Christie to Trump: "Now is not a time for subtlety" on coronavirus

It’s not often that anyone accuses Donald Trump of being overly subtle, but in this case perhaps it takes a former governor from New Jersey to recognize it. Chris Christie offers praise for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak thus far, especially his timely decisions to impose travel restrictions on China and Europe, but says it’s time to really take the rhetorical gloves off. Recalling his own exhortation to “get the hell off the beach” just before Hurricane Sandy hit, Christie advises Trump to fully flex his executive muscle now:

The stress on our health-care system is not yet calculable, but we should prepare for the worst. As a condition for receiving emergency aid, every governor should be directed by the president to submit plans this week to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to take over facilities for use as supplemental hospitals in case the need for our approximately 924,000 hospital beds nationwide exceeds capacity in any state.

Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, available through the national emergency declaration, should be used to purchase ventilators, masks, hospital beds and other medical supplies to address the coming crisis. None of this will be wasted; they can and should be stored for any future crisis. …

As in past disasters, the president should use the Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to enable governors to support local businesses and help prevent permanent closures. These businesses must be saved. These programs worked very well in the aftermath of Sandy.

This in particular is a good idea, at least in principle, and one that could be directed through the executive. It should be noted, however, that the CDBG program worked after Hurricane Sandy in large part because the damage was relatively localized, although it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time. The program still cost billions of dollars that required approval by Congress in the end too, so Trump will still find his hands tied at some point if this Congress doesn’t act to fund it. He can direct the program’s block-grant policies, but only Congress can fund them — at least once the current appropriation runs out.

The idea about taking over unused space for emergency hospitals is also a good one, although there is some debate as to who should direct it. Maryland governor Larry Hogan ordered the state to start reopening closed facilities and look for other space as well under his own authority:

“We have never faced anything like this before,” Hogan said during a news conference, where he announced other actions. “This is going to be much harder, take much longer and be much worse than almost anyone is currently understanding.”

Hogan also announced a prohibition on social, community, recreational or religious gatherings of more than 50 people in close proximity.

The governor said the state is planning to make up to 6,000 more hospital beds available, in part by reopening closed hospitals.

In contrast, New York governor Andrew Cuomo complained that the federal government should be providing the space rather than the states:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that he is mobilizing the N.Y. National Guard to seek out facilities that can be converted into emergency hospital space in anticipation that the curve of new infections will almost certainly not be flattened enough to prevent the state’s hospital systems from being overwhelmed.

Cuomo called on the federal government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, to build such emergency facilities, saying they have the greatest capability to quickly expand the total number of beds throughout the country. And Cuomo said that all elective surgeries scheduled in the state could be postponed.

Christie doesn’t mention the dispute, although he approvingly cited Hogan’s earlier efforts. His approach would put Trump in position to facilitate and incentivize these actions by the states rather than order them at the federal level, which seems more appropriate — especially since it allows states to scale this as they need to do so. Does using the Army Corps of Engineers to build out new facilities make as much sense as using National Guard personnel to prep already-existing space, especially when the Corps of Engineers will be a very limited resource nationwide?

Christie’s main point, though, isn’t so much about policy as it is about tone. He argues that Americans still aren’t taking the crisis seriously enough, and that it takes tough talk from the top to wake people up. They won’t get the hell off the beach until the man in charge tells them to do so, Christie tells Trump:

More must be done to prepare for increasing case numbers and to effectively communicate what must be done to reduce the threat. I fear Americans are not yet taking this virus seriously enough. One need only look at the French Quarter in New Orleans and airports such as O’Hare International in Chicago to see ample evidence of this fact. Leaders must change this behavior. …

Finally, all public officials, through their words and actions, must reinforce the urgency of the threat. When I told people in New Jersey to “Get the hell off the beach” in preparation for a hurricane, they knew I meant it and followed my lead. Now is not a time for subtlety. We must forcefully communicate the grave nature of this threat and work together to stop it.

That’s as close as Christie gets to criticizing Trump for his earlier attempts to minimize the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, which proves that Christie knows his audience. The message is still unmistakable — Trump needs to start talking tough to get everyone on the same page.

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