As the deadly coronavirus outbreak rapidly spread across America in February and March, President Trump repeatedly asserted that “nobody could have predicted something like this.” But a review of government records shows that repeated warnings were issued to the White House and went unheeded.
U.S. intelligence officials with the National Center for Medical Intelligence issued a report in late November warning that a virus was taking root in China, ABC News reported Wednesday. “Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” a source inside the government told ABC, and the report was shared with the White House, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency. It is unclear whether Trump was ever briefed on the NCMI report, but sources who spoke to ABC described multiple briefings about the report throughout December for “policymakers” as well as officials at the National Security Council and the White House. Late Wednesday, the Defense Department released a statement saying, “No such NCMI product exists,” but ABC News stood by its reporting.
The first confirmed case in China of what would later be identified as COVID-19, the disease that can result from exposure to the coronavirus, was reported on Dec. 10. By then, U.S. intelligence officials, using intercepted computer data and satellite imagery, had already detected the impact of the virus on daily life in the city of Wuhan and the surrounding area.
On Dec. 31, the Chinese government publicly confirmed that dozens of people in Wuhan were being treated for pneumonia-like symptoms. Three days later, on Jan. 3, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he first learned of the spread of the virus in China at a White House briefing attended by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield. Again, it is unclear whether Trump was notified at that time.
But days after the Jan. 3 briefing in the White House, U.S. intelligence warnings about the threat posed by the virus began appearing in the president’s daily brief. Whether Trump read those, or discussed their contents, is not known.
Over the following days, the number of cases of COVID-19 rose steadily in China. On Jan. 10, Chinese scientists posted the DNA sequence for the disease online and the next day announced the first death attributed to COVID-19. The United States reported its first case on Jan. 20, and the Chinese government implemented a lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 22.
On Jan. 24, Trump praised China’s President Xi Jinping for his response to the coronavirus outbreak.
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
But five days later, on Jan. 29, Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro sent the first of two memos that predicted dire consequences from the virus to the U.S. In the memos, whose existence was disclosed on Monday by Axios, Navarro wrote that without an aggressive containment strategy, the White House should expect COVID-19 to kill more than half a million Americans and cost the nation nearly $6 trillion.
On Jan. 31, Trump issued restrictions for non-U.S. citizens traveling from China that took effect on Feb. 3. The order came 10 days after the first case was reported in Washington state. Public health officials said that while it likely bought the U.S. time to ready a plan for how to combat the inevitable spread of the virus in the U.S., it did little to prevent it, and the time was mostly wasted. Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were not included in the ban.
Since Dec. 31, when China reported that Wuhan residents were being hospitalized due to the then mysterious virus, 430,000 people arrived in the U.S. on direct flights from China, the New York Times reported, including almost 40,000 who made the trip after Trump’s travel ban was promulgated.
With the number of Chinese cases of COVID-19 rising into the thousands, Navarro penned a dire second memo to White House staff on Feb. 27 in which he revised his predictions. As many as 100 million Americans could be infected with the virus, Navarro wrote, and it could end up killing as many as 2 million U.S. citizens.
At Tuesday’s coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Trump offered a notable explanation for why he had not reacted more forcefully to his own adviser’s warnings.
“I heard he wrote some memos talking about pandemic,” Trump said when asked when he first learned of Navarro’s warnings. “I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them, either.”
It isn’t known who received Navarro’s report. There has been no explanation of why a memo from one of the president’s top advisers, predicting millions of American deaths, didn’t reach his desk, or why Trump didn’t request a briefing about the impending crisis.
On Jan. 22, two days after the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported, Trump was asked on CNBC whether he was worried about a possible coronavirus pandemic.
“Not at all,” he replied. “And we’re, we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
New research shows that the coronavirus began to circulate in New York in mid-February, and that it was brought to the region via travelers from Europe, not China. Trump expanded his travel restrictions to include much of Europe on March 11.
By March 17, six days after the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak to be a pandemic, Trump updated his own assessment of the rapid spread of the virus.
“I’ve always known this is a — this is real — this is a pandemic,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. All you had to do is look at other countries.”
As of Wednesday, more than 400,000 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the U.S. and the virus had killed more than 14,000 Americans.
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