Missed signals and slow steps in Trump's pandemic response

WASHINGTON: By the time President Donald trump First she spoke publicly about him, it may already have been too late.

Interviewed at Davos, a gathering of world elites in the Swiss Alps, on January 22, the president played down the threat posed by China's respiratory virus, which had just arrived on the American shores in the form of a lone patient in the state.

We have it fully under control, Trump said on CNBC. He is a person who comes from China, and we have him under control. It's going to be OK.

In the 11 weeks after that interview, the coronavirus has reached all corners of the world. It has infected more than 530,000 Americans and killed at least 20,600. He rewrote the rules of society, isolated people in their homes, closed schools, devastated the economy, and left millions out of work.

When Trump spoke in Switzerland, warning signs of weeks had already been raised. In the following month, before the president first addressed the crisis from the White House, no key steps were taken to prepare the nation for the next pandemic.

The life-saving medical equipment was not stored. The journeys continued largely without ceasing. Vital public health data from China was not provided or deemed unreliable. A White House divided by rivalries and rotation was slow to act. The urgent warnings were ignored by a president consumed by his impeachment and his intention to protect a robust economy that he considered central to his chances for reelection.

Twenty current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House were interviewed for this report about the critical weeks lost before the president spoke to the nation on February 26. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions

'Mysterious pneumonia'

On New Year's Eve, China informed the World Health Organization of a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia that spread through Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million.

The government closed a seafood market in the center of the outbreak, transferred all patients with the virus to a specially designated hospital, and collected test samples to send to government laboratories. Doctors were told to remain silent; whoever issued an online warning was punished. He later died from the virus.

The first learned of the new coronavirus in December from open source reports from China. In early January, warnings about the virus had reached intelligence reports circulating through the government. On January 3, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US, Robert Redfield, received a call from his Chinese counterpart with an official warning.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading infectious disease expert, was alerted to the virus at the same time, and within two weeks feared that it could bring about a global catastrophe.

Quickly, US public health and intelligence officials. USA They began to doubt China's infection and mortality rates. They lobbied China to allow US epidemiologists to enter, both to help the country deal with the spread and to obtain valuable information that could help buy time for the US response. US officials also pressured China to send samples of the virus to US laboratories for study and for the development of vaccines and tests.

On January 11, China shared the genetic sequence of the virus. That same day, the National Institutes of Health began work on a vaccine.

Ultimately, the United States was able to obtain China's consent to send two people on the WHO team who traveled to China at the end of the month. But by then precious weeks had been lost and the virus had rushed through Asia and had begun to escape the continent.

balancing act

For much of January, administration officials were doing a delicate balancing act .

Internally, they were raising alarms about the need to bring Americans to China. In public, they sent words of encouragement and praise in hopes that Beijing would grant Americans access.

Matthew Pottinger, Trump's deputy national security adviser, constantly urged more aggressive measures to call China and send teams there.

But although the news of the virus was included in several of the president's intelligence briefings, Trump did not receive full information on the threat until Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called with an update on January 18 while the President was in his private home. Club a-Lago in Florida.

Trump spent much of the conversation wanting to talk about vaping; was considering a new policy that would restrict its use. White House officials now believe Trump did not fully understand the magnitude of the threat to the United States. USA Partly because Azar, who was fighting with several members of Trump's inner circle, did a bad job communicating it.

Azar was trying to walk a fine line between Trump's optimistic remarks and the government's readiness for what lies ahead. America's risk is low right now, he later told House lawmakers. That could change quickly.

Additionally, the president was in the midst of his impeachment trial in the Senate and focused on little else, scoring almost every White House meeting with complaints about Democrats pulling him out, complaints that would continue into the wee hours of the night for phone from your private rooms. .

Trump also had little desire to pressure Beijing or criticize its president, Xi Jinping, with whom he wanted to secure cooperation to end a year-long trade war before the reelection campaign was launched. When Trump posted his first question about the virus in Davos, he enthusiastically praised Xi's response, going far beyond the calibrated risk-reward messages that his aides were encouraging.


The west wing was adrift.

In late January, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney held the position in name only while his impending post-indictment was rumored. I was in the initial coronavirus task force, which was riddled with infighting. At the same time, the White House Office of Management and Budget was grappling with Azar's HHS for money to fight the virus.

HHS wanted to send a special request for coronavirus funding to Congress, but the White House budget office resisted for weeks, insisting that HHS should reuse $ 250 million of its existing budget to bolster the national reserve by purchasing of protective equipment. However, HHS stated that without authorization from Congress, it would not be able to purchase the necessary quantities of masks, gowns, and fans to rapidly reinforce the national reserve.

Finally, an initial request went to Congress for $ 2.5 billion in virus aid, an amount that lawmakers from both parties rejected as too low. The bill that Congress quickly passed and that Trump signed, the first of three so far, was $ 8 billion.

Even as the two agencies struggled, there was no influential voice in Trump's orbit to push him to act quickly in the pandemic. Trump had surrounded himself with loyalists and few in the administration, including national security adviser Robert O'Brien, were able to redirect the president's attention. In mid-January, the meetings were held at the White House, but the goal was to get the employees of the US government back. USA From China, which was still downplaying how contagious the virus was.

A Jan. 29 memo from White House chief adviser Peter Navarro accurately predicted some of the challenges the United States faces of what would become a pandemic, though it was not the first to sound the alarm. But he, like Pottinger, was seen by others in the White House as a Chinese hawk and his concerns were dismissed by others in the administration who did not present them to the president.

On January 30, the WHO declared the virus to be a global health emergency, while Trump campaigned in Iowa. The following day, the Trump administration banned admission to the United States by foreign citizens who had traveled to China in the last 14 days, excluding immediate family members of US citizens or permanent residents.

Trump called it a bold move, but continued to speak of the seriousness of the threat. Despite the ban, more than 400,000 people have traveled from China since that date, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

'Very, very smart'

On February 10, Trump stood before thousands of supporters at a New Hampshire rally and stated: In April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warm, it miraculously disappears.

The crowd roared their approval at Trump's unproven claim. The Senate had cleared Trump of the impeachment charges and the president shifted his focus toward reelection, even when other members of the administration intervened in the virus.

Federal officials put CDC solely in charge of developing a test for the virus and excluded private interests, an option that cost precious time when the resulting CDC test proved flawed.

Trump spent many weeks shuffling the responsibility of leading his administration's response to the crisis. Put Azar in charge of the administration's virus task force before replacing him with the vice president Mike Pence towards the end of February. Even as the virus spread across the world, prevailing voices at the White House, including senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, urged the president to avoid major steps that could affect financial markets.

The president had firmly tied his fate to Wall Street, and the markets needed a slump for Trump to increase his response. In late February, while Trump was traveling in India, the Dow Jones plummeted 1,000 points amid growing fears about the coronavirus.

Trump was upset by the collapse of his flight back to Washington on February 26 and lashed out attendees for comments made by a senior CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, during a briefing the day before, when he warned Americans who would have to prepare for a rather severe social distancing.

It's not so much about whether this will happen more, but rather when exactly it will happen, he said.

The White House announced that Pence would report to the media on the response that night. However, Trump took the podium and since then he has not left the stage, belatedly becoming the face of the battle against the virus.

When Trump took the lectern in the White House meeting room to talk about the virus, the United States had 15 patients with coronavirus.

We are at that very low level, and we want to keep it that way, Trump said. We are very, very ready for this.