WASHINGTON — Even as experts in his own government were increasingly alarmed about a pandemic threat this January, President Donald Trump apparently remained unconcerned, with no scheduled intelligence briefings before Jan. 6 and only nine the entire month.
In the first week of the year, when dire warnings about the coronavirus and the threat posed to the United States reportedly began showing up in his daily intelligence packet, Trump had only one scheduled briefing, according to a HuffPost review of his daily schedules.
On Jan. 18, when his Health and Human Services secretary finally managed to reach Trump on a Florida golf weekend to discuss the threat, Trump had no scheduled intelligence briefing. Nor was there one on his schedule for Jan. 22, the day Trump famously told CNBC that the virus posed no danger and was limited to a single person who had come in from China.
During that same month with only nine scheduled intelligence briefings, Trump spent six days on his golf course in Florida and staged five reelection rallies.
“Not only did he disregard a series of warnings from the U.S. intelligence community about the outbreak, but in the lead-up to the virus reaching our shores he rarely even held the intelligence briefings that are critical to anticipating threats to the homeland,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Trump himself acknowledged that he did not appreciate the severity of the danger until just before he imposed travel restrictions on foreigners who had recently been in China on Jan. 31. “When I learned about the gravity of it was sometime just prior to closing the country to China,” he said Wednesday, after being asked specifically when he learned of the intelligence regarding the coronavirus. “So, I don’t know exactly, but I’d like to see the information.”
That late January time frame means Trump waited four weeks after his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned from Chinese colleagues on Jan. 3 about a dangerous new disease to take his first substantial action. It is also four weeks after the threat first appeared in Trump’s “President’s Daily Brief,” the report specifically prepared for him and which serves as the basis of his intelligence briefing, according to multiple published reports.
Warnings about the virus and COVID-19, the deadly disease the virus causes, continued to appear in Trump’s PDBs from that point forward, according to The Washington Post.
White House officials argue that just because no intelligence briefing was on the schedule does not mean that he failed to receive one that day. They did not, however, explain why briefings would be listed on the public schedule on some days but not others.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham did not respond to queries about why Trump ignored warnings from his own government during that month.
“It’s not that Trump didn’t see the warnings,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a spokesman for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama. “Instead, he appears to have ignored them. He most likely did so because he had other priorities, including taking a post-impeachment victory lap, not letting anything stand in the way of his trade deal with China, and not wanting to disrupt stock market momentum.”
Of course, even if Trump had received a briefing detailing the coronavirus threat, there is no guarantee he would have taken it seriously. Trump has long claimed subject matter expertise — he claimed he knew more about the terror group ISIS than “the generals,” and only recently claimed he knew “more about South Korea than anybody” — in areas where he does not appear to have any. What’s more, he has distrusted the U.S. intelligence community since it revealed that Russia had worked to get him elected. At a joint news conference with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in 2018, Trump said he believed Putin’s denial on that matter.
In addition to Trump’s tendency to disbelieve intelligence information presented to him is his lack of interest in digesting it. The PDB prepared for the president is contained each day in a thick binder of both summaries and backup material, collated over the previous 24 hours and prepared starting early that morning.
Previous presidents began each day with that presentation, either verbally with a briefing or — like former President Barack Obama — with his reading of the material on an iPad followed by a question-and-answer session.
Trump, in contrast, spends most of his mornings in the White House residence watching television and posting tweets about what he has just seen. He rarely gets to the West Wing much before noon, and his intelligence briefings have typically taken place in the afternoons.
In January, only one of his nine scheduled briefings was set before noon — on Jan. 16, at 11:45 a.m. Another was scheduled for noon, and two others for 12:15 p.m. The rest were all at 2 p.m. and later.
As to the briefings themselves, Trump does not like to read and is easily distracted, forcing his briefers to come up with ways to hold his attention, such as charts and graphics, according to those familiar with some of the sessions.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar found himself facing that same inability to focus on Jan. 18, when he finally was able to reach Trump to talk to him about the pandemic threat. Trump, who was again at his for-profit resort in Palm Beach for another weekend of golf, instead used the opportunity to berate Azar for recommending that Trump take action against vaping, which wound up generating a strong backlash from both the industry and enthusiasts.
And over the coming days, rather than heeding his intelligence community warnings and taking actions to protect the country by making testing and production of medical supplies top priorities, Trump instead praised China and its dictator, Xi Jinping, for containing the disease.
In a Jan. 22 interview with CNBC, Trump said that China had been transparent about the spread of the disease. “I have a great relationship with President Xi,” he added. Two days later, Trump posted in a tweet: “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!”
That Jan. 22 interview also featured Trump’s claim that there was no danger from the new virus: “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
It was the first in a long series of remarks over the next seven weeks downplaying and dismissing the threat until he finally began acknowledging the danger on March 16. Public health and emergency management experts believe those two months represent a lost opportunity for the country to have gotten ahead of the pandemic.
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