In our cynical political world, presidential commissions, like Senate Select Committees or on occasion Joint Congressional Committees convened for a specific purpose, are generally considered graveyards for controversial issues the political leadership just wants to sweep under the rug. Blue Ribbon Commissions, which tend to be manned by outsiders with specific expertise, have a little bit more credibility because of their independence although they don't have any authority of their own. But on the whole, because various presidents and congressional leaders have created so many commissions which led nowhere or resulted in little change, the people don't put much stock in them.
There are exceptions, however. The most recent example is the 9/11 Commission, established by congressional legislation and signed by President George W. Bush to investigate the circumstances that led to the terrorist attacks and offer recommendations for change. It was staffed by former officials and experts of both parties and was chaired by former Governor Thomas Keane, a Republican from New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. They issued a report that resulted in some major changes (for better and worse) in the federal government.
The investigation's most memorable moment came in 2004, during a public hearing, in which commission member Richard Ben-Veniste questioned the National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice about whether the administration had any advance warning. And this came out:
BEN-VENISTE. Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the Aug. 6 P.D.B. warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that P.D.B.
RICE. I believe the title was "Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States."
9/11 was one of the worst catastrophes to ever befall our country and everyone understood that there had to be some come kind of independent investigation into what went wrong. There were legitimate criticisms of the report the commission produced and there were many questionable actions taken by the government that were not adequately addressed, but for the most part, the report was taken seriously. There were too many lives lost and too much fear and trauma to sweep it under the rug. The results of that failure by the government and the subsequent debacle of the Iraq War still haunt us 20 years later.
So what are we going to do about the latest debacle at the hands of yet another Republican president who couldn't seem to take the warnings of impending disaster seriously?
The country had already been through an ongoing political crisis with the election of the manifestly unfit Donald Trump and his bizarre and incompetent administration for three long years when we were hit with a deadly crisis of epic proportions. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, of course, and we will not know the true scope of the carnage for quite some time. But we already know that the U.S. response to the crisis during its first year was atrocious. What we don't yet know is just how much of the illness and death can be attributed to the Trump administration's ineptitude and reflexively hyper-political decisions.
According to Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration's COVID task force coordinator, the number of needless deaths number in the hundreds of thousands.
Birx is a flawed messenger, of course. I wrote about her conflicts and unsuitability for the job before. But her testimony in this recent CNN special hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, along with that of other top doctors who worked on the administration's task force, painted a picture of dysfunction that was shocking even for those of us who followed the story in detail as it was unfolding. The Trump administration was the leakiest in history, but the point of view from these particular players offered a different angle. Even if it was mostly an attempt to make themselves look better — and there was certainly an element of that — it was still stunning.
For instance, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the former CDC director said that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and his staff pressured him to alter scientific reports, specifically those that reported mortality rates. The former FDA Commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, described his relationship with Azar as "strained" after the secretary unilaterally revoked the FDA's power to regulate COVID tests. Trump's testing czar, Admiral Brett Giroir, admitted that the administration lied when they said there were millions of tests. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he knew they were in trouble when he saw that Trump had tweeted "liberate Michigan!" in contravention of everything they were trying to do. And Birx said that Trump told her in April that he would never allow the country to be shut down again.
But it wasn't just President Trump's self-serving focus on "optics" and magical thinking. The fact is that despite years of predictions of a coming plague from scientists, the U.S. was totally unprepared. Dr. Robert Kadlec, former U.S. assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under Trump explained: "When we started the pandemic in January, we really didn't know what the status of the supply chain was. We didn't know what hospitals had on hand. We didn't know what the state supplies were. We didn't even know what the commercial distributors had on their shelves."
Clearly, the systems for dealing with a national public health emergency simply didn't exist. And there certainly was no plan. When you add this to all we know about the potential corruption of Jared Kushner's involvement, the Fox News quack doctors like Scott Atlas who were brought in by Trump to tell him what he wanted to hear as well as dozens of other revelations about how the government dropped the ball, if there was ever a situation that required a Blue Ribbon Commission, this would be it.
It's not just about the death toll from this disaster, although that would be enough reason to do it. A full "autopsy" is necessary so that the government can prepare for the next one, which every one of those doctors insists is inevitable.
Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine how such a thing could be put together considering our divided nation and the ongoing devotion of the Republican Party to Donald Trump. The 9/11 Commission called upon respected elder statesmen from both parties who all saw the job as an important mission for the good of the country. It is impossible to imagine any Democrats who would be acceptable to the Republicans or any Republicans who would be willing to buck the party to criticize Donald Trump. So I'm afraid it's likely that this massive tragedy will pass into history without any official reckoning from the American government. We'll just have to hope that when the next pandemic hits our shores we'll have better luck than we did this time. Don't throw away your masks.