A highly-cited New York Times article with six bylines tells readers that President Donald J. Trump “failed to prepare the public for what was coming,” partly due to his “inability or unwillingness to absorb warnings” that a global coronavirus pandemic was about to hit America hard. A team of four journalists writing for The Washington Post concludes, “It did not have to happen this way,” claiming, “warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck.”
Those accounts have been re-written by other outlets – such as Forbes, Vox, and Vanity Fair – which editorialized even further, alleging Mr. Trump “ignored” the obvious red flags.
As most of these alleged sirens went off, key public health specialists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, along with other members of the coronavirus task force, reportedly told White House officials that there was no proof of person-to-person transmission in the United States.
A new NYT investigation reveals Trump ignored experts on Covid-19 for months https://t.co/HNSl1Llxei
— Vox (@voxdotcom) April 12, 2020
“But even the country’s top experts had little meaningful data about the domestic dimensions of the threat,” WaPo wrote. “Fauci later conceded that as they learned more their views changed.”
Still, the NY Times accused Mr. Trump of “batting away warnings from senior officials,” as mainstream media generally credit a few CDC execs, a cabinet member, intelligence agencies, and a couple of so-called “China hawks” for sounding early alarms.
Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC Director. White House Coronavirus Task Force.
According to The Washington Post, “the most unambiguous warning that U.S. officials received about the coronavirus came January 3.” The Post reports that “a counterpart in China” had warned Dr. Redfield that “a mysterious respiratory illness was spreading in Wuhan, a congested commercial city of 11 million people in the communist country’s interior.” He “quickly relayed” the information to Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, who “ensured the White House was notified,” according to the report.
Dr. Redfield offered to send CDC scientists to Wuhan to help determine ways to prevent what would evolve into the COVID-19 pandemic. The Post reported: “China rebuffed the offer for weeks, turning away assistance and depriving the U.S. authorities of an early chance to get a sample of the virus, critical for developing diagnostic tests and any potential vaccine.”
Around January 7, Redfield had reportedly become part of a new HHS intra-agency task force that included Secretary Azar and Dr. Fauci. The first known case on U.S. soil was confirmed two weeks later.
According to The New York Times, both Redfield and Fauci initially opposed the idea of a travel ban from China. But on January 30, they called Azar and said they had changed their minds. The next day, President Trump announced travel restrictions that barred non-U.S. citizens from traveling from China, although there were several exceptions.
Matthew Pottinger, Deputy National Security Adviser. White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The New York Times reports, “one of the earliest warnings to the White House” came from Pottinger, who has been described as “a driving force” behind Trump’s policies restricting international travel.
According to the Times, Pottinger was “warned” by an epidemiologist in Hong Kong in early January that a virus in Wuhan “was being transmitted by people who were showing no symptoms – an insight that American health officials had not yet accepted.”
The outlet repeatedly referred to him as a “China hawk,” adding, his “skeptical” views of “China’s ruling Communist Party” are considered “conspiratorial” by some. The Times reports, Pottinger and his allies faced “opposition from the economic team” and “had to overcome initial skepticism form the administration’s public health experts.”
Another Times report added, their “warnings were seen by other officials as primarily reflecting their concerns about China’s behavior – and their concerns look more prescient in hindsight than they actually were, other officials argue.” Pottinger and others reportedly pushed for the term “Wuhan Virus” to be used in government statements.
Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Health officials did not “substantially” brief Trump about the coronavirus until January 18, according to The Washington Post. The outlet reported that HHS Secretary Azar “assured the president that those responsible were working on and monitoring the issue.” President Trump recently told a Fox News town hall that he was first briefed on January 23.
According to the Post: “Azar told several associates that the president believed he was ‘alarmist’ and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue.”
“In hindsight, officials said, Azar could have been more forceful in urging Trump to turn at least some of his attention to” the threat, the Post reported.
The New York Times later reported that Azar gave the president another heads up later that month, when he “directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on January 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks.” This conversation took place the same day Fauci and Redfield reversed course on travel limits from China, which Trump announced the following day.
Peter Navarro, White House Trade Adviser.
Trump was told about a January 29 memo from Navarro that “starkly warned” about “the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic,” according to The New York Times. The memo’s subject line read, “Impose Travel Ban on China?” The document urged Trump to enact such restrictions, which the president implemented two days later. It was sent to the National Security Council and passed on to administration officials, the report said.
The Times described Navarro as “a well-established China hawk who has long been mistrustful of the country’s government and trade policies.” He had reportedly been “clashing with the administration’s health experts over the travel ban.”
Navarro’s analysis covered a broad spectrum of potential circumstances. According to the Times, the memo concluded that “human and economic costs would be relatively low if it turned out to be a problem along the lines of a seasonal flu.” But other media have focused on Navarro’s worst-case scenario, which projected more than 500,000 Americans might die.
A second memo that Mr. Navarro wrote, dated Feb. 23, warned of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls… It was unclear whether Mr. Trump saw the second memo…”
President Trump said he did not see either of the memos.
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
A Washington Post headline published on March 20 reads: “U.S. Intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic.”
However, the details reported about those supposed warnings were quite vague:
The intelligence reports didn’t predict when the virus might land on U.S. shores or recommend particular steps that public health officials should take, issues outside the purview of the intelligence agencies. But it did track the spread of the virus in China, and later in other countries, and warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.
The article claimed President Trump “believed” China President Xi Jinping “was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China, despite reports from intelligence agencies that Chinese officials were not being candid about the true scale of the crisis.”
Anonymous U.S. officials said the “surge in warnings” came from the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Post expanded on those accounts last week, reporting that U.S. intel had “issued warnings about the novel coronavirus in more than a dozen classified briefings for President Trump.”
WaPo continued: “The repeated warnings were conveyed in issues of the President’s Daily Brief, a sensitive report that is produced before dawn each day and designed to call the president’s attention to the most significant global developments and security threats.”
More unnamed sources said information on the virus was first mentioned in those reports “at the beginning of January.”
President Trump responded to the substance of those allegations on Twitter last weekend, calling them “fake news.” He claimed intelligence agencies “only spoke of the virus in a very non-threatening, or matter of fact, manner,” and “did not bring up the coronavirus subject matter until later into January.”
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.
The Washington Post reported: “On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC official, sounded perhaps the most significant alarm to that point.”
According to the Post, Messonnier “warned publicly that the virus was spreading so rapidly that ‘we need to be prepared for significant disruption in our lives.’”
“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” Messonnier said.
According to The New York Times, “Mr. Trump was walking up the steps of Air Force One to head home from India” when Messonnier “publicly issued the blunt warning.”
The Times added, “But Dr. Messonnier had jumped the gun,” noting that she had spoken out of turn, going public with information that had not yet been relayed to the president. A group comprised of task force members and public health experts had previously agreed to meet with President Trump “as soon as he returned” from overseas, the Times reported. The group, which included Azar, Fauci, and Redfield, had planned to present mitigation recommendations to slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is developed. Suggested strategies included aggressive physical distancing.
More from the Times:
On the 18-hour plane ride home, Mr. Trump fumed as he watched the stock market crash after Dr. Messonnier’s comments. Furious, he called Mr. Azar when he landed at around 6 a.m. on Feb. 26 raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily.
The meeting was canceled. Instead, the White House placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the response and directed health officials to coordinate future communications through his office. On March 16, more than three weeks later, Trump would issue national social distancing guidelines.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump nearly fired Messonnier.