A House panel investigating the coronavirus crisis released documents Tuesday detailing how senior White House officials tried to warn then-President Donald Trump of the danger of Covid-19 last March and leaned on federal agencies to offer non-competitive contracts for protective equipment to favored companies.
The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis asked HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Archives to turn over more records on the prior administration’s procurement of protective gear as part of an ongoing investigation.
“We are concerned that the previous administration may not have conducted sufficient diligence prior to awarding multi-million-dollar contracts, and that White House officials may have placed inappropriate pressure on federal agencies to award contracts to particular companies,” Subcommittee chair Jim Clyburn and other panel Democrats wrote in letters obtained by POLITICO.
What the documents say: A memo the committee obtained that was sent by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro in March 2020 warned that the then-isolated cases of Covid-19 would balloon into “a very serious public health emergency” and lamented that “movement has been slow” to prepare. The memo advised the president to shore up domestic supply chains for PPE and accelerate development of diagnostics and therapeutics.
In the months that followed, according to other documents the committee released Wednesday, Navarro and other senior officials and outside advisers pushed federal agencies to give no-bid contracts for pharmaceutical ingredients and other supplies to companies that were recently formed and had political ties with the Trump administration.
One deal under investigation is a $354 million contract awarded to the Phlow Corporation — a first-time government contractor that had incorporated just a few months before receiving the funds. It was the largest contract ever awarded by BARDA, and it followed a series of emails from Navarro to agency leaders in March of 2020.
“Phlow needs to get greenlit as soon as humanly possible…Please move this puppy in Trump time,” he wrote. In a subsequent message he said: “My head is going to explode if this contract does not get immediately approved.”
Steven Hatfill, an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University with ties to White House political advisor Stephen Bannon, was also involved in brokering the contract, the committee said.
The panel is also investigating a $3 million federal contract given to a company formed by former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Zachary Fuentes to provide respirator masks to the Navajo Nation through the Indian Health Services. Fuentes’ company received the contract just 11 days after its creation.
“When the respirator masks were delivered, IHS determined that they were unsuitable for use in a medical or surgical environment,” the committee wrote, asking for further records detailing how the contract was negotiated.
Why it matters: The Trump administration’s Covid contracting received some scrutiny last year. A plan to loan Eastman Kodak $765 million to shift to producing drug ingredients was scuttled after suspicious stock trades on the eve of the loan’s announcement prompted the U.S. International Development Finance Corp to cite "recent allegations of wrongdoing."
But Democrats in charge of oversight panels on Capitol Hill say there is still more to uncover, in part because the Trump administration did not respond to requests for documents. Republicans on the committees are complaining that the panels are focusing too much on the past and failing to hold the Biden administration accountable.
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