By the time Donald Trump proclaimed himself a wartime president — and the coronavirus the enemy — the United States was already on course to see more of its people die than in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
The country has adopted an array of wartime measures never employed collectively in U.S. history — banning incoming travelers from two continents, bringing commerce to a near-halt, enlisting industry to make emergency medical gear, and confining 230 million Americans to their homes in a desperate bid to survive an attack by an unseen adversary.
Despite these and other extreme steps, the United States will likely go down as the country that was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation.
It did not have to happen this way. Though not perfectly prepared, the United States had more expertise, resources, plans and epidemiological experience than dozens of countries that ultimately fared far better in fending off the virus.
The failure has echoes of the period leading up to 9/11: Warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck.
The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.
And yet, it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.
Trump’s baseless assertions in those weeks, including his claim that it would all just “miraculously” go away, sowed significant public confusion and contradicted the urgent messages of public health experts.
“While the media would rather speculate about outrageous claims of palace intrigue, President Trump and this Administration remain completely focused on the health and safety of the American people with around the clock work to slow the spread of the virus, expand testing, and expedite vaccine development,” said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the president. “Because of the President’s leadership we will emerge from this challenge healthy, stronger, and with a prosperous and growing economy.”
But the president’s behavior and combative statements were merely a visible layer on top of deeper levels of dysfunction.
The most consequential failure involved a breakdown in efforts to develop a diagnostic test that could be mass produced and distributed across the United States, enabling agencies to map early outbreaks of the disease, and impose quarantine measure to contain them. At one point, a Food and Drug Administration official tore into lab officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telling them their lapses in protocol, including concerns that the lab did not meet the criteria for sterile conditions, were so serious that the FDA would “shut you down” if the CDC were a commercial, rather than government, entity.
Other failures cascaded through the system. The administration often seemed weeks behind the curve in reacting to the viral spread, closing doors that were already contaminated. Protracted arguments between the White House and public health agencies over funding, combined with a meager existing stockpile of emergency supplies, left vast stretches of the country’s health-care system without protective gear until the outbreak had become a pandemic. Infighting, turf wars and abrupt leadership changes hobbled the work of the coronavirus task force…
Even the president’s base has begun to confront this reality. In mid-March, as Trump was rebranding himself a wartime president, and belatedly urging the public to help slow the spread of the virus, Republican leaders were poring over grim polling data that suggested Trump was lulling his followers into a false sense of security in the face of a lethal threat.
The poll showed that far more Republicans than Democrats were being influenced by Trump’s dismissive depictions of the virus and the comparably scornful coverage on Fox News and other conservative networks. As a result, Republicans were in distressingly large numbers refusing to change travel plans, follow “social distancing” guidelines, stock up on supplies or otherwise take the coronavirus threat seriously…
On Jan. 6, Redfield sent a letter to the Chinese offering to send help, including a team of CDC scientists. China rebuffed the offer for weeks, turning away assistance and depriving U.S. authorities of an early chance to get a sample of the virus, critical for developing diagnostic tests and any potential vaccine.
China impeded the U.S. response in other ways, including by withholding accurate information about the outbreak. Beijing had a long track record of downplaying illnesses that emerged within its borders, an impulse that U.S. officials attribute to a desire by the country’s leaders to avoid embarrassment and accountability with China’s 1.3 billion people and other countries that find themselves in the pathogen’s path.
China stuck to this costly script in the case of the coronavirus, reporting Jan. 14 that it had seen “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” U.S. officials treated the claim with skepticism that intensified when the first case surfaced outside China with a reported infection in Thailand…
A week earlier, senior officials at HHS had begun convening an intra-agency task force including Redfield, Azar and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The following week, there were also scattered meetings at the White House with officials from the National Security Council and State Department, focused mainly on when and whether to bring back government employees in China.
U.S. officials began taking preliminary steps to counter a potential outbreak. By mid-January, Robert Kadlec, an Air Force officer and physician who serves as assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, had instructed subordinates to draw up contingency plans for enforcing the Defense Production Act, a measure that enables the government to compel private companies to produce equipment or devices critical to the country’s security. Aides were bitterly divided over whether to implement the act, and nothing happened for many weeks…
Despite the flurry of activity at lower levels of his administration, Trump was not substantially briefed by health officials about the coronavirus until Jan.18, when, while spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, he took a call from Azar.
Even before the heath secretary could get a word in about the virus, Trump cut him off and began criticizing Azar for his handling of an aborted federal ban on vaping products, a matter that vexed the president…
But the secretary, who had a strained relationship with Trump and many others in the administration, assured the president that those responsible were working on and monitoring the issue. Azar told several associates that the president believed he was “alarmist” and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue, even asking one confidant for advice.
Within days, there were new causes for alarm…
On Jan. 21, a Seattle man who had recently traveled to Wuhan tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first known infection on U.S. soil. Then, two days later, Chinese authorities took the drastic step of shutting down Wuhan, turning the teeming metropolis into a ghost city of empty highways and shuttered skyscrapers, with millions of people marooned in their homes.
“That was like, whoa!,” said a senior U.S. official involved in White House meetings on the crisis. “That was when the Richter scale hit 8.”
It was also when U.S. officials began to confront the failings of their own efforts to respond.
Azar, who had served in senior positions at HHS through crises including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the outbreak of Bird Flu in 2005, was intimately familiar with the playbook for crisis management.
He instructed subordinates to move rapidly to establish a nationwide surveillance system to track the spread of the coronavirus — a stepped-up version of what the CDC does every year to monitor new strains of the ordinary flu.
But doing so would require assets that would elude U.S. officials for months — a diagnostic test that could accurately identify those infected with the new virus and be produced on a mass scale for rapid deployment across the United States, and money to implement the system.
Azar’s team also hit another obstacle. The Chinese were still refusing to share the viral samples they had collected and were using to develop their own tests. In frustration, U.S. officials looked for other possible routes…
But in other ways, the situation was already spinning out of control, with multiplying cases in Seattle, intransigence by the Chinese, mounting questions from the public, and nothing in place to stop infected travelers from arriving from abroad.
Trump was out of the country for this critical stretch, taking part in the annual global economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was accompanied by a contingent of top officials including national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who took an anxious trans-Atlantic call from Azar.
Azar told O’Brien that it was “mayhem” at the White House, with HHS officials being pressed to provide nearly identical briefings to three audiences on the same day.
Azar urged O’Brien to have the NSC assert control over a matter with potential implications for air travel, immigration authorities, the State Department and the Pentagon. O’Brien seemed to grasp the urgency, and put his deputy, Matthew Pottinger, who had worked in China as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, in charge of coordinating the still-nascent U.S. response.
But the rising anxiety within the administration appeared not to register with the president. On Jan. 22, Trump received his first question about the coronavirus in an interview on CNBC while in Davos. Asked whether he was worried about a potential pandemic, Trump said, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. . . . It’s going to be just fine.”
Trump has, with some justification, pointed to the China-related restriction as evidence that he had responded aggressively and early to the outbreak. It was among the few intervention options throughout the crisis that played to the instincts of the president, who often seems fixated on erecting borders and keeping foreigners out of the country.
But by that point, 300,000 people had come into the United States from China over the previous month. There were only 7,818 confirmed cases around the world at the end of January, according to figures released by the World Health Organization — but it is now clear that the virus was spreading uncontrollably.
Pottinger was by then pushing for another travel ban, this time restricting the flow of travelers from Italy and other nations in the European Union that were rapidly emerging as major new nodes of the outbreak. Pottinger’s proposal was endorsed by key health-care officials, including Fauci, who argued that it was critical to close off any path the virus might take into the country.
This time, the plan met with resistance from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others who worried about the impact on the U.S. economy. It was an early sign of tension in an area that would split the administration, pitting those who prioritized public health against those determined to avoid any disruption in an election year to the run of expansion and employment growth.
Those backing the economy prevailed with the president. And it was more than a month before the administration issued a belated and confusing ban on flights into the United States from Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people crossed the Atlantic during that interval…
A national stockpile of N95 protective masks, gowns, gloves and other supplies was already woefully inadequate after years of underfunding. The prospects for replenishing that store were suddenly threatened by the unfolding crisis in China, which disrupted offshore supply chains.
Much of the manufacturing of such equipment had long since migrated to China, where factories were now shuttered because workers were on order to stay in their households. At the same time, China was buying up masks and other gear to gird for its own coronavirus outbreak, driving up costs and monopolizing supplies.
In late January and early February, leaders at HHS sent two letters to the White House Office of Management and Budget asking to use its transfer authority to shift $136 million of department funds into pools that could be tapped for combating the coronavirus. Azar and his aides also began raising the need for a multibillion-dollar supplemental budget request to send to Congress.
Yet White House budget hawks argued that appropriating too much money at once when there were only a few U.S. cases would be viewed as alarmist.
Joe Grogan, head of the Domestic Policy Council, clashed with health officials over preparedness. He mistrusted how the money would be used and questioned how health officials had used previous preparedness funds…
But again, delays proved costly. The disputes meant that the United States missed a narrow window to stockpile ventilators, masks and other protective gear before the administration was bidding against many other desperate nations, and state officials fed up with federal failures began scouring for supplies themselves.
In late March, the administration ordered 10,000 ventilators — far short of what public health officials and governors said was needed. And many will not arrive until the summer or fall, when models expect the pandemic to be receding…
Although viruses travel unseen, public health officials have developed elaborate ways of mapping and tracking their movements. Stemming an outbreak or slowing a pandemic in many ways comes down to the ability to quickly divide the population into those who are infected and those who are not.
Doing so, however, hinges on having an accurate test to diagnose patients and deploy it rapidly to labs across the country. The time it took to accomplish that in the United States may have been more costly to American efforts than any other failing.
“If you had the testing, you could say, ‘Oh my god, there’s circulating virus in Seattle, let’s jump on it. There’s circulating virus in Chicago, let’s jump on it,’ ” said a senior administration official involved in battling the outbreak. “We didn’t have that visibility.”
The first setback came when China refused to share samples of the virus, depriving U.S. researchers of supplies to bombard with drugs and therapies in a search for ways to defeat it. But even when samples had been procured, the U.S. effort was hampered by systemic problems and institutional hubris.
Among the costliest errors was a misplaced assessment by top health officials that the outbreak would probably be limited in scale inside the United States — as had been the case with every other infection for decades — and that the CDC could be trusted on its own to develop a coronavirus diagnostic test.
The CDC, launched in the 1940s to contain an outbreak of malaria in the southern United States, had taken the lead on the development of diagnostic tests in major outbreaks including Ebola, Zika and H1N1. But the CDC was not built to mass-produce tests.
The CDC’s success had fostered an institutional arrogance, a sense that even in the face of a potential crisis there was no pressing need to involve private labs, academic institutions, hospitals and global health organizations also capable of developing tests.
Yet some were concerned that the CDC test would not be enough. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner, sought authority in early February to begin calling private diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies to enlist their help.
But when senior FDA officials consulted leaders at HHS, Hahn, who had led the agency for about two months, was told to stand down. There were concerns about him personally contacting companies regulated by his agency.
At that point, Azar, the HHS secretary, seemed committed to a plan he was pursuing that would keep his agency at the center of the response effort: securing a test from the CDC and then building a national coronavirus surveillance system by relying on an existing network of labs used to track the ordinary flu.
In task force meetings, Azar and Redfield pushed for $100 million to fund the plan, but were shot down because of the cost, according to a document outlining the testing strategy obtained by The Washington Post…
On Feb. 6, when the World Health Organization reported that it was shipping 250,000 test kits to labs around the world, the CDC began distributing 90 kits to a smattering of state-run health labs.
Almost immediately, the state facilities encountered problems. The results were inconclusive in trial runs at more than half the labs, meaning they couldn’t be relied upon to diagnose actual patients. The CDC issued a stopgap measure, instructing labs to send tests to its headquarters in Atlanta, a practice that would delay results for days.
The scarcity of effective tests led officials to impose constraints on when and how to use them, and delayed surveillance testing. Initial guidelines were so restrictive that states were discouraged from testing patients exhibiting symptoms unless they had traveled to China and come into contact with a confirmed case, when the pathogen had by that point almost certainly spread more broadly into the general population.
The limits left top officials largely blind to the true dimensions of the outbreak.
In a meeting in the Situation Room in mid-February, Fauci and Redfield told White House officials that there was no evidence yet of worrisome person-to-person transmission in the United States. In hindsight, it appears almost certain that the virus was taking hold in communities at that point. But even the country’s top experts had little meaningful data about the domestic dimensions of the threat. Fauci later conceded that as they learned more their views changed.
At the same time the president’s subordinates were growing increasingly alarmed, Trump continued to exhibit little concern. On Feb. 10, he held a political rally in New Hampshire attended by thousands where he declared that “by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
The New Hampshire rally was one of eight that Trump held after he had been told by Azar about the coronavirus, a period when he also went to his golf courses six times…
On Feb. 29, a Washington state man became the first American to die of a coronavirus infection. That same day, the FDA released guidance, signaling that private labs were free to proceed in developing their own diagnostics.
Another four-week stretch had been squandered…
One week later, on March 6, Trump toured the facilities at the CDC wearing a red “Keep America Great” hat. He boasted that the CDC tests were nearly perfect and that “anybody who wants a test will get a test,” a promise that nearly a month later remains unmet.
He also professed to have a keen medical mind. “I like this stuff. I really get it,” he said. “People here are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ ”
In reality, many of the failures to stem the coronavirus outbreak in the United States were either a result of, or exacerbated by, his leadership.
For weeks, he had barely uttered a word about the crisis that didn’t downplay its severity or propagate demonstrably false information. He dismissed the warnings of intelligence officials and top public health officials in his administration.
At times, he voiced far more authentic concern about the trajectory of the stock market than the spread of the virus in the United States, railing at the chairman of the Federal Reserve and others with an intensity that he never seemed to exhibit about the possible human toll of the outbreak.
In March, as state after state imposed sweeping new restrictions on their citizens’ daily lives to protect them — triggering severe shudders in the economy — Trump second-guessed the lockdowns…
Two days later, Trump finally ordered the halt to incoming travel from Europe that his deputy national security adviser had been advocating for weeks. But Trump botched the Oval Office announcement so badly that White House officials spent days trying to correct erroneous statements that triggered a stampede by U.S. citizens overseas to get home…
Trump spent many weeks shuffling responsibility for leading his administration’s response to the crisis, putting Azar in charge of the task force at first, relying on Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, for brief periods, before finally putting Vice President Pence in the role toward the end of February.
Other officials have emerged during the crisis to help right the United States’ course, and at times the statements of the president. But even as Fauci, Azar and others sought to assert themselves, Trump was behind the scenes turning to others with no credentials, experience or discernible insight in navigating a pandemic.
Foremost among them was his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. A team reporting to Kushner commandeered space on the seventh floor of the HHS building to pursue a series of inchoate initiatives.
One plan involved having Google create a website to direct those with symptoms to testing facilities that were supposed to spring up in Walmart parking lots across the country, but which never materialized. Another centered an idea advanced by Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison to use software to monitor the unproven use of anti-malaria drugs against the coronavirus pathogen.
So far, the plans have failed to come close to delivering on the promises made when they were touted in White House news conferences. The Kushner initiatives have, however, often interrupted the work of those under immense pressure to manage the U.S. response.
Current and former officials said that Kadlec, Fauci, Redfield and others have repeatedly had to divert their attentions from core operations to contend with ill-conceived requests from the White House they don’t believe they can ignore. And Azar, who once ran the response, has since been sidelined, with his agency disempowered in decision-making and his performance pilloried by a range of White House officials, including Kushner.If the coronavirus has exposed the country’s misplaced confidence in its ability to handle a crisis, it also has cast harsh light on the limits of Trump’s approach to the presidency — his disdain for facts, science and experience.
He has survived other challenges to his presidency — including the Russia investigation and impeachment — by fiercely contesting the facts arrayed against him and trying to control the public’s understanding of events with streams of falsehoods.
The coronavirus may be the first crisis Trump has faced in office where the facts — the thousands of mounting deaths and infections — are so devastatingly evident that they defy these tactics.
After months of dismissing the severity of the coronavirus, resisting calls for austere measures to contain it, and recasting himself as a wartime president, Trump seemed finally to succumb to the coronavirus reality. In a meeting with a Republican ally in the Oval Office last month, the president said his campaign no longer mattered because his reelection would hinge on his coronavirus response.