Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker won a commitment Sunday from Vice President Mike Pence for beefed-up federal customs staffing at O’Hare International Airport to address a severe — and potentially hazardous — bottleneck of hundreds of travelers forced by President Donald Trump to abruptly end their European trips.
The offer of more federal resources came after Pritzker launched a white-hot Twitter barb at the president and Pence to “do something NOW” about massive crowds arriving off of inbound European flights with nowhere to go at O’Hare as the global COVID-19 pandemic worsens.
The crowds & lines O’Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately.@realDonaldTrump @VP since this is the only communication medium you pay attention to—you need to do something NOW.— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 15, 2020
These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction
Long lines ensued at O’Hare’s international terminal caused by the slow pace of medical screenings conducted by federal customs officials. The images of travelers awaiting those screenings, standing shoulder to shoulder, violated the basic advice of what Trump’s own public health team was recommending for people — to keep a distance from one another to slow the spread of COVID-19.
A little more than an hour after his Saturday night tweet, the White House responded in a hostile manner, Pritzker revealed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday morning.
“Here’s what I got,” Pritzker said. “I got a call at 11 last night from a White House staffer who yelled at me about the tweet. That’s what I got.”
Pritzker also criticized Trump’s response to the pandemic and predicted conditions at O’Hare would worsen on Sunday.
But after Pritzker’s appearance, Pence and the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, reached out to the governor in separate phone calls, Pritzker’s office confirmed.
“After the governor’s tweet and the resulting angry phone call from the White House, this morning the vice president and the secretary of Homeland Security each called the governor to inform him that the Customs and Border Control is increasing staff at O’Hare today,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
There were no details shared publicly by the governor’s office about the increased staffing.
Abudayyeh also declined to identify the name of the White House staffer who dressed down the governor Saturday night.
“The governor has no interest in playing politics as we grapple with this crisis, and he will be monitoring the situation at O’Hare throughout the day,” she said shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday.
Lightfoot joined the fray Saturday night when she learned of the O’Hare delays, tweeting at the president and U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
This is unacceptable. The reactionary, poorly planned travel ban has left thousands of travelers at ORD forced into even greater health risk. @realdonaldtrump and @CBP: no one has time for your incompetence. Fully staff our airport right now, and stop putting Americans in danger. https://t.co/gswIaHwelx— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) March 15, 2020
At around 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Trump himself weighed in on the situation that not only was unfolding at O’Hare but at other international airports around the nation.
“We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports,” Trump said on Twitter.
We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 15, 2020
A spokesman for the Customs and Border Control office in Chicago, however, acknowledged the severity of problems at the nation’s airports, including O’Hare.
“CBP recognizes that the wait times experienced yesterday at some locations were unacceptable,” agency spokesman Steve Bansbach said in a statement. “As we work collaboratively with federal, state and local agencies to address the spread of COVID-19, some of the resources of our partners are stretched thin. CBP continually adjusts its resources, in real time, as needed and we will continue to do so.
“With this national emergency, there will unfortunately be times of disruption and increased processing times for travelers. CBP is working around the clock to minimize these inconveniences,” Bansbach said.