On April 8, U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe met with voters in Enid and Lawton via Zoom, tacitly acknowledging the dangers he previously denied about COVID-19 when he offered to shake hands with a reporter on March 11.
The stagecraft during the Zoom call was remarkable. Inhofe appeared wearing a paramilitary olive-green shirt like he had just wandered out of a jungle to discover that World War II was over.
The seals for the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard — but notably not Space Force — were hung behind him. The only things missing from the tableau were a MacArthurian pipe in his mouth and Lee Greenwood bellowing “God Bless the U.S.A.” next to him.
This was epic pandering — it was as if Lawton and Enid got attacked by what the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas once called a “pander bear.” Granted, Inhofe is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and was honorably discharged 62 years ago from the U.S. Army after two years of service, but why would he present himself to that audience as if he were supreme allied commander?
Based on his recent actions or lack thereof regarding the current coronavirus pandemic, he should be peeling potatoes outside a mess hall.
On April 9, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence assets in Wuhan, China collected raw data in November 2019 about the wave of illnesses and fatalities in the region. In the report, Air Force General John Hyten, who is vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC News that he did not receive any of that data until January.
This fits the timeline for Inhofe’s inexcusable behavior regarding COVID-19. On Jan. 24, the Senate Health Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a briefing in which members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force met to discuss the virus.
Jan. 24 was a Friday. On the next business day, Jan. 27, Inhofe’s financial adviser sold $400,000 worth of stock. Inhofe said he did not attend the briefing and that he knew nothing about the stock sale. This might be plausible, except this is not the first time in the past two years Inhofe has been criticized for questionable stock trades.
OpinionFrom George Lang, our lead opinion columnist
According to the New York Times, On Dec. 11, 2018, Inhofe’s financial adviser bought between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of stock in the defense contractor Raytheon, one week after Inhofe successfully lobbied President Donald Trump to reverse a defense spending plan.
Two days after the purchase, Inhofe passed around cards printed with the following statement to journalists.
“I am not consulted or involved in any stock transactions. When this came to my attention, I took immediate action to reverse the trade.”
A mere 15 months later, Inhofe was being scrutinized for the same kind of profiteering and used the same explanation/excuse.
Inhofe is not alone in this. Three other senators, Democrat Diane Feinstein of California and Republicans Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina, are also under scrutiny for stock sales following the Jan. 24 meeting.
On March 20, Tulsa ABC affiliate KTUL-TV interviewed Inhofe and asked about the stock sale. Inhofe again said he did not attend the meeting and that no one briefed him on what was discussed.
“None, absolutely none, because they were mad I wasn’t there and nobody told me what was going on,” Inhofe said.
People have reason to be mad. Inhofe was not there because, on Jan. 24, he was meeting with Oklahoma high school students who were in Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, an anti-choice rally. Also while the briefing was taking place, Inhofe met with Don J. Wright, who was confirmed in February as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.
Inhofe is not a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which confirms ambassadors, so there does not appear to be an official reason for him to meet with Wright during such a landmark event when members of that committee were being briefed on COVID-19.
However, Inhofe is a member of The Family (or The Fellowship), the religious-conservative political group that works throughout Africa proselytizing to leaders of oil-rich regimes, many of which, like the current regime of Tanzanian president John Magufuli, have terrible human rights records.
Inhofe has referred to his work with The Family in Africa as “a Jesus thing,” and many of his trips to Africa take place on military transport planes at taxpayer cost, according to expenses submitted in the past to the Senate Armed Service Committee.
As chair of that committee, Inhofe commands considerable power. If, as NBC News reported, General Hyten was briefed on the COVID-19 intelligence in January as vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it stands to reason that the chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee would have similar access to such information. And if not, why not?
It is foolish to assume that Inhofe knew nothing about the effect COVID-19 would have on our population’s health and the nation’s economy. If that were the case, Inhofe was one of the last senators to know. If he did not know, then why?
Inhofe is on shaky ground here; his version of the facts does not hold up to scrutiny. His unwillingness to confront the severity of COVID-19 and his equal willingness to make light of the virus by offering to shake hands with a reporter is abominable, especially so if he had access to information that would tell him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that COVID-19 is a killer.
And if he had that information as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, apart from what was briefed to the rest of the senate on Jan. 24, and it was used to avoid taking a beating with his stock portfolio, then it is more than simply a moral issue.
And yet, he sat there on April 8, live on Zoom, making promises to military families that he had their backs.
“I hosted two virtual town halls yesterday with the Lawton and Enid communities on the #COVID19 response and resources available to all Oklahomans in this time of need,” Inhofe wrote on Twitter.
Lawton and Enid deserved better than that. They deserved someone who took the COVID-19 threat seriously, like most of his senate colleagues did. They deserved someone who chose to be briefed on the most important crisis facing our nation instead of focusing on the wedge issues that have defined his entire political career.
They deserved more than an empty set of fatigues.