April 3, 2020

IntelBrief: COVID-19 Exposes Fault Lines in U.S. Public Trust and Government 

People walk among U.S. flags with the U.S. Capitol in the background, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress has started work on a new coronavirus aid package after the one just approved by the House early Saturday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin).
  • The Coronavirus pandemic and the United States’ lackluster response to it exposes fault lines between the Trump Administration and the non-partisan staff of U.S. agencies and civil authorities that exist to advise it.
  • This Administration has taken a series of missteps, including deliberately ignoring warnings from several institutions about COVID-19, demonstrating the lack of value for their expertise.
  • Recent studies have shown that Americans have decreasing trust in the information they receive from the Administration about COVID-19, and their confidence in the federal government’s response to it is declining.
  • Taken together, these factors highlight a deeper evolving trend of diminishing public trust and a growing need for stronger checks and balances on the executive.


The Coronavirus pandemic and the United States’ uncoordinated response to it has exposed deep fault lines between the Trump administration and the non-partisan experts and leaders of institutions and civil authorities that exist to advise it. This Administration has repeatedly demonstrated a pattern of rejecting or ignoring the advice of its agencies, which has contributed to a wider erosion of public trust in the coronavirus response. For example, months into the crisis President Trump continued to regularly downplay the dangers of coronavirus, emphasizing, until earlier this week, the need for the country’s economy to normalize, despite warnings from the leading U.S. adviser on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who underscored that ending social distancing too soon could lead to a spike in cases. In turn, a spike in cases would likely overwhelm hospitals and lead to more deaths – as evidenced by what is currently occurring in New York City. The Administration appeared more concerned with opening the economy than heeding the advice of its top experts in global health, who have been advising on ways to prevent the further spread of the virus. 

This Administration committed a series of disastrous missteps before the coronavirus outbreak. A major one was ignoring U.S. intelligence agencies who offered classified warnings in early 2020 about the global danger posed by COVID-19. Another misstep, perhaps less emphasized in media, is the slow thinning of science research capacity in the United States, as research studies have been shut down by this Administration and scientists appear to have a reduced influence in policymaking. A 2018 survey of scientists at 16 federal agencies, conducted by Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University, highlighted significant challenges to the development and use of science to protect the public from environmental and public health threats. In the first two years of the Trump administration, more than 1,600 federal scientists left various government agencies, per employment data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. More recently, the Administration failed to acknowledge whether it had actually eliminated the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2018 - the entity responsible for preparing for global pandemics in the White House. It is unclear whether it left the team poorly staffed after leaders on the team departed or relegated the team’s function elsewhere. A month after the first coronavirus cases emerged in China, a commission on global health security that included 6 members of Congress, health experts, and former U.S. government and military officials warned in a Center for Strategic and International Studies that the White House should restore health security leadership in its first policy recommendation. These actions - whether cutting Federal scientific research capacity or outright ignoring the advice of intelligence and health leaders, demonstrates the lack of value for key U.S. agencies by the Administration. 

Recent polls and studies have shown that Americans have decreasing levels of trust in the information provided by the Administration about COVID-19, and their overall confidence in the federal government's response to it is also declining. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, just 46 percent of Americans say the federal government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, down from 61 percent in February. The President was rated lowest in terms of trust among the groups tested, which included public health officials, state and local leaders and the news media. The poll also highlighted that Americans tend to have more faith in their local governments, with two-thirds saying their state governments are doing enough. Finally, the poll also showed sharp partisan divides on the President and news media on the coronavirus response, which is somewhat expected given the deep political polarization in the United States.  Per the Edelman Trust Barometer survey for 2020, people actually trust their employers over their government when it comes to information about the COVID-19 pandemic, including in the United States. Diminishing trust in traditional societal leaders, for example - governments and traditional media, has caused people to trend toward turning elsewhere for more reliable information.  

As the Administration ignores the advice of U.S. institutions that are meant to inform it experts have argued that this jeopardizes the policy-making process, and more broadly impacts the functioning of our democracy negatively. The public has not been ignorant of this trend. Freedom House’s 2019 ‘Freedom of the World’ report highlighted myriad challenges to American democracy that, when taken together, are testing the stability of the country’s constitutional system. The report cited attacks on rule of law, fact-based journalism and a rollback of other democratic norms. Many have argued that the President’s acquittal in his recent impeachment trial may have emboldened him to further breach his executive power while avoiding accountability. The U.S. constitutional system ensures transparency and accountability by authorizing legislative branch oversight of the executive, and the proper function of democracies depend on it. But over the last few years, much doubt has been cast over the accountability of U.S. executive power. The balance of powers battle is manifesting through the Coronavirus stimulus package, as the President is pressing against Congressional oversight over spending. The provisions of the package require a special inspector general (IG) to make regular independent reports to Congress to ensure legislative oversight. The President released a statement last week noting that the IG would report to congress ‘with his input.’ On April 2, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi created a House Selection Committee charged with providing additional oversight for how the stimulus package will be spent. Overall, these factors highlight a broader trend of diminishing public trust and growing need for stronger checks and balances on the executive.  


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