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A Month After Emergency Declaration, Trump's Promises Largely Unfulfilled

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Whatever else has happened, the federal government's response to the pandemic has included many, many words. The president has made many promises in recent weeks. Now that some time has passed, how do those promises match reality? One month ago today, the president made a grave announcement about the fight against COVID-19.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To unleash the full power of the federal government in this effort, today, I am officially declaring a national emergency - two very big words.

INSKEEP: As he spoke those two very big words, he was flanked by leaders of the nation's largest retailers and medical testing companies. And the president promised to mobilize public and private resources, working together to meet the crisis. He pledged a sweeping national campaign of screening and drive-through sample collection and lab testing. NPR Washington investigative correspondent Tim Mak is on the line. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: All right. Let's check out those promises now that a month has passed. What did the president say would happen? And what has happened?

MAK: So members of the NPR Investigations team went through every promise the president made on that March 13 Rose Garden address. Here's one thing that he said then.

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TRUMP: We've been in discussions with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-through tests available in the critical locations identified by public health professionals.

MAK: We contacted the retailers who were there. And we found that discussions have not led to any wide-scale implementation of drive-through tests. Walmart has only opened two testing sites. Walgreens has opened two in Chicago. CVS has opened four sites. And Target has opened none at all. In fact, the company said it had no formal partnership with the federal government. So rather than a massive wave of testing, we found a grand total of eight sites from the retailers present at that Rose Garden address.

INSKEEP: Wow. And you can have some sympathy here, I guess, because one month is not a long time to put together a national program. But that's what was required in the circumstance. And wasn't there also supposed to be a website to coordinate screening and testing and results?

MAK: Well, that's right. The president and his team promised that day that 1,700 Google engineers would be working on a website that would integrate screening, facilitate a nearby drive-through testing location and then send you back your results all in one.

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TRUMP: It's going to be very quickly done - unlike websites of the past - to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.

MAK: Well, that never happened. Google was technically never the lead on the project. A sister company to Google called Verily, owned by the same parent company, has rolled out a pilot project primarily at the direction of the California state government. They now have six testing sites. But that's only available to California residents in five counties in that state. Verily also told us that when they ramped up, they had nearly 1,000 volunteers working on the program, not 1,700 engineers as the president has claimed.

INSKEEP: OK. So big difference between the promises and the implementation - very small implementation. What about other promises the president made?

MAK: Well, the president pledged to waive interest on student loans held by government agencies and relax certain regulations in the health care space. And he did do that...

INSKEEP: OK.

MAK: ...But on other federal government responses, he was unable to fulfill his promises because he promised things he didn't have the power to do unilaterally. For example, the president said he would waive license requirements so that doctors could practice in states with the greatest need. But medical licensing is a state issue. And the president did not have the authority to waive that. He said he would purchase large amounts of oil for the U.S. strategic reserve.

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TRUMP: We're going to fill it right up to the top.

MAK: At that time, he'd had not secured funds from Congress to do so and still has not done so. And so it just has not happened.

INSKEEP: Yeah, a reminder that so much presidential leadership isn't absolute power, it's moral leadership, it's persuasion, it's having the trust of people. And if you don't have that, it's hard to act. What has the White House said about all this?

MAK: Well, the White House did not formally respond on the record for this story. Some agencies like HHS provided some context. But on the whole, on the public-private partnership front, the effort was an issue of promising more than the private sector could deliver. And ultimately, the last month has showed how many of the grand goals set out when the national emergency started haven't been met.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team. She helps with reporting, research, and production both on the team and in the network. She was the primary data reporter on Coal's Deadly Dust, a project investigating black lung disease's resurgence. The project won an Edward Murrow Award and NASEM Communications award, and was nominated for a George Foster Peabody award.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Robert Benincasa is a computer-assisted reporting producer in NPR's Investigations Unit.
Graham Smith is a producer, reporter and photographer whose curiosity has taken listeners around the U.S. and into conflict zones from the Mid-East to Asia and Africa.
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.