NATIONWIDE — A plan from the United States Postal Service to send free face masks to Americans in April was ultimately scrapped by the White House, according to documents first obtained by the Washington Post on Thursday.
An unreleased announcement from the USPS stated the organization’s intent to “distribute 650 million reusable cotton face coverings on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to every residential delivery point in America” at some point in April.
“The United States Postal Service is proud to partner with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Department of Health and Human Services and a consortium of textile manufacturers in delivering on this critical national initiative,” said then-Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan in the statement. “Our organization is uniquely suited to undertake this historic mission of delivering face coverings to every American household in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.”
Brennan was replaced by Trump appointee Louis DeJoy, who has faced numerous hurdles during his tenure as Postmaster General, in June.
Administration officials told the Post that while the idea for the USPS to distribute masks originated in the Department of Health and Human Services, the White House ultimately scrapped the idea out of fears that it would create panic among recipients.
“There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic,” an official told the Post.
The letter was one of a slew of documents released after American Oversight, a government watchdog group, requested the records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Nearly a month after the documents were first made public, the USPS requested the documents be removed, claiming they “had been improperly released.”
“We have agreed to remove the records for 24 hours as we wait for USPS to specify which pages it believes should continue to be withheld, but have included excerpts of documents that relate to topics that have already been publicly reported by the Washington Post,” a statement from American Oversight read.
Instead, the HHS opted for Project: America Strong, a program that distributes cloth masks to those in high need across the country.
The report comes as President Donald Trump faces renewed criticism that he downplayed the coronavirus after excerpts from journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” which was released in full on Sept. 15, went public.
In early February, Trump told Woodward that the virus was contagious, airborne and far “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump is quoted in the book. “I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
When asked if he misled the public by downplaying the risk of the coronavirus to reduce panic at a press conference last week, Trump admitted, "Well, if you said 'in order to reduce panic,' perhaps that’s so."
“The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country,” Trump added, "I love our country, and I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic ... and, certainly, I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy."
Democratic lawmakers seized on the recent revelation as an opportunity to criticize Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo, a frequent and vocal opponent of the president, tweeted that Americans are "still paying the price" for the administration's decision. According the unreleased press statement, New York would have been one of the first recipients of the masks.
Rep. Adam Schiff tweeted that not only had the president downplayed the virus, but he "blocked steps that would have saved lives."
The White House has not returned a request for comment about the report from the Washington Post.