“Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion,” Trump said March 19. A week later, he reiterated that “nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened.”
But according to reports in The New York Times and Axios on Monday, at least one top official in Trump’s own administration sounded the alarm ― in late January and then again in February ― about the potentially catastrophic impacts of the virus that causes COVID-19 on the United States.
In a Jan. 29 memo about the coronavirus addressed to the National Security Council, Peter Navarro, President Trump’s trade adviser, warned that the “risk of a worst-case pandemic scenario should not be overlooked,” the Times reported. The disease could kill up to half a million Americans, Navarro warned in the document, and cost the U.S. trillions of dollars if no action was taken to contain the virus.
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” the memo read.
Navarro recommended at the time that the U.S. enact “an immediate travel ban on China,” the origin of the virus. Two days later, Trump blocked most foreign nationals from entering the U.S. if they’d been in China during the prior two weeks — a ban that still stands today. However, as the Times reported last week, at least 40,000 people have arrived in the U.S. on direct flights from China since Trump’s travel ban was imposed.
The paper said Monday that Navarro’s January memo was “the highest-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing as the administration was taking its first substantive steps to confront” the coronavirus crisis.
About a month after his first memo, Navarro reportedly penned a second one, this time addressed to President Trump, escalating his warnings about COVID-19.
In the second memo, dated Feb. 23, Navarro wrote of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1 - 2 million souls,” Axios reported.
Navarro called for Congress to approve emergency funds of at least $3 billion for prevention and treatment efforts.
“This is NOT a time for penny-pinching or horse trading on the Hill,” he wrote.
According to Axios, both of Navarro’s memos were circulated around the White House, the NSC and “multiple” other federal agencies. It’s unclear whether Trump ― who, until late-March, had repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19 ― read either memo himself.
On Feb. 24, a day after Navarro’s second memo, Trump tweeted that the virus was “very much under control in the USA.”
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Navarro warned in a Feb. 23 memo of “1.2 million” deaths. He wrote “1 - 2 million” deaths. Prior versions also incorrectly stated 430,000 people had flown to the U.S. directly from China since Trump’s travel ban ― that figure actually refers to the total number since the virus was first disclosed to the public.