President Trump said Tuesday that he did not learn of two memos written in January and February by his own economic adviser warning that a COVID-19 pandemic could kill as many as 2 million Americans until “maybe a day ago.”
“I heard he wrote some memos talking about pandemic,” Trump said during a White House coronavirus task force briefing, “I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them, either.”
On Jan. 29, Peter Navarro warned his colleagues at the White House that if the administration did not mount an aggressive containment strategy for the coronavirus, it could kill more than half a million Americans and cost the country nearly $6 trillion.
Nearly a month later, on Feb. 23, Navarro distributed an even more dire second memo in which he said as many as 100 million Americans could be infected with COVID-19, which might kill upwards of 2 million U.S. citizens.
On Feb. 27, Trump briefed the country on the coronavirus outbreak, assuring Americans that it was well under control.
“When you have 15 people,” Trump said of the number of reported cases in the U.S. at the time, “and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
Pressed on whether he had been apprised of Navarro’s warnings, the president said Tuesday he had not.
“I asked him about it just a little while ago, because I read something about a memo,” Trump recalled. “I said, ‘Did you do a memo?’ I didn’t look for, I didn’t see it, I didn’t ask for him to show it to me.”
Navarro has no medical background or national security brief; he is an economist and director of trade and manufacturing policy for the administration. On Monday, he got into a heated exchange with CNN anchor John Berman over his advocacy of the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, something Trump has also promoted. Navarro insisted to Berman that he was qualified to have an informed position. "Doctors disagree about things all the time,” he said. “My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I'm a social scientist. I have a PhD. And I understand how to read statistical studies.”
For weeks, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 steadily spread across the country, Trump has stood at the briefing podium and insisted the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, the “invisible enemy,” could not have been foreseen.
“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” Trump said on March 19.
But confronted with the existence of Navarro’s memos, the president shifted his explanation. “Nobody said, It’s going to happen, but there is a possibility, there always has been a possibility, but people wouldn’t talk about it,” Trump said.
Asked when he first learned about Navarro’s warnings, Trump said “maybe a day ago, two days ago.” Their existence was first reported Monday by Axios.
Trump has been criticized for repeatedly portraying the coronavirus outbreak as “under control,” and likening it to the common flu at a time when the virus was gaining a foothold in the U.S. On Tuesday, he sought to explain his rosy assessments of the pandemic that has brought American life to a grinding halt while infecting nearly 400,000 Americans and killing more than 13,000.
“The cases really didn’t build up for a while, but you have to understand, I’m a cheerleader for this country. I don’t want to create havoc and shock and everything else, but ultimately when I was saying that I’m also closing [travel from China] down,” Trump said, adding, “I’m not going to go out and start screaming, This could happen, this could happen. So, again as president, I think a president has to be a cheerleader for their country.”
Trump also said he had still not read Navarro’s memos.
“I basically did what the memo said, which was a pretty good memo from the standpoint that he talked about, I guess, I didn’t see it yet.”
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