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WASHINGTON ― What happens when the president of the United States tries to lie, wish and tweet a pandemic away?
As it turns out, it puts a government response four to six weeks behind schedule, possibly resulting in thousands — or even tens or hundreds of thousands — more Americans getting seriously ill and dying.
“They underprepared, and now we have to catch up,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the widely praised 2014 Ebola outbreak response under former President Barack Obama. “We could have been in a dramatically different place at this point.”
On Jan. 22, the day before China imposed a draconian quarantine on the province where the virus originated, Donald Trump claimed the disease was “totally under control,” that it was just in a single patient who had come from China. “It’s going to be just fine.”
On Feb. 10, as the virus was starting to spread in Italy and Iran, Trump told a meeting of the nation’s governors at the White House: “A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat.”
On Feb. 26, the day after a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that life in the United States was likely to change very quickly, Trump claimed that there were only 15 cases here, and that number would soon fall to zero.
Two days later, he called the virus the latest “hoax” that Democrats and the media were using to hurt the economy and, in turn, his chances for reelection. Indeed, over the course of February, he spoke and posted on Twitter repeatedly that the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, had not killed as many as the seasonal flu and suggested that Americans should buy stocks.
It was not until Friday that Trump declared a national emergency, sending the official signal that local governments and hospitals around the country should take the problem seriously and ensuring that federal money would help reimburse their costs. In the meantime, only a tiny fraction of Americans have been tested for the disease, meaning officials do not have enough data to allocate resources most efficiently.
“He’s just failing miserably,” said Juliette Kayyam, who helped handle the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak and the British Petroleum oil spill for Obama’s Department of Homeland Security and now lectures on emergency management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s about a president who saw a category five hurricane coming ashore, and just let it come.”
Trump’s comments set the tone
Although Trump may not specifically have told administration officials to focus on travel bans and downplay the coronavirus threat to avoid spooking the financial markets, he did not need to, disaster response experts said. His public statements and tweets made clear what he wanted.
“It’s hard to go against the president,” Konyndyk said. “People in government are very attuned to what the president does and does not want to hear.”
Trump’s top national security and health officials, Konyndyk said, should have been alarmed on Jan. 23 upon hearing of the mass quarantine in Hubei Province. “That right there should have been a huge warning sign,” he said. “And there was no good reason to think if that could happen in China, it couldn’t happen somewhere else.”
That was the date the CDC should have started a crash program to develop and widely disseminate a test for the virus, the genetic code of which had been published by Chinese scientists nearly two weeks earlier. Hospitals should have been alerted to prepare for a crush of intensive care patients suffering from the disease, and first responders should have been notified and equipped with enough supplies to handle sick patients safely.
“That’s like basic crisis management 101,” Kayyam said. “The federal apparatus is just not ready.”
On Friday, though, Trump refused to accept any blame for his administration’s response: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He then added, evidence notwithstanding, that his own performance has been superb. “We’re doing a great job.”
From the onset of the crisis, Trump has boasted about having imposed restrictions on foreigners — but not Americans — from entering the country from China back on Jan. 31. “This is urgent for me right from the beginning. You know that because I closed up our country to China,” he told reporters again on Saturday at the White House.
In fact, by that point, as later evidence would show, the virus had already entered the United States, and “community spread” — which expands the circle of infection far more rapidly than entry of foreigners — had already begun.
“We don’t have a travel ban. We have a travel Band-Aid right now,” Ron Klain, who led Obama’s Ebola response, told lawmakers on Feb. 5. “First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn.”
Undoing Obama at all costs
While Trump’s shaky effort with coronavirus began in January, its seeds were sewn nearly two years earlier, when his administration dismantled the pandemic response team that Obama created following the Ebola outbreak.
It was designed to streamline the federal government’s ability to deal with subsequent epidemics and was led by a member of the National Security Council, with direct access to the national security adviser.
Trump, who has made it a top priority to undo all of Obama’s accomplishments, claimed Friday that he didn’t have anything to do with eliminating the office and knew nothing about it.
But just two weeks earlier, Trump had defended the action, saying he did not like having people on staff if they weren’t needed at that moment: “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if ― if we have a need, we can get them very quickly.”
Konyndyk said that in doing so, Trump had lost a lot of expertise from government. More important, it meant no one was in place at the NSC to see what was happening in China and immediately set a coordinated response in motion here.
“Someone should have been looking at the big picture, and that someone should have been at the White House. But they dissolved the directorate,” Konyndyk said, adding that instead of preparing to deal with the pandemic here, Trump and his top officials fixated on the idea they could keep it from entering the country, despite knowing how contagious it was and how long an incubation period it had. “There was no reason to think we could keep this out.”
Trump’s own behavior, meanwhile, continued to undermine the warnings and advice put out by experts in his own administration. At Friday’s news conference, he repeatedly touched his face, including his nose, and then shook hands with other participants and adjusted the microphone at the lectern even though he has come into contact with individuals who have subsequently tested positive for the virus.
And while members of Congress have self-quarantined after being exposed to people who have tested positive, Trump refused to do so. For days, he also declined to be tested. When asked about being tested on Friday, Trump said all he did was shake hands and have a photograph taken with an infected person and that, besides, he did not even know the individual.
“I have no idea who he is, but I take pictures and it lasts for, literally, seconds,” Trump said. “I don’t know the gentleman that we’re talking about. I have no idea who he is.”
Friday night, just before midnight, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a letter from Trump’s White House doctor claiming that the president’s situation did not warrant getting a coronavirus test. But during a Saturday news briefing, Trump claimed he had, in fact, been tested the previous night, but the results weren’t yet available.
“I decided I should, based on the press conference yesterday. People were asking that I take the test,” Trump said Saturday. “Only because the press is going crazy.”
Grisham did not respond to queries regarding the discrepancy.