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Law Profs Drag Sen. McConnell for ‘Nonsense’ Claim That Impeachment Kept Trump from Focusing on COVID-19

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed that the federal government’s lagging response to the novel COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak was at least partially attributable to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Appearing on conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show Tuesday morning, McConnell claimed that the government’s attention was too focused on the impeachment proceedings to properly heed warnings about the impending threat, a contention several law professors said simply did not comport with reality.

Asked about a Monday Politico report, McConnell confirmed that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was the first lawmaker to raise the issue of coronavirus with him and the administration in late January.

“[Sen. Cotton] was first, and I think Tom was right on the mark,” McConnell said. “It came up while we were tied down in the impeachment trial and I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything everyday was all about impeachment.”

McConnell’s argument sparked immediate backlash from law professors, several of whom noted that the actual timeline of the government’s response to the pandemic belied McConnell’s claims, which appeared to suggest that Trump was incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time.

“Trump was acquitted by the Senate on February 5—but didn’t declare a national emergency to address COVID-19 until March 13,” professor Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law wrote. “Even accepting this nonsense argument (Presidents can’t do two things at once??), that’s *37 days* after acquittal without any meaningful federal action.”

That sentiment was echoed by Cornell Law School professor Josh Chafetz, who pointed to then-candidate Barack Obama’s response to John McCain suspending his campaign due to the 2008 financial crisis. “I think it is going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once,” Obama said at the time.

“So, let’s indulge the absurd premise that Trump did nothing/lied/downplayed Covid-19 for so long because of impeachment,” Chafetz said. “That says a lot about Trump’s unfitness for office–which, in turn, suggests the warrantedness of impeachment.”

Trump’s own statements confirm that he was well aware of the coronavirus during his impeachment trial, and that he consistently chose to downplay the danger it posed even after he was acquitted.

“We have it totally under control,” Trump said of the virus from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Jan. 22.

Trump also tweeted about the disease on Jan. 28 and Jan. 30, two days after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for the Department of Health and Human Services to declare coronavirus a public health emergency.

Trump also declared the disease was “very much under control in the USA” on Feb. 24.

But according to Mother Jones’s D.C. bureau chief David Corn, Trump’s attention was also diverted to his golf game, as he also managed to squeeze in eight trips the links from mid-January to mid-March.

Visiting professor at Georgetown Law Joshua Geltzer said that, if anything, the impeachment trial should have served as a warning to lawmakers that Trump was unfit to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

Fordham Law professor Jed Shugerman also derided McConnell’s remark.

Never Trumper Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist, commented that McConnell was pushing an argument we might see more and more of in the coming weeks and months.

[image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.