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Warnings Ignored: A Timeline of Trump’s COVID-19 Response

During the critical period between the outbreak in China and the landfall of coronavirus in America, Donald Trump was warned about our general vulnerabilities and the specific actions his administration needed to take to avoid the worst. This is the timeline of how he ignored them.
March 25, 2020
Warnings Ignored: A Timeline of Trump’s COVID-19 Response

For ten weeks President Trump downplayed the threat of and ignored warnings about the potential severity of COVID-19 with a series of lies, exaggerations, and outright fabrications that have been well documented. And yet despite the video record of the president’s words, the White House is trying to establish an alternate reality in which Trump was a competent, focused leader who saved American people from the coronavirus.

If only it were true.

On March 18 the Trump campaign put out a list of actions the U.S. government took to prepare for COVID-19. They meant this as exculpation; instead, it highlights just how asleep Trump was at the switch, despite warnings from experts within his own government and from former Trump administration officials pleading with him from the outside.

Most prominent among them were former Homeland Security advisor Tom Bossert, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb, and Director for Medical and Biodefense Preparedness at the National Security Council Dr. Luciana Borio who beginning in early January used op-eds, television appearances, social media posts, and private entreaties to try to spur the administration into action.

I emailed Borio last night about how we got here and what the administration should have been doing in January to prepare us for today.

She cites the delay on tests, without which “cases go undetected and people continue to circulate” as a leading issue along with other missed federal government responses—many of which are still not fully operational—including:

  • Tech solutions for tracing that protects civil liberties
  • Technology matching demand to critical supplies
  • Mobilizing manufacturers to ramp up PPE and ventilator productions
  • Securing a supply of needles and syringes as the Strategic National Supply does not have enough. (This last problem is still not getting much mainstream attention.)

The prescient recommendations from experts across disciplines in the period before COVID-19 reached American shores—about testing, equipment, and distancing—make clear that more than any single factor, it was Trump’s squandering of out lead-time which should have been used to prepare for the pandemic that has exacerbated this crisis. Because of Trump’s inaction, the country was caught flat-footed, exacerbating a pandemic that is causing substantial death and economic destruction.

What follows is an annotated timeline revealing the warning signs the administration received and showing how slow the administration was to act on these recommendations.

The Early Years: Warnings Ignored

2017: Trump administrations 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 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 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.”

September, 2019: The Trump Administration ended the pandemic early warning program, PREDICT, which trained scientists in China and other countries to identify viruses that had the potential to turn into pandemics. According to the Los Angeles Times, “field work ceased when funding ran out in September,” two months before COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan Province, China. On April 1, 2020 USAID used emergency powers to reboot the program.

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.
  • (4) Vaccine development.

January 28, 2020: A group of Trump Administration public health officials and outside experts began a “Red Dawn” email chain which a medical advisor for the VA kicks off saying the “size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe” and alludes to the 1918 pandemic. A director for the Global Center for Health Security compares the Wuhan outbreak to Pompeii and Hiroshima. A U.S. Army infectious disease expert says “we should treat this as the next pandemic.”

January 29, 2020: Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro circulates an internal memo warning that America is “defenseless” in the face of an outbreak which “elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”

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.

Mid-to-Late January, 2020: The coronavirus was being frequently mentioned as one of the core matters in the Presidential Daily Brief, an intelligence report on the world’s most significant developments and threats. According to the Washington Post it was often “in what is known as an “executive update,” and that it was almost certainly called to Trump’s attention orally.”

Late January, 2020:  HHS sends a letter asking to use its transfer authority to shift $136 million of department funds into pools that could be tapped for combating the coronavirus. 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.

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:

February 9, 2020: The Washington Post reports that a group of governors participated in a jarring meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield that was much more alarmist than what they were hearing from Trump. “The doctors and the scientists, they were telling us then exactly what they are saying now,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said.

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 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 21, 2020: Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at HHS, convened an urgent meeting of the coronavirus task force. At the meeting he suggested social distancing measures “such as school dismissals and cancellations of mass gatherings and warned we would have to “lock down” the country. Two days later upon learning about the level of contagiousness among asymptomatic individuals, Kadlec put together a plan to immediately brief the president on the distancing recommendations. The meeting with the President was cancelled, Vice President Pence was put in charge.

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 haveCDC 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.

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 20, 2020: At an April 2nd White House Press Conference, President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who was made ad hoc point man for the coronavirus response said that on this date he began working with Rear Admiral John Polowczyk to “build a team” that would handle the logistics and supply chain for providing medical supplies to the states. This suggestion was first made by former Trump Administration officials January 28th.

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.”

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.

Update, 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.

Update, 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. ”

Update, April 1, 2020 10:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to include reports by the National Review and Arkansas Gazette that Tom Cotton met privately with President Trump about the virus in January.

Update, April 2, 2020: 9:22 p.m.: This article has been updated to include Trump pandemic czar Jared Kushner’s self-described start date for when the task force began ramping up supply chain efforts.

Update, April 4, 2020: 6:07 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a Covid-19 budget request from HHS in late January that White House officials rejected for fear of seeming “alarmist.”

Update, April 4, 2020: 6:07 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a meeting that Governors had with medical experts in the White House which expressed much greater concern about the virus than the President’s public statements would indicate.

Update, April 5, 2020: 1:08 p.m.: This article has been updated to include the shuttering of PREDICT, the USAID program dedicated to early identification of viruses that may become pandemics, two months before COVID-19 emerged in China. Correction: The first version of this update dated the shuttering of PREDICT as September 2020. It was September 2019.

Update, April 5, 2020: 1:08 p.m.: This article has been updated to include an Associated Press report indicating federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin bulk ordering N95 masks, nearly two months after former Trump Admin officials and other experts were raising alarms about the shortage.

Update, April 6, 11:23 p.m.: This article has been updated with a New York Times report on Peter Navarro’s 1/29 memo on the risks of a pandemic.

Update, April 8, 3:42 p.m.: This article has been updated with an ABC News report that a military intelligence unit warned of a contagion in Wuhan Province in November that was changing patterns of life and posing a threat to the population based on intercepts and satellite images.

Update, April 8, 10:33 p.m: The ABC News report added earlier today has been removed due to a Defense Intelligence Agency statement that the November memo referenced in the story did not exist.

Update, April 13, 3:43 p.m.: This article has been updated with a New York Times report that Trump Administration health officials were emailing about the urgency of the pandemic in January and February and that Dr. Robert Kadlec in HHS requested a meeting with President Trump February 24th to propose social distancing measured. The media was cancelled because Trump was upset about the alarmism hurting the stock market.

Update, April 28, 12:03 p.m.: This article has been updated with the Washington Post report that the coronavirus threat was prominently featured in the Presidential Daily Brief (this refers to the morning intelligence report, not Fox and Friends) beginning in mid to late January.

Priya Gada contributed to this article.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.