He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus

An examination reveals the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but that internal divisions, lack of planning and his faith in his own instincts led to a halting response.

By Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D. Shear, Mark Mazzetti and Julian E. Barnes | The New York Times | April 11, 2020

 

WASHINGTON — “Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,” a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, wrote on the night of Jan. 28, in an email to a group of public health experts scattered around the government and universities. “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

A week after the first coronavirus case had been identified in the United States, and six long weeks before President Trump finally took aggressive action to confront the danger the nation was facing — a pandemic that is now forecast to take tens of thousands of American lives — Dr. Mecher was urging the upper ranks of the nation’s public health bureaucracy to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far more drastic action.

“You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools,” he wrote to the group, which called itself “Red Dawn,” an inside joke based on the 1984 movie about a band of Americans trying to save the country after a foreign invasion. “Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities.”

His was hardly a lone voice. Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.

The president, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he said, that had come out of nowhere and could not have been foreseen.

Even after Mr. Trump took his first concrete action at the end of January — limiting travel from China — public health often had to compete with economic and political considerations in internal debates, slowing the path toward belated decisions to seek more money from Congress, obtain necessary supplies, address shortfalls in testing and ultimately move to keep much of the nation at home.

Unfolding as it did in the wake of his impeachment by the House and in the midst of his Senate trial, Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives.

Decision-making was also complicated by a long-running dispute inside the administration over how to deal with China. The virus at first took a back seat to a desire not to upset Beijing during trade talks, but later the impulse to score points against Beijing left the world’s two leading powers further divided as they confronted one of the first truly global threats of the 21st century.

The shortcomings of Mr. Trump’s performance have played out with remarkable transparency as part of his daily effort to dominate television screens and the national conversation.

But dozens of interviews with current and former officials and a review of emails and other records revealed many previously unreported details and a fuller picture of the roots and extent of his halting response as the deadly virus spread:

  1. The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports in early January predicting the spread of the virus to the United States, and within weeks was raising options like keeping Americans home from work and shutting down cities the size of Chicago. Mr. Trump would avoid such steps until March.

  2. Despite Mr. Trump’s denial weeks later, he was told at the time about a Jan. 29 memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, laying out in striking detail the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.

  3. The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president, who was on Air Force One while