Incompetence isn’t a crime, but willful ignorance is

Trump’s power of positive thinking, or magical thinking


2017: Trump administration officials are briefed on an intelligence document titled “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.” That’s right. The administration literally had an actual playbook for what to do in the early stages of a pandemic. Among the playbook’s protocols:

Begin the early procurement of PPE materials for healthcare workers as soon as the threat is identified.

Concentrate on “early diagnostic capacity”—which is government-speak for Have a mountain of tests on-hand so that you can monitor the spread of the disease.

February 2018: The Washington Post writes “CDC to cut by 80 percent efforts to prevent global disease outbreak.” The meat of the story is “Countries where the CDC is planning to scale back include some of the world’s hot spots for emerging infectious disease, such as China, Pakistan, Haiti, Rwanda, and Congo.”

May 2018:

At an event marking the 100 year anniversary of the 1918 pandemic, Borio says “pandemic flu” is the “number 1 health security issue” and that the U.S. is not ready to respond.

One day later her boss, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer is pushed out of the administration and the global health security team is disbanded.

Rep. Ami Bera warns that “Admiral Ziemer’s departure is deeply alarming, especially when the administration is actively working to cut funds that addressed past pandemics like Ebola.”

Beth Cameron, former senior director for global health security on the National Security Council adds: “It is unclear in his absence who at the White House would be in charge of a pandemic,” Cameron said, calling it “a situation that should be immediately rectified.”

Note: It was not.

January 2019: The director of National Intelligence issues the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment of threats to national security. Among its findings:

Page 17: “The increase in frequency and diversity of reported disease outbreaks—such as dengue and Zika—probably will continue through 2018, including the potential for a severe global health emergency that could lead to major economic and societal disruptions, strain governmental and international resources and increase calls on the United States for support. A novel strain of a virulent microbe that is easily transmissible between humans continues to be a major threat, with pathogens such as H5N1 and H7N9 influenza and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus having pandemic potential if they were to acquire efficient human-to-human transmissibility.”

Page 21: “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

2020: COVID-19 Arrives

January 3, 2020: The CDC is first alerted to a public health event in Wuhan, China (This fact was revealed publicly later by HHS Secretary Alex Azar.)

January 6, 2020: The CDC issues a travel notice for Wuhan due to the spreading coronavirus.

Note: The Trump campaign claims that this marks the beginning of the federal government disease control experts becoming aware of the virus. It was 10 weeks from this point until the week of March 16 when Trump began to change his tone on the threat.

January 8, 2020: The CDC issues an official health advisory about COVID-19.

January 10, 2020: Former Trump Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert warns that we shouldn’t “jerk around with ego politics” because “we face a global health threat…Coordinate!”

January 18, 2020: After two weeks of attempts, HHS Secretary Alex Azar finally gets the chance to speak to Trump about the virus. The president redirects the conversation to vaping, according to the Washington Post.

January 20, 2020: First U.S. case is reported in Washington state.

January 21, 2020: Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the CDC tells reporters, “We do expect additional cases in the United States.”

January 27, 2020: Top White House aides meet with Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to encourage greater focus on the threat from the virus. Joe Grogan, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council warns that “dealing with the virus was likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.”

January 28, 2020: Two former Trump administration officials—Gottlieb and Borio—publish an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal imploring the president to “Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic.” They advocate a 4-point plan to address the coming crisis:

(1) Expand testing to identify and isolate cases.

Note: This did not happen for many weeks. The first time more than 2,000 tests were deployed in a single day was not until almost six weeks later, on March 11.

(2) Boost flu vaccination efforts to reduce the load on hospitals.

(3) Prepare hospital units for isolation with more gowns and masks.

Note: There was no dramatic ramp-up in the production of critical supplies undertaken. As a result, many hospitals quickly experienced shortages of critical PPE materials.

(4) Vaccine development.

January 29, 2020: The New York Times reports that “mask hoarders” may cause further shortages when the outbreak reaches America.

January 29, 2020: Republican Senator Tom Cotton reaches out to President Trump in private to encourage him to take the virus seriously.

January 30, 2020: Dr. James Hamblin publishes another warning about critical PPE materials in the Atlantic, titled “We Don’t Have Enough Masks.” At the time, it was clear that mask shortages would be a serious problem. Other countries coping with COVID-19 were already running short on masks and ordering them from America and, in addition, almost the entire CDC stockpile had been consumed during the 2009 flu season.

January 31, 2020: Trump puts into action a temporary travel ban on China. This decision has been the centerpiece of his claim to have responded to the coronavirus. But even here, the truth is somewhat different.

Trump’s Chinese travel ban only banned “foreign nationals who had been in China in the last 14 days.” This wording did not—at all—stop people from arriving in America from China. In fact, for much of the crisis, flights from China landed in America almost daily filled with people who had been in China, but did not fit the category as Trump’s “travel ban” defined it.

January 31, 2020: On the same day Trump was enacting his fake travel ban, Foreign Policy reports that face masks and latex gloves are sold out on Amazon and at leading stores in New York City and suggests the surge in masks being sold to other countries needs “refereeing” in the face of the coming crisis.

February 4, 2020: Gottlieb and Borio take to the WSJ again, this time to warn the president that “a pandemic seems inevitable” and call on the administration to dramatically expand testing, expand the number of labs for reviewing tests, and change the rules to allow for tests of people even if they don’t have a clear known risk factor.

Note: Some of these recommendations were eventually implemented—25 days later.

February 4 or 5, 2020: Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, and other intelligence officials brief the Senate Intelligence Committee that the virus poses a “serious” threat and that “Americans would need to take actions that could disrupt their daily lives.”

February 5, 2020: HHS Secretary Alex Azar requests $2 billion to “buy respirator masks and other supplies for a depleted federal stockpile of emergency medical equipment.” He is rebuffed by Trump and the White House OMB who eventually send Congress a $500 million request weeks later.

February 5, 2020: Senator Chris Murphy tweets: Chris Murphy ✔@ChrisMurphyCT Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough.
Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.

February 12, 2020: Gottlieb (remember, he’s the former head of Trump’s FDA) testifies before Congress that actions must be taken to address medical supply chain issues and the possibility of shortages.

February 20, 2020: Borio and Gottlieb write in the Wall Street Journal that tests must be ramped up immediately “while we can intervene to stop the spread.”

It’s important to understand that the Trump campaign brags about the fact that the administration lifted CDC restrictions on tests. This is a factually true statement. But it elides that fact that they did so on March 3—two critical weeks after the third Borio/Gottlieb op-ed on the topic, during which time the window for intervention had shrunk to a pinhole.

February 23, 2020: Harvard School of Public Health professor issues warning on lack of test capability: “As of today, the US remains extremely limited in#COVID19 testing. Only 3 of ~100 public health labs have CDC test kits working and CDC is not sharing what went wrong with the kits. How to know if COVID19 is spreading here if we are not looking for it.

February 24, 2020: The Trump administration sends a letter to Congress requesting a small dollar amount—between $1.8 billion and $2.5 billion—to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. This is, of course, a pittance compared to the massive recovery package still being debated at the time of this writing. At the time the administration was widely criticized by members of Congress for not going big enough to deal with the problem.

February 25, 2020: Messonier says she expects “community spread” of the virus in the United States and that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.” Trump is reportedly furious and Messonier’s warnings are curtailed in the ensuing weeks.

February 26, 2020: Congress, recognizing the coming threat, offers to give the administration $6 billion more than Trump asked for in order to prepare for the virus. Trump mocks Congress in a White House briefing, saying “If Congress wants to give us the money so easy—it wasn’t very easy for the wall, but we got that one done. If they want to give us the money, we’ll take the money.”

Note: The wall did not get “done.” Trump never got sufficient funding for completion of his promised border wall and in any case, as of early February 2020, only 110 miles of new fencing had been constructed.

February 27, 2020: In a leaked audio recording Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee and author of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) and the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act (reauthorization of PAHPA), was telling people that COVID-19 “is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

March 3, 2020: Vice President Pence is asked about legislation encouraging companies to produce more masks. He says the Trump administration is “looking at it.”

Note: Recall that the concern about masks was raised publicly by high-profile former Trump appointees, on January 28.

March 4, 2020: HHS says they only have 1 percent of respirator masks needed if the virus became a “full-blown pandemic.”

March 7, 2020: Fox News host Tucker Carlson, flies to Mar-a-Lago to implore Trump to take the virus seriously in private rather than embarrass him on TV. Even after the private meeting, Trump continued to downplay the crisis, forcing Carlson to obliquely criticize him publicly on his show two nights later.

Note: Carlson, after hearing from an expert with “access to intelligence” who was concerned about the virus began covering the issue on his show February 3rd, over a month prior to the private meeting. This is a good glimpse into how a competent populist might’ve acted.

March 9, 2020: Tom Bossert, Trump’s former Homeland Security adviser, publishes an op-ed saying it is “now or never” to act. He advocates for social distancing and school closures to slow the spread of the contagion.
Trump says that developments are “good for the consumer” and compares COVID-19 favorably to the common flu.

March 16, 2020: Trump announces his support for a 15-day period of social distancing in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

March 17, 2020: Facing continued shortages of the PPE equipment needed to prevent healthcare providers from succumbing to the virus, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkeley and Ron Wyden call on Trump to use the Defense Production Act to expand supply of medical equipment.

March 18, 2020: Trump signs the executive order to activate the Defense Production Act, but declines to use it. At the White House briefing he is asked about Senator Chuck Schumer’s call to urgently produce medical supplies and ventilators.

Trump responds: “Well we’re going to know whether or not it’s urgent.”

Note: At this point 118 Americans had died from COVID-19.

March 22, 2020: Six days after calling for a 15-day period of distancing, Trump tweets that this approach “may be worse than the problem itself.” Donald J. Trump

March 24, 2020: Trump tells Fox News that he wants the country opened up by Easter Sunday (April 12).

Trump says, “You will have packed churches all over our country, I think it would be a beautiful time and it is just about the timeline that I think is right.” As Trump was speaking to Fox, there were 52,145 confirmed cases in the United States and the doubling time for daily new cases was roughly four days. The pace of the viral spread was increasing.
Testing was still in the process of ramping up, and unavailable in many areas.
Doctors were still “desperate” for masks and other basic PPE supplies.

March 26, 2020, 10:48 a.m.: The article has been updated to include the revelation that the Trump administration had been given a “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents” in 2017.

March 29, 2020, 12:39 p.m.: This article has been updated to include the revelation first reported by The Washington Post that HHS Secretary Alex Azar requested $2 billion for medical equipment in early February but was rebuffed by White House officials who were upset about the price tag and the fact that Azar had gone around them to Congress. ”

April 1, 2020, 1040 p.m.: This article has been updated to include reports by the National Review and Arkansas Gazette that Tom Cotton met privately with  Trump about the virus in January.


From Tim Miller a contributor to The Bulwark



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