Opinion: Sean Penn and José Andrés: President Trump, embrace your duty as a ‘wartime president’

As we fight this catastrophic war, our national leadership has gone missing. We need unifying leadership more than ever, but the commander-in-chief has wasted months downplaying the virus, botching his administration’s response and ignoring and mocking the life-saving guidance of scientists and public-health experts.

Between the two organizations, we have raised and spent almost $150 million from private philanthropy, local governments — including CORE’s recent partnership with Georgia’s Fulton County — and small-dollar donors. We are committed, as disaster relief organizations, to taking immediate action while bystanders and leaders alike indulge in analysis paralysis.

However, the lack of federal funding and national leadership has left privately funded organizations like ours to fend for themselves during the biggest national emergency of our lives. We are running out of money.

Meanwhile, the federal government has run out of excuses.

The Trump administration and — too often, recently — institutions such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which are entrusted with protecting the safety and welfare of all, have failed the American people. Thanks to Bob Woodward, we now know that President Donald Trump understood very early on how deadly this virus could be despite downplaying the impending disaster.
Instead of embracing his duty as a self-proclaimed “wartime president,” the President and his administration have been strategically abdicating responsibility for political gain, creating mass confusion and pressuring government organizations to downplay the severity of the crisis.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s health protection agency, whose mission is to protect and save American lives, is the latest to succumb to crippling political pressure from the White House. As a result of the scant and scattered national response, Americans have been stranded, reduced to impatiently awaiting the arrival of a vaccine, and for many, a plate of food, or competent new leadership. With each passing day, several hundred American lives perish.

As the leaders of two national nonprofits on the frontlines of this war delivering essential services to millions of Americans — CORE and World Central Kitchen — we are demanding action from our leaders now. The United States of America cannot wait.

Amid one of the direst emergencies this country has ever experienced, the crucial guidance of our nation’s leading public health experts, Drs. Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, Robert Redfield and other top medical authorities, has either been discarded, misrepresented or muffled by the Trump administration. In his inaugural address, President Trump promised to end what he called an “American carnage.” This, right now, is a real American carnage. Free the American people from the misery of this disease, Mr. President. End this suffering now.
The US spends more than half a trillion dollars each year on defense and tens of billions of dollars on homeland security. Our leaders tell us this is the price of protecting American lives. But with all of these resources at our disposal, we have not seen a broad national mobilization to beat this disease and save lives. While boasting achievements on the backs of others, the White House has delivered confusion and chaos in response to a historic crisis. As ground implementers, we witness this bold sabotage firsthand.
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President Trump’s August executive order diverted $44 billion from FEMA’s disaster relief fund for unemployment benefits, according to CNN reporting. Funding full benefits is a national necessity, and it is vital that the Senate step up to act on the stimulus bill passed by the House last week and aid the jobless.
But wait … FEMA, the agency tasked with responding to emergencies, has been sitting on $44 billion in unspent funds since March — when Congress allocated it to help with Covid relief — amid this calamitous crisis? $44 billion that could have been mobilized to slow the spread of the virus through expanded testing and contact tracing? $44 billion that could have fed the 30 million Americans who don’t have enough to eat each week? $44 billion that could have helped save some of the more than 210,000 American lives that have perished, or the countless livelihoods of small-business owners who’ve been forced to shutter for good?

There are many strengths to this country’s network of nonprofits. Community-based organizations often are better suited than government agencies to build trust within the most vulnerable and underserved populations. We act quickly, evolve with the changing landscape, and tailor our approach to best serve individual locations.

That’s especially important in marginalized communities that have historically received scraps of government aid in their greatest times of need. FEMA has no problem responding quickly to wealthy beachfront communities after hurricanes, but seems helpless in our inner cities, where the pandemic has hit hardest.
Instead of sitting on a mountain of funds, FEMA needs to be on the ground providing emergency support to the embattled citizens of this country. “We are one national family … [who] always protect, love, and care for each other,” Trump said in his speech at the Republican National Convention. The American people need your words to mean something in this pressing crisis, President Trump — not just in response to disasters that provide a convenient photo op.

The Trump administration and Congress need to meet this public health and humanitarian crisis if they seriously want to reopen our economy and nation. The White House and Senate leadership need to agree with the House on immediate funds for the most basic needs: testing, contact tracing, and feeding. Federal funds and resources need to be mobilized immediately to relieve citizens from the daily devastation caused by this virus.

From the frontlines of this crisis, we understand as well as anyone that this war cannot be won without a unified front. We need to assemble in unity against the invisible enemy.

President Trump, embrace your duty as a wartime president. Lead the country you’ve vowed to keep safe from evil out of this disaster. The American people need you to put their tax dollars where your mouth is.

Stop this American carnage. Right here. Right now.

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