During his Wednesday night speech and again on Thursday morning, Donald Trump has used the same phrase: "We're having to fix a problem that four weeks ago nobody thought would be a problem.” This is not true. It’s so far from true that it goes beyond being a lie; it’s more like callous disregard for the life of the nation. Four weeks ago, the world was already approaching 60,000 cases of COVID-19. The United Nations had already convened a crisis management team and conducted a two-day forum expressly to prepare for outbreaks around the world. Also four weeks ago, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said this: “I think it is likely we’ll see a global pandemic. If a pandemic happens, 40% to 70% of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year.” A couple of days after that, officials were directly warning Trump that a pandemic was on the way.
But forget four weeks ago. The time to prepare for this was two years ago, when Trump fired America’s pandemic response team. Trump didn’t manage this alone. He did it with the strong assistance of John (Don’t buy his book) Bolton.
The entire global health security team that was inserted into the National Security Council to deal with emerging health threats—and specifically pandemics exactly like the 2019 novel coronavirus—was disbanded in May 2018. That included the firing of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, the former executive director of the disaster response and global assistance organization World Relief, who organized disaster response and approaches to dealing with HIV/AIDS.
As The Washington Post reported at the time, Ziemer was the “top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic.” Both he and his team were removed by Trump and Bolton in one of Trump’s many bragged-about reductions in the size of the National Security Council. Trump was still crowing about this in February when he used the same excuse—that the NSC was simply too big— to dismiss Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
Trump and Bolton also fired Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert. This came after Bossert complained that, while the Bush and Obama administrations had “taken steps to address biologic threats,” they had not built a team or strategy explicitly to address this area. “We have not had as a country a comprehensive bio-defense strategy ever,” said Bossert. “It’s high time we had a bio-defense strategy.”
And Bossert also said this: “At this point, we need to look clear eyed at the fact that we may have a devastating pandemic influenza or an intentional anthrax attack.”
That wasn’t four weeks ago. That was three years ago. Everyone was telling Trump that there was a potential crisis and that, to secure the safety of the nation, he needed to be prepared for exactly what is happening now. Trump simply didn’t start listening until that crisis started affecting the stock market … about four weeks ago. He wasn’t interested in the issue.
Trump didn’t just get the equivalent of a CIA memo warning “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” a month before the attack on the World Trade Center. He got that memo over and over. When it comes to this specific crisis, Trump could have seen what was happening in China, could have read the warnings of experts, could have heard the dire predictions. It wasn’t something no one was expecting. It was something that he simply ignored.