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Climate & Environment

This Trump agency downplayed coronavirus. Two days later, it praised his ‘decisive’ response

Donald Trump, David Bernhardt
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, pictured July 8, praised Trump Friday for his coronavirus response, after his department downplayed the threat in a memo Wednesday.
(Evan Vucci/AP)

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Friday tweeted a video of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency and lauded his boss for taking “decisive — even unprecedented — actions to protect the American people” from the coronavirus.

But just two days earlier, Bernhardt’s office had sent talking points to Interior officials that downplayed the virus threat.

“While the situation could change rapidly, the threat to the American public today remains low ... Americans don’t need to change their day-to-day lives but should stay informed and practice good hygiene,” stated the two-page memo, which was obtained by The Times.

One of the points emphasized that “in South Korea, no one under the age of 30 has died from Coronavirus.”

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After outlining steps the Trump administration had taken to deal with the coronavirus, the March 11 memo closed with paragraphs highlighting the strength of the nation’s economy and advice on holding “large scale events (rallies).”

“If there is an event tomorrow in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgment. This is a decision that should be made by local leaders in these communities.”

The talking points were not signed, and the Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The memo was dispatched even as leading health authorities were criticizing the Trump administration’s mixed messages on the coronavirus threat and its halting response, which has lagged behind efforts by state and local governments.

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The same day that senior Interior officials received the talking points, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Californians to cancel all gatherings of more than 250 people, after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a similar order in his state. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed the number down to 50, setting off a wave of cancellations of entertainment and sporting events.

Los Angeles school officials on Friday announced that the nation’s second-largest school system will shut down its 900 campuses starting Monday.

While many private companies days ago nixed nonessential air travel and instructed most employees to work from home, federal agencies have taken a less aggressive posture.

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It wasn’t until Thursday night that the White House officially advised federal agencies to let workers telecommute if they were in higher-risk groups or live in areas where the virus had spread through community contact.

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Hundreds of Defense Department employees attended the annual National Military Fish and Wildlife Association meeting in Omaha this week.

At the Interior Department, some employees are still flying for work. An agency spokesperson said the department is reviewing “non-essential travel on a case-by-case basis.”

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Friday the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia announced it was postponing all courses and events through the end of March.

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A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the center, said the move came in response to cancellations and customer concerns about the virus.

Boxall reported from Los Angeles and Phillips from Washington, D.C.


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