Behind Trump’s Botched And Delayed Coronavirus Response
Interviewed at Davos, a gathering of global elites in the Swiss Alps, the president on Jan. 22 played down the threat posed by the respiratory virus from China, which had just reached American shores in the form of a solitary patient in Washington state.
“We have it totally under control,” Trump said on CNBC. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
In the 11 weeks since that interview, the coronavirus has reached every corner of the globe. It has infected more than 500,000 Americans and killed at least 20,000. It has rewritten the rules of society, isolated people in their homes, closed schools, devastated the economy and put millions out of work.
When Trump spoke in Switzerland, weeks’ worth of warning signs already had been raised. In the ensuing month, before the president first addressed the crisis from the White House, key steps to prepare the nation for the coming pandemic were not taken.
Life-saving medical equipment was not stockpiled. Travel largely continued unabated. Vital public health data from China was not provided or was deemed untrustworthy. A White House riven by rivalries and turnover was slow to act. Urgent warnings were ignored by a president consumed by his impeachment trial and intent on protecting a robust economy that he viewed as central to his reelection chances.
Twenty current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House were interviewed for this account about the critical weeks lost before the president spoke to the nation on Feb. 26. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
On New Year’s Eve, China informed the World Health Organization of a “mysterious pneumonia outbreak” spreading through Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million.
The government closed a seafood market at the center of the outbreak, moved all patients with the virus to a specially designated hospital and collected test samples to send to government laboratories. Doctors were told to stay quiet; one who issued a warning online was punished. He later died of the virus.
The Pentagon first learned about the new coronavirus in December from open source reports emanating from China. By early January, warnings about the virus had made their way into intelligence reports circulating around the government. On Jan. 3, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, received a call from his Chinese counterpart with an official warning.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was alerted to the virus around the same time — and within two weeks was fearful it could bring global catastrophe.
Quickly, U.S. intelligence and public health officials began doubting China’s reported rates of infection and death toll. They pressed China to allow in U.S. epidemiologists — both to assist the country in confronting the spread and to gain valuable insights that could help buy time for the U.S. response. U.S. officials also pressed China to send samples of the virus to U.S. labs for study and for vaccine and test development.
On Jan. 11, China shared the virus’ genetic sequence. That same day, the National Institutes of Health started working on a vaccine.
Ultimately, the U.S. was able to get China’s consent to send two people on the WHO team that traveled to China later in the month. But by then precious weeks had been lost and the virus had raced across Asia and had begun to escape the continent.
For much of January, administration officials were doing a delicate balancing act.
Internally, they were raising alarms about the need to get Americans on the ground in China. Publicly, they were sending words of encouragement and praise in hopes Beijing would grant the Americans access.
Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, persistently urged more aggressive action in calling out China and sending teams there.
But while word of the virus was included in several of the president’s intelligence briefings, Trump wasn’t fully briefed on the threat until Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called with an update on Jan. 18 while the president was at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
Trump spent much of the conversation wanting to talk about vaping; he was considering a new policy restricting its use. White House officials now believe Trump didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the threat to the U.S. in part because Azar, who was feuding with several members of Trump’s inner circle, did a poor job communicating it.
Azar was trying to walk a fine line between Trump’s upbeat statements and preparing the government for what might lie ahead. “America’s risk is low at the moment,” he later told House lawmakers. “That could change quickly.”
Moreover, the president was in the middle of his Senate impeachment trial and focused on little else, punctuating nearly every White House meeting with complaints about the Democrats out to get him, grievances he would continue late into the night on the phone from his private quarters.