This editorial has been updated to clarify Sen. Marsha Blackburn's votes on coronavirus relief packages.
On Thursday, as many Americans struggled to reconcile what they heard with their own ears on the news — President Donald Trump talking with journalist Bob Woodward about the "deadly stuff" of the airborne coronavirus and his determination to downplay it to the public — this page sought input from Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.
The inquiries were simple and straightforward:
"I'm seeking a comment today about the president's interviews with Bob Woodward. The president knew the real dangers of COVID-19 in early February and told Woodward. The president said the opposite in public. In March he told Woodward he liked "playing it down" to the public so as not to create a panic. We read the statements. We hear the tape. We hear his voice.
"Is this acceptable to you? Are you OK with him misleading the public. Misleading you as we lost weeks, maybe months, in a real fight against this virus?"
Despite a followup phone call Friday morning to Rep. Fleischmann's Washington office, we received no response from him. We did receive responses from our senators, and we include here their answers — in full.
Spoiler alert: You'll notice that neither of them answers the questions of "Is this acceptable to you? Are you OK with him misleading the public?
' Sen. Marsha Blackburn: "President Trump and Senate Republicans have worked diligently to protect Americans from the coronavirus. The Chinese government's lack of transparency and hoarding of PPE allowed the coronavirus to spiral into a global pandemic. The Senate has passed multiple relief packages ushering trillions of dollars in aid to American families who have been devastated by COVID-19. I will continue working with President Trump, his Administration and my Senate colleagues, to make sure we have adequate resources to develop a vaccine and to assist Tennesseans who have lost jobs and loved ones during these difficult times."
Blackburn was one of eight senators (not including her fellow Sen. Lamar Alexander) to vote against the first coronavirus relief package in mid-March, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The FFCRA is not the same as the relief package widely known as CARES. The Families First coronavirus bill was the $100 billion coronavirus aid package which President Trump signed to guarantee sick leave to workers who fall ill and to provide free testing. The CARES Act was later passed unanimously, with her support, by the Senate a little more than a week after the FFCRA.
Blackburn opposed the FFCRA saying, "Tennessee workers and small business owners do not want unfunded federal mandates placed on them while they are struggling to keep their doors open and meet payroll. They have told me they desperately need our support for flexibility to create solutions that work for their employees. At a time when revenue has decreased for many, it is irresponsible to implement a one-size-fits-all government mandate requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. Our Tennessee hospitals and our TennCare program have serious concerns with the Medicaid provisions and we are continuing to work with them to meet the needs in our communities. I look forward to working to pass legislation that will properly address these concerns."
The CARES Act made technical changes to the FFCRA, including "streamlining" the process for employers to request an advance of anticipated tax credits and refunds for paying sick and paid FMLA leave expenses.
On Thursday, she voted for the GOP's "skinny" relief bill that did not include state and local government relief and food assistance and halved the previous enhanced unemployment insurance. The bill fell short of the 60 votes needed to move it forward.
' Sen. Lamar Alexander: "Since March, I have chaired nine hearings in the Senate's health committee where Trump Administration experts from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, warned about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the urgency of dealing with it promptly. None of these officials on behalf of the president ever downplayed the seriousness of the virus.
"To put the president's comments in context, on March 1, three weeks after President Trump's interview with Bob Woodward, The New York Times reported: 'Much about the coronavirus remains unclear, and it is far from certain that the outbreak will reach severe proportions in the United States or affect many regions at once. With its topnotch scientists, modern hospitals and sprawling public health infrastructure, most experts agree, the United States is among the countries best prepared to prevent or manage such an epidemic.' At the time, the United States only had about 30 cases of COVID-19 and 1 death according to Johns Hopkins University."
Sen. Alexander's use of The New York Times quote from The New York Times story does add the context that as March opened, we knew less about the virus — and certainly less than what the president told Woodward on Feb. 7.
But Alexander might also have included the very next paragraph: "But the coronavirus, which appeared in China in December and has stricken more than 86,000 people around the world, killing nearly 3,000, has already exposed significant vulnerabilities in the ability of the United States to respond to serious health emergencies."
A few paragraphs further down was this: "Critics say a contradictory message about the threat posed by the virus from President Trump — who called Democrats' criticism of his handling of the situation a "hoax" at a rally on Friday night — amplified on conservative media, has caused confusion, arguably slowing efforts to prepare.
"'The Chinese bought us a month of time to prepare ourselves by imposing these astonishing and draconian measures,' said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which last year issued a report that identified flaws in the nation's health security. 'Unfortunately, we didn't make good use of that time and now we're heading into a very dangerous situation.'"
We also find it interesting that neither of our senators mentioned Trump's claim of not wanting to "create panic." Perhaps that's because they see even that claim difficult to accept, since this president never shies away from using fear to get what he wants. Just Thursday, he tweeted: "If I don't win, America's Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, 'Friendly Protesters.' "
Tim Miller, a longtime GOP strategist who advises Republican Voters Against Trump, put it well Friday in The Washington Post: "His political campaign's branding strategy is panic. They should put 'PANIC' on a red hat. The person warning about the end of suburbia and migrant caravans looting and raping your daughters, the idea that he's somebody who wants to turn down the temperature and breathe calm is absurd."
The idea that our senators and representative have nothing more to say about Trump's damage to our health, safety and democracy also is absurd.