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Johnson, Directed Homeland's Ebola Response, Discusses COVID-19 Strategy


This generation's Sept. 11 - that is how former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson describes the challenge facing the United States as the coronavirus spreads. Johnson ran Homeland Security in the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017, and he joins us to talk about the federal response so far. Mr. Secretary, thanks for the time this morning.

JEH JOHNSON: Good morning, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: We saw the governor of California last night order all 40 million residents of the state to stay home. Is that something you think we should be moving towards nationwide? And is that something that would even be feasible?

JOHNSON: Well, the goal nationwide has to be density reduction, social isolation, social distancing in order to reverse the trend lines of the growth of the virus. That is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the nation. It depends upon the spread of the virus, the demographics of a particular community. What works for California may not work for North Dakota or Mississippi. I heard someone ask the president yesterday in his daily briefing, should parents expect to be keeping their kids home from school...


JOHNSON: ...For the rest of the school year? That depends entirely upon the individual communities. And so we have to count on our state and local leaders to give us the best guidance when it comes to how best to bring about density reduction. But that has to be the overall goal right now.

GREENE: Can I just ask you about this federal response so far? I mean, going back to your time under President Obama, federal officials were studying how to respond to a pandemic like this.


GREENE: So I have to ask now, was there enough preparation?

JOHNSON: Well, any time you'd convene a group of national security, Homeland Security officials for any sort of tabletop exercise, as we refer to it in Washington, a lethal virus, a pandemic virus is one of the top two or three scenarios that you would game out. Particularly after our experience with the Ebola virus in 2014, I think all of us in national security knew - or should know - that a virus such as the one we face now is one of the two or three top national security threats that we should be concerned about. And the role...

GREENE: Then why wasn't more done to get ready?

JOHNSON: Well, absolutely. And there wasn't a whole lot of time to get ready for this. And it seems to me that the federal government has gotten off to a slow start and is struggling to catch up. And, David, let's be sure we understand what the role of the federal government is here, which is - you know, the president said yesterday, we're not shipping clerks.

Well, actually, the federal government's principal role here is to surge resources and make sure that local communities have what they need in terms of medical supplies, hospital beds, respirators, test kits, masks and so forth. And so the president is actually, in many respects, the shipping clerk in chief here. And it's up to the president and the Congress to ensure that we have what we need on the front lines. That's the role of the federal government.

GREENE: You know, I watched that press conference from President Trump yesterday. And, you know, at one point, he blamed the media for criticizing him, which is, of course, familiar. I mean, as you see the politics of our time meet this moment, what do you think about and reflect on?

JOHNSON: This has to be about more than politics. This is a national crisis. I'm less interested in who's to blame, whether we should have done something differently a month ago. I'm more interested in what are our government - state, local and federal level - are going to do from this moment forward to address this generation's Sept. 11, as I've referred to it.

GREENE: Jeh Johnson was the Homeland Security secretary from 2013 to 2017 under President Obama. Thanks so much, Mr. Secretary.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.