A new report on the Trump administration’s missteps in the early days of the coronavirus’ spread into the US was published in the New York Times on Saturday, detailing new instances showing how President Donald Trump ignored the warnings of his advisers about the lethal infectious disease approaching America’s doorstep.
According to the report, Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Department of Health and Human Services, convened the White House coronavirus task force on February 21. During his meeting, the group conducted a mock-up exercise of the pandemic. It predicted 110 million infections, 7.7 million hospitalizations and 586,000 deaths. As a result, the group “concluded they would soon need to move toward aggressive social distancing, even at the risk of severe disruption to the nation’s economy and the daily lives of millions of Americans.”
However, it would take more than three weeks for Trump to enact social distancing guidelines on March 16.
Two days after that meeting Kadlec learned of human-to-human transmission from asymptomatic individuals, the Times report states. But instead of immediately implementing mitigation steps, the President’s focus turned to messaging.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, issued a warning that the virus would disrupt daily life. Trump canceled a meeting where mitigation efforts would be discussed. Instead, he appointed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the task force and funneled coronavirus messaging through him. There were also other administration officials who went on television saying the virus was contained.
Over nearly three weeks from February 26 to March 16, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States grew from 15 to 4,226. Since then, more than half a million Americans have tested positive for the virus and authorities say hundreds of thousands more are likely infected.
An administration official confirmed to CNN that the government’s top public health experts agreed in the third week of February on the need to begin moving away from a containment strategy and toward a mitigation strategy that would involve aggressive social distancing measures. The agreement among the health officials came after they held a tabletop exercise to game out the potential for a full-blown pandemic.
The public health officials had planned to urge the President to move toward a mitigation strategy after he returned from India, the administration official said, but that meeting was scrapped after Trump returned to Washington infuriated by a plunging stock market and Messonier’s warning about “severe” disruptions to daily life.
Messonier was merely voicing the consensus among the administration’s public health experts, but she jumped the gun — doing so without getting official buy-in.
The official also confirmed that an email chain among the group, and highlighted by the Times, was a focus of some conversations inside the administration. A Feb. 23 email from a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology sharing a report of potential asymptomatic spread of the disease caused alarm among several top officials, the official said.
The Times also describes how Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had been briefing the President on the issue.
Azar “briefed him about the potential seriousness of the virus” during a January 18 phone call. A few days later, in what appeared to be his first comments about the virus to the press, Trump told a reporter at Davos, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.”
On another call on January 30, Azar warned Trump of the possibility of a pandemic. Trump reportedly responded by saying Azar was being alarmist.
On the January 30 call, Azar “was blunt, warning that the virus could develop into a pandemic and arguing that China should be criticized for failing to be transparent.”
But Trump rejected the idea of criticizing China.
According to the Times, Trump told Azar to “stop panicking.”
The President wouldn’t change his tune about China until he heard of a Chinese government spokesman spreading a conspiracy asserting that the coronavirus originated from US troops.
That’s around the time Trump began referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and the “China virus.” He has since backed off of using the terms.
The Times piece also outlines the struggle between national security and economic advisers over steps that should be taken in regard to China, a move Trump points to in order to show that he took the threat of coronavirus seriously from the start.
Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, was warned of asymptomatic spread of coronavirus in early January on a call with a Hong Kong epidemiologist who was a friend of his, according to the report. Pottinger, backed by national security adviser Robert O’Brien, pushed the President to take action against China and ultimately convinced him to enact travel restrictions. However, they faced pushback from Trump’s economic team, who feared a strict policy toward China could hurt the trade deal between the two countries.
Another administration official sounding the alarm early was Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro. Many administration advisers dismissed Navarro’s warnings about the coronavirus’ potential spread in a January memo as alarmist.
Trump has publicly denied knowing about the January memo until it made headlines this month, but the Times reports that Trump was made aware of the memo, reportedly telling aides “he was unhappy that Mr. Navarro had put his warning in writing.”
When asked on Tuesday about the memos after the Times first published a story detailing them, Trump responded, “I didn’t see them, but I heard he wrote some memos talking about pandemic. I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them either.”