03:15 - Source: CNN
What Biden said he would do for the Covid-19 economy
CNN  — 

Joe Biden’s transition team found a culture of coronavirus skepticism within Donald Trump’s federal government as they prepared to take office, sources close to the Biden transition told CNN, with political appointees loyal to the President reflecting his dismissiveness of public health guidelines and sometimes mocking career employees for wearing masks.

The findings from Biden’s agency review teams are some of the earliest readouts from the Biden officials who were tasked with preparing for the new administration and signal one of the most apparent early changes that the incoming administration will make. They observed a federal bureaucracy devoid of clear leadership on the pandemic, the sources said.

The Biden transition was subject to some of these unclear guidelines, as well, with one source describing awkward moments within some agencies where the Biden team would try to avoid large in-person meetings as the political leadership at those same agencies would schedule gatherings in small conferences rooms with “a lot of people not physical distanced.” For those Trump appointees who did wear masks, the Biden teams observed that oftentimes those masks were only put on when they entered the room. And even when the Biden teams were not in meetings, one source said that when they walked the halls of certain agencies, they would see groups of unmasked people working in conference rooms, a site they described as “jarring.”

“The general takeaway was that many of the career folks were relatively compliant and took Covid seriously,” said one source familiar with the transition’s findings. “There was political direction, though, in a lot of places, that kind of set the set the tone.”

That tone, this person said, was one that reflected the President’s own denial of the realities of coronavirus, leading to a pandemic that upended his final year in office after a lackluster response by the federal government sunk his reelection chances. Some agencies, the sources said, handled coronavirus responsibly and instituted strict rules for how federal employees who had to come to work should stay safe. Other government bodies, however, were remarkably lax about key health guidelines.

“There was a lot of variation. There’s some agencies where you have to have people in person that were extraordinarily thoughtful about the way to meet their mission while still keeping the reports safe,” the source said. “And then there were other places where my guess is there were a lot more infections than were reported, just because the people who did come in were working in what I would call not necessarily a safe environment.”

A White House spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

Among the agencies most impacted was the Department of Homeland Security, sources close to the transition said, where the critical and sensitive nature of the work required numerous employees to work in person. Biden’s transition team also grew concerned that many in the department had not been prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine, despite high rates of infection inside the agency.

A changing culture

One of Biden’s earliest goals in the White House will be to implement strict coronavirus rules in places where he has the most authority – namely, the federal government.

Trump refused to accept the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis throughout his final year in office, declining to wear a mask for months and downplaying the virus in an attempt to allay fears that were dominating the presidential election. Biden ran on a pledge to make the coronavirus his top priority, creating a scenario where one of the most dramatic shifts between administrations could be how the virus is approached. And while Biden transition officials expected to see some legacy of Trump’s coronavirus denial inside the federal bureaucracy, sources said the level to which political appointees reflected the President’s message was significant.

“Anything that was seen as undermining the President’s message was totally frowned upon,” said one former Trump administration official. “[Trump] wanted to show that everything was under control, so that’s been the message, even if the numbers suggest the opposite.”

CNN has previously reported that current and former administration officials said there was no one in the White House or the National Security Council whose singular focus was to coordinate the Covid response among the Cabinet and various agencies. Efforts to mandate masks among government employees and inside government offices were shot down by the White House as Trump worked to portray strength and assure the public that the situation was under control. Even after Trump himself tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized, staff within the West Wing largely opted against the use of masks.

Biden has said that he intends to mandate mask wearing on federal property on his first day in office.

In recent weeks, many government agencies, including the National Security Council, began making vaccines available for staff and security personnel. In some offices in the Executive Office Building, puzzles and other souvenir shop items bearing Trump’s image and signature started piling up as free giveaways to staff who were popping in to receive their vaccines, one official recalled.

But the President himself was never vaccinated, with the White House saying publicly that as someone who contracted the coronavirus, doctors believe he has the antibodies necessary to protect him. Even as that window the antibody ended last month, there was no indication that Trump would agree to a vaccine, even as a symbolic measure to assure the public of the vaccine’s viability.

“He just doesn’t believe he needs it,” said one person familiar with the President’s thinking, “so he doesn’t see a point.”

Trump’s views permeated

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing federal workers, has repeatedly criticized the administration’s handling of coronavirus, saying federal worksites reopened too quickly with too little regard for worker safety.

A recent survey of workers in the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 60% of those surveyed said their facility didn’t let them know when fellow staff members contracted Covid-19. Some 40% said they weren’t receiving adequate personal protective equipment.

“If you want to give the Trump administration a grade on this, it would have to be an F,” said Jacqueline Simon, director of the public policy department at AFGE.

In addition to the issues at the VA, she said people struggled to get appropriate PPE and socially distance in their roles with TSA, the Department of Agriculture and in various agencies in the Department of Homeland Security.

While some agencies handled Covid protections better than others, Simon said the tone at the top was that coronavirus wasn’t a serious concern.

“From the top, of course, they get zero credit for doing anything right because they tried to muddy the message,” Simon said.

Trump, at the outset of the virus, lied about the fact that it would go away quickly, that the warmer weather in the spring would kill it and that the virus would “fade away” in short order. After a deadly spring, however, complete denial was impossible, and Trump began to argue that more cases of the disease were harmless, claimed that the high rate of positive tests was strictly because the country was testing too much, and that the country would soon be “rounding the corner” on the virus. And even after Trump himself contracted coronavirus in early October, after months of being lax about mask wearing and openly flouting social distancing guidelines for campaign events, Trump falsely claimed that he was now immune.

Trump’s attitude permeated the White House coronavirus task force, too, which was caught between pushing best practices to battle the coronavirus and navigating a White House that did not want to be seen enforcing mask wearing. The task force wasted days in mid-March debating whether they should recommend that critical infrastructure workers – including those at all levels of government – should wear masks. While the health experts on the task force were in favor of the face covering recommendation, they faced pushback from political appointees who didn’t want to encourage mask-wearing, according to a person familiar with the situation.