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This is one in a series of fact checks the Detroit Free Press is doing on public issues in conjunction with PolitiFact, a nonprofit national news organization. Suggest a fact-check here.
The claim: Sen. Gary Peters ‘downplayed the pandemic’ and ‘failed to act’
A new TV ad from Senate Republican candidate John James attacks incumbent Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The ad features an elderly patient lying on a hospital bed. Over the sound of a beeping ventilator, the ad’s narrator issues a long list of accusations against Peters: “He ignored all the warning signs. He downplayed the pandemic. … He failed to lead. Gary Peters leads the committee charged with pandemic response but Peters skipped hearings, blew off reports, downplayed risks.”
The ad features a short clip from a Fox News interview on Feb. 12 in which Peters said, “We think the risk right now to the United States is very low.”
The ad comes amid a running political battle over the government’s coronavirus response, with some Democrats accusing Republicans and the Trump administration of downplaying the threat posed by the virus, and Republicans accusing Democrats of hyping the threat to undermine the president ahead of the election.
Trump himself has consistently downplayed the virus and admitted in a recorded interview to doing so intentionally. Even after contracting the disease, Trump has continued to minimize the risk posed by COVID-19.
In light of that, we found it curious that James has commended Trump for his response to the pandemic, while faulting Peters for downplaying the risk, so we decided to take a closer look at his claims.
James’ campaign cited one hearing and several reports related to pandemics. But we found that those reports came years before the current coronavirus pandemic and were aimed at executive branch officials.
James is wrong to claim that Peters “leads the committee charged with pandemic response.” Peters is in the Democratic minority in the Senate and serves as the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who recently tested positive for COVID-19 and opposes mask mandates.
Meanwhile, James’ ad leaves out some key facts about Peters’ response to the virus and actions he took well before the outbreak became a global pandemic.
When Peters said in mid-February that the virus posed a low risk to the U.S., his assessment aligned with what public health experts were saying at the time, and he joined them in warning that the virus needed to be monitored vigilantly.
The interview came several weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 and President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.
Senate candidate John James speaks with attendees at a President Donald Trump rally at the MBS International Airport in Freeland on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
A timeline of Peters’ pandemic response
In an email promoting the ad, James’ campaign pointed to oversight and emergency management subcommittee hearings Peters missed in 2015 and 2016, years before the pandemic, to support its claim that Peters “skipped hearings.”
James’ campaign similarly said Peters “blew off reports,” citing a number of reports issued before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
In 2015, his first year in the Senate, Peters attended a Homeland Security Committee hearing on a Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense report calling on the federal government to better prepare for a future global pandemic. By 2020, most of the panel’s recommendations had not been implemented.
Other reports showed the federal government did not do enough to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak. These include a July 2016 memo submitted to then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice on lessons learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, an October 2016 audit of the Department of Homeland Security’s pandemic planning and a Health and Human Services report issued in October 2019 that found that the department was not ready to serve as the lead federal agency in response to an influenza pandemic.
Still, James’ campaign did not provide evidence to substantiate its claims that Peters “blew off” the reports or “failed to act.” The hearing on pandemic preparedness James’ campaign pointed to was held in 2015, before Peters became ranking member of the committee. The bulk of the recommendations presented at that hearing were for the executive branch to implement.
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What James’ ad doesn’t mention are the actions Peters took at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak to oversee and improve the government’s response, well before global health officials declared it a pandemic.
On Jan. 25, four days after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the U.S., Peters said in a tweet that the virus posed a public health risk and security threat. “This is something we have to watch very closely and I’m concerned about it,” he said in an interview on CNN that day.
On Jan. 28, Peters wrote a letter with Johnson asking DHS to share its strategy for responding to the coronavirus. On Feb. 7, Peters, along with three other Democratic senators, wrote a letter to Mick Mulvaney, then director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, urging the Trump administration to fully fund pandemic preparedness and response efforts in its budget for the next fiscal year. The Trump administration had repeatedly proposed cuts to such programs in its previous budgets.
On Feb. 12, Peters helped convene a panel of public health and security experts to discuss whether the U.S. was prepared to confront the global coronavirus pandemic. “I don’t think we’re alarmed at this point, but we need to be leaning into what will the next step be if we can’t contain it,” said panelist Julie Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Peters echoed this point in his Fox News interview later that day when he said, “We think the risk right now to the United States is very low, but we have to keep our eye on it.”
His assessment aligned with what public health experts were saying at the time.
Ten days after Peters’ interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke with CNN’s Michael Smerconish and made a similar statement. “At this particular moment, Michael, the risk is very low,” he said. “But — and I have to underline ‘but’ — this could change and it could change rapidly.”
Peters also signed on to a Feb. 13 letter calling for the appointment of a senior global health security expert to coordinate the United States’ global health security work. After the head of global health security on the White House’s National Security Council was removed in May 2018, the Trump administration left the position vacant.
“As ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senator Gary Peters not only sounded the alarm long before the pandemic but has battled to get Michiganders the relief and resources they need throughout this crisis,” wrote Peters for Michigan Communications Director Vanessa Valdivia in an email denouncing James’ ad.
James’ ad claims that Peters “downplayed the pandemic” and “failed to act.”
That’s not accurate. Peters’ assessment in mid-February that the coronavirus posed a low risk to the U.S., but needed to be monitored carefully, squared with what public health experts were saying.
Starting Jan. 28 — a week after the first U.S. COVID-19 case was confirmed — Peters took a series of actions to press administration officials on their preparations to deal with a potential outbreak.
We rate James’ claim False.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Clara at [email protected] or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check.
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