During a contentious exchange Tuesday at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) grilled acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf about America's readiness to deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, and then offered some harsh criticism for the answers he got.
Kennedy began his questions by asking Wolf how many U.S. cases of the coronavirus the department was expecting. Wolf said that he didn't have an exact number at the time, but was working with the Department of Health and Human Services to figure that out. After further back and forth that didn't yield the estimation that Kennedy was looking for, the senator said to the secretary, "You're the secretary, I think you ought to know that answer."
Later in the exchange, Kennedy asked Wolf, "Do we have enough respirators?"
"To my knowledge, we do," Wolf answered. "I'm focused on making sure that our operators at DHS, make sure they have the protective equipment. And I know, as part of the supplemental—" he added before being cut off by Kennedy's response that "Well, we just heard testimony that we don't."
"Testimony from ... ?" Wolf asked.
"A briefing," Kennedy said. Senators were briefed on the outbreak by administration officials earlier that morning.
"So you're head of Homeland Security," Kennedy pressed, "do we have enough respirators or not?"
Wolf asked the senator to clarify whether he meant for medical professionals or for patients.
"For every American who needs one who gets the disease," Kennedy clarified.
"Again, I would refer you to HHS on that. My budget supports the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security," Wolf responded, while speaking over Kennedy.
"You're the secretary of Homeland Security," Kennedy said.
"Yes, sir," Wolf answered.
"You can't tell me if we have enough respirators?" the senator asked.
"What I would tell you is that the budget, my budget, our operations are focused not only on the men and women of DHS, making sure they're protected to do their jobs, to screen individuals coming in," an exasperated-sounding Wolf explained. "We're working with HSS, CDC and their budgets to ensure they have enough medical equipment."
"Do we have enough face masks?" Kennedy followed up.
"For the Department of Homeland Security, we do," Wolf said.
"I'm asking for the American people," Kennedy clarified.
"For the entire American public?" Wolf asked.
"Yes," Kennedy said.
"No," Wolf answered. "I would say probably not."
"OK," replied the senator. "How short are we?"
"I don't have that number offhand, senator," Wolf responded. "I'll get that for you."
After Kennedy asked another question about modeling being conducted to estimate an anticipated number of American coronavirus cases, Wolf protested, "You're asking me a number of medical questions that CDC and HHS are focusing on."
Kennedy replied, "You need to know the answers to these questions."
When discussing the possible timeline for a coronavirus vaccine, the senator also pointed out that the secretary's estimation that one was "several months" away was different than the CDC's projection.
"Then I would certainly defer to CDC on all medical questions," Wolf answered.
"Don't you think you ought to contact them and find out whether you're right or they're right?" Kennedy asked.
"We're in contact with them every day," Wolf replied.
"But you don't know why you have a discrepancy?," Kennedy asked, visibly annoyed by this point.
"I would refer you to the CDC on specific questions—" Wolf answered as he was cut off by the senator.
"Mr. Secretary, I'm going to hush here. You're supposed to keep us safe," Kennedy concluded. "And the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus. And I'm not getting them from you."
"I disagree," Wolf responded as Kennedy yielded his question time.
In the wake of the contentious exchange, DHS spokesperson Heather Swift released a tweet saying that questions Kennedy asked "were specific to the medical field and should be directed to CDC and HHS. DHS's authority in this area at this time is primarily related to incoming travelers."