The U.S. Agency for International Development, which has been on the front lines of the battle with the coronavirus, is about to shut down the task force it set up to tackle the still-ongoing pandemic.
The decision is being met with concerns by some who fear it will lead to greater dysfunction at USAID, which already faces personnel and structural turmoil. Others, however, say the task force was poorly managed and that its functions can be delegated.
The task force is set to be deactivated on Wednesday, according to an internal note to staffers that was shared with POLITICO. A spokesperson for USAID did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The task force is shutting down as the pandemic continues to kill; the U.S. is on the verge of 190,000 deaths, while the global death toll is nearing 900,000, according to researchers tracking the virus.
The decision to end the task force also comes as President Donald Trump and his aides downplay the pandemic in the run-up to November’s elections. During the Republican National Convention, for instance, economic adviser Larry Kudlow spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, while a large, sparsely masked crowd packed the South Lawn of the White House for the president’s acceptance speech.
The White House has also stopped its regular news conferences focused on the pandemic, while largely sidelining the interagency coronavirus task force and its leading scientists, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx.
According to the aid agency’s note and people familiar with the issue, the responsibilities of the USAID task force will be handed to other agency bureaus and divisions.
“As we approach the deactivation of the Task Force on Sept. 9, the entire team is focused on ensuring a smooth transition of key functions back to Bureaus and Independent Offices,” the note read.
USAID has played a major role in overseeing and distributing global aid related to the pandemic, including sending ventilators to other countries. At times, its work has been controversial, especially during early scrambles within the U.S. for the protective equipment needed by health care workers and others.
A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly, expressed worries about how other units within the agency would tackle the pandemic without a task force to coordinate.
“Now everyone is going to be fighting because there is no central place,” the official said.
A USAID official, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, was less concerned, saying the task force’s mandate was overly broad.
“It was far too large and bureaucratic,” the USAID official added.
Some of the task force’s responsibilities may fall on what USAID’s leaders have described as a temporary planning cell called “Over the Horizon.” USAID acting Administrator John Barsa laid out the basics of that new unit in testimony before Congress over the summer.
“While USAID’s COVID-19 Task Force has managed the near-term challenges directly related to the pandemic, Over the Horizon will perform research, conduct outreach, and prepare analyses around key strategic questions to help the Agency prepare for lasting challenges to the development and humanitarian landscape in the medium to long term,” he stated.
The changes come as USAID faces internal turmoil on multiple fronts. The agency already was undergoing a restructuring that began under former Administrator Mark Green. He left USAID in the spring, and Barsa took over.
Since Green’s departure, the White House has placed a slew of new political appointees at USAID, some of whom have in the past made comments that have offended women, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community and others. There have been calls for several of these political appointees to be fired.
One appointee, Merritt Corrigan, was fired last month as USAID’s deputy White House liaison after a series of tweets were published on her Twitter account criticizing the agency, congressional Democrats and the media. The tweets included a promise for Corrigan to hold a news conference along with two far-right purveyors of conspiracy theories, Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, to “discuss the rampant anti-Christian sentiment at USAID.”
But Corrigan later apologized. She also insisted she did not send the tweets, alleging that her devices had not been in her control.
One new political appointee, Pete Marocco, who has a tumultuous history within the Trump administration, has infuriated career USAID employees by trying to dramatically reshape one of its key bureaus.
According to a report in Foreign Policy, Marocco has taken a “slash and burn” approach that involves, among other things, showing preference to programs that benefit Christian minorities.