interested in that than in the virus?

There are other reasons why “preoccupied with impeachment” is hard to believe. Trump famously insisted at every turn that the epidemic was well in hand until early March. If he had been sounding alarms about it throughout the impeachment period, that would be one thing. Instead he continually minimized the threat, evidence that he wasn’t “distracted” from it, he was in denial about it. Ten days ago U.S. officials whispered to WaPo that they had warned the president and his staff repeatedly in January and February that the virus was a threat but never made headway:

Intelligence agencies “have been warning on this since January,” said a U.S. official who had access to intelligence reporting that was disseminated to members of Congress and their staffs as well as to officials in the Trump administration, and who, along with others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive information.

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” this official said. “The system was blinking red.”…

On Jan. 27, White House aides huddled with then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in his office, trying to get senior officials to pay more attention to the virus, according to people briefed on the meeting. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argued that the administration needed to take the virus seriously or it could cost the president his reelection, and that dealing with the virus was likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.

Mulvaney then began convening more regular meetings. In early briefings, however, officials said Trump was dismissive because he did not believe that the virus had spread widely throughout the United States.

Intel officials weren’t distracted by impeachment, at least in their telling. Tom Cotton wasn’t distracted either. He sent a letter to Alex Azar on January 22, in the thick of the impeachment process, to encourage Trump to ban travel between the U.S. and China. To his credit, Trump complied — partially — on January 31, banning travel by foreigners who’d been in China during the previous two weeks. Cotton and Trump proved that they were capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, taking an early step to limit the spread of COVID-19 while impeachment was raging. If their attention wasn’t so “diverted” to prevent that first, basic step from being taken, why couldn’t further steps have been taken?

And remember, impeachment was over by February 5. Why wasn’t there an immediate announcement by the White House and/or Senate that, with this terrible distraction finally behind them, they could and would now devote their full attention to the looming pandemic? In reality, more than a month later, Trump was still tweeting stuff like this:

He didn’t even discontinue his golf outings (of which there were seven after mid-January) until March 8, the day before that tweet was sent. These are all bad facts that’ll be used against him and the GOP this fall, but that’s exactly why McConnell and Cotton are scrambling early to head off Murphy’s (and Joe Biden’s) attacks now. There’s a vanishingly small array of good excuses that might conceivably justify the massive CDC/FDA screw-up in testing and the feds’ failure to supply hospitals with protective gear and ventilators in a timely way. One obvious one, which is true, is “China lied to us and the world about the threat.” Another obvious one is “impeachment distracted us.” Doesn’t matter whether it’s true; what matters is whether people can be led to believe it. With a dogged enough PR effort, it’s possible. It just might save the Senate majority this fall.

The weird quirk in this messaging, though, is that I don’t believe I’ve heard it from Trump himself yet as I write this at 5 p.m. ET. Maybe he’ll mention it at today’s coronavirus press conference — that would be further evidence that the talking point is coordinated — but it’s curious that someone who’s so eager in most cases to find scapegoats hasn’t already settled on blaming Pelosi for “distracting” him with impeachment. I assume the reason is the same as the reason that he never could bring himself to drop the “no quid pro quo” defense even after many Senate Republicans abandoned it. To say that Democrats distracted him for responding effectively to COVID-19 would require him to admit that he hasn’t responded effectively to COVID-19, just like saying there was a quid pro quo in the Ukraine matter but it wasn’t impeachable would require him to admit wrongdoing in the Ukraine matter. He’s not going to do that. The phone call between him and Zelensky was “perfect” and his response to coronavirus is a 10 out of 10. He’ll leave it to lesser officials to shift blame in ways that require finding fault with him.

Update: Well, here he is this afternoon. He can’t quite pull the trigger on the “impeachment distracted me” claim. It would require admitting fault.

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