The Trump administration was warned in November about the potential severity of the coronavirus, according to a new report. But that’s only the latest in the stunning series of warnings they received, and chose not to address, until it was too late.
The warning in November came from a relatively obscure unit of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Center for Military Intelligence, in a report that concluded the coronavirus could be a “cataclysmic event.” Those findings were reportedly briefed to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the White House, according to an ABC News report published Wednesday.
In an interview with ABC over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he couldn’t recall that NCMI briefing.
Besides the early warnings from NCMI, Trump’s top trade adviser and various U.S. intelligence agencies warned about a coming disaster throughout late 2019 and early 2020. But President Donald Trump repeatedly maintained that the situation was under control.
On January 22, Trump told CNBC, “We have it totally under control,” and as late as March 11, the president was saying things like: “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
It did not go away.
But warning signs have been flashing for years about the federal government’s lack of preparedness to deal with a pandemic, going back to Pentagon warnings to Trump during his first year in office and the administration’s failure to replace key public health officials that had been posted in China in the months before a mysterious new respiratory illness started afflicting residents of Wuhan in Hubei province.
Now, with the U.S. coming off its deadliest day since the pandemic began and poised to hit 400,000 confirmed cases any minute now, there’s extensive evidence to say: We should have known this was coming.
January 2017 — Military warns White House about lack of preparedness for a pandemic
Two weeks before Trump took office, the Pentagon put together a 103-page report that outlined the dangers that a “novel respiratory disease” would pose to the military as well as the wider global community, according to documents obtained and published by the Nation last week.
"An outbreak in a single community can quickly evolve into a multinational health crisis that causes millions to suffer, as well as spark major disruption to every facet of society," the report said.
Not only that, but the report also predicted with eerie accuracy the problems that would arise in the global medical supply chain.
"There will be competing interests for resources globally. Competition for, and scarcity of resources will included MCM (e.g. vaccines, antimicrobials, and antibody preparations), non-pharmaceutical MCM (e.g. ventilators, devices, personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves), medical equipment, and logistical support," the report said. "This will have a significant impact on the availability of the global workforce."
"Even the most industrialized countries will have insufficient hospital beds, specialized equipment such as mechanical ventilators, and pharmaceuticals readily available to adequately treat their population during a clinically severe pandemic,” the report added. (The Pentagon didn’t respond to The Nation’s request for comment.)
Despite the warnings, Trump has repeatedly attempted to slash budgets for key public health agencies every year since he came into office — including for 2021, until the pandemic caused the White House to release a budget amendment asking for more money.
July 2019 — CDC’s Beijing chief not replaced
For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded a position based in Beijing that was tasked with monitoring potential outbreaks of disease in China. When Dr. Linda Quick found out that the position would be discontinued in September 2019, she left the job two months early, and no one ever replaced her, according to a Reuters report published last month.
"It was heartbreaking to watch," Dr. Bao-Ping Zhu, who served in the role during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told Reuters. "If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster."
In response, Trump waved off the Reuters report and others reporting on the CDC as “100 percent wrong.”
That wasn’t the only public health position the administration abandoned in China. Over the past three years, a CDC team working on global health security in China has been reduced from 50 people to 14, according to a report by the nonprofit Environmental Data and Governance Initiative published last month.
The cuts to public health could have been even worse if Congress had gone along with Trump’s suggestions. Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who helped stop cuts back in 2017, told Vox at the time: “I promise you the president is much more likely in his term to have a deal with a pandemic than an act of terrorism.”
November 2019 — NCMI warnings not heeded
The aforementioned NCMI report was based on computer and wire intercepts and satellite images, and came a month before the government in Wuhan confirmed that dozens of cases were being treated.
"The timeline of the intel side of this may be further back than we’re discussing," a source with knowledge of the report told ABC News. "But this was definitely being briefed beginning at the end of November as something the military needed to take a posture on.”
Asked by ABC News on Sunday if the Pentagon received the NCMI assessment, Defense Secretary Esper said he “can’t recall,” but that “we have many people who watch this closely.”
January and February 2020 — Trade adviser’s warnings ignored
Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser for the past three years, warned the White House multiple times in January and February that the coronavirus could kill up to 2 million Americans, according to memos obtained by the New York Times and Axios on Tuesday.
In the first memo, Navarro called for an immediate travel ban from China, and said as many as 543,000 people could die. In the second, his projections heightened significantly.
"There is 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,” Navarro wrote in the second memo dated February 23.
At the time of the first memo, other top White House officials reportedly dismissed Navarro’s warnings as the rantings of an isolationist crank. “The January travel memo struck me as an alarmist attempt to bring attention to Peter’s anti-China agenda while presenting an artificially limited range of policy options,” a senior administration official told Axios.
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters he didn’t see the memos. “I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them,” he said.
More recently, Navarro has reportedly clashed behind the scenes with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top advisor in the coronavirus task force who leads the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, over the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus.
Asked by CNN what his qualifications were to disagree with Fauci, Navarro, who has an economics Ph.D. from Harvard, responded: “Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I'm a social scientist.”
January and February 2020 — Intelligence agencies repeatedly warn White House about threat
Around the same time Navarro began cautioning the White House about the dangers the coronavirus posed, U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing their own classified warnings about the virus, according to a Washington Post report published last month.
The reports didn’t suggest specific steps that should be taken, the Post said, but tracked the spread of COVID-19 in China and other countries and “warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.” By early February, the “majority of the intelligence reporting” in daily DNI and CIA briefings and digests were about the coronavirus, according to the Post.
In response to the report, White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said that it’s “more than disgusting, despicable and disgraceful for cowardly unnamed sources to attempt to rewrite history — it’s a clear threat to this great country.”
“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” an official told the Post. “The system was blinking red.”
A new congressional panel has been formed to oversee the coronavirus stimulus, but Rep. Jim Clyburn, a top House Democrat, said this week that the panel would be “forward-looking” and won’t scrutinize Trump’s early decisions. If there’s enough of a public outcry, they may not have a choice.
Others have already assigned blame. “The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID-19 cases than were necessary,” the Boston Globe editorial board wrote in a recent editorial. “In other words, the president has blood on his hands.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Washington, as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma, listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)