A weekend New York Times report lays out key dates, meetings and documents to prove a devastating case. Donald Trump was indeed warned, repeatedly, of the true dangers of the likely pandemic. Even in January, Trump was warned that without action, a half a million Americans could die in the pandemic.
The Times' evidence appears to convincingly prove the worst-case speculations of Trump's critics. The federal government was indeed on top of the emerging pandemic, ready to adopt plans developed from previous government exercises to contain the virus and mitigate its effects. Those plans were thwarted by Trump himself due to Trump's unwillingness to listen to their warnings, his personal grievances and hostility towards individual staffers, and his incompetent, buffoonish insistence that he could simply power through the whole episode by denying that it was happening.
Among the facts the Times was able to confirm: Trump was told "at the time" of a January 29 memo by trade adviser Peter Navarro warning that half a million U.S. deaths were possible—Trump later denied this. Trump was also personally warned by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan 30: Trump called him "alarmist."
In February, the Azar-led White House Task Force "gathered for a tabletop exercise" replaying past pandemic wargaming, says the Times. The exercise resulted in the conclusion that "aggressive" social distancing would have to be adopted "soon" to avoid catastrophic effects. But their recommended course of action collapsed—because National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director Dr. Nancy Messonnier publicly issued those warnings while Trump was still in India, before the task force had been able to get his "consent" for the warning.
Trump had a fit, blew up at Azar, and that was the end of the Task Force's ability to get through to the narcissistic incompetent. It was over. Trump put Mike Pence in charge of the group, and "the [new] focus was clear," reports the Times: "no more alarmist messages."
Over three weeks were lost, from February to March, with Pence's new mandate to fluff Trump's incompetent public assurances that little action was needed taking precedence over all those prior warnings. All of them. The federal response to a national crisis collapsed, because Donald Trump dismissed all warnings, became furious when those warnings went public without him, and tasked Mike Pence with sabotaging future warnings.
Pence's office pushed back mightily against initial reports that government officials had been barred from making public appearances about the pandemic without Pence's approval. In actuality, that was exactly the intent. Mike Pence's job was to act as a firewall between the dire warnings of government experts who knew what was happening and the public, because Donald Trump was angry that those warnings were being made.
Pence's use of that power to block administration experts from giving the public accurate advice, instead seeking to elevate Trump's false pronouncements, continues even now: Last week Pence's office told CNN that government experts Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx would be withheld from the network unless CNN agreed to not cut away from task force briefings for realtime factchecking of Trump's claims.
"Over nearly three weeks from Feb. 26 to March 16, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States grew from 15 to 4,226," notes the Times. That was the difference. That was the ballgame; in three weeks, the United States had completely lost control of the pandemic.
This paragraph, however, deserves special focus. It is the Trump defense, and it is unforgivable.
"Mr. Trump’s allies and some administration officials say the criticism has been unfair. The Chinese government misled other governments, they say. And they insist that the president was either not getting proper information, or the people around him weren’t conveying the urgency of the threat. In some cases, they argue, the specific officials he was hearing from had been discredited in his eyes, but once the right information got to him through other channels, he made the right calls."
The Chinese government may have misled about the pandemic—but the Trump administration knew about it anyway, from U.S. intelligence reports. Trump was absolutely getting proper information, and being told the "urgency" of the threat: If even trade adviser Peter Navarro was warning Trump directly of half a million possible U.S. dead, it is on Trump that Trump did not find that "urgent."
But the last part, the part that seems specifically aimed at deflecting from Trump ignoring the warnings of Azar and the rest of the Task Force because he was upset with them—that is unforgivable. That is not leadership. That is a pissant little hissy-fit in the middle of crisis, an episode of pouting that has now killed over 20,000 Americans. Trump ignored a crisis already unfolding, blocking government action, to demand instead that Americans be fed false reassurances. Trump's personal narcissism committed the greatest act of political terrorism the United States has ever seen.
That is not the only conclusion we can draw from the Times' dates, names, and unearthed documents. To be sure, the botched pandemic response was also due to infighting between Trump's myriad incompetent factions, with a "travel ban" being pushed by China hawks after the virus had already landed in the United States even as Azar's team struggled to get Trump's attention. But is absolutely clear that the Trump White House had all necessary information to act on the emerging pandemic in January, and that it was Trump's own pathologies that prevented action from being taken. Trump's intolerance for bad news or unflattering information meant government experts needed to walk on eggshells to even broach the subject; Trump's paranoid insistence on a "Deep State" conspiracy against him meant he steadily ignored expert warnings in the apparent sincere, idiotic belief that government experts were out to sabotage him. In his delusions and incompetence, Trump actively blocked government from executing already-laid plans to prevent the pandemic's spread.
It took until mid-March, until the stock market had collapsed, the virus was widespread and states were issuing shelter in place orders until a "shellshocked and deflated" Trump finally absorbed that the reality of mass deaths were not something he could hate-tweet his way around. But it is not over, and he is not done doing damage. He remains paranoid, delusional and defiant, continuing to threaten to "re-open" the economy regardless of expert advice.
It is unforgivable incompetence. It is unforgivable arrogance and self-dealing and cheap, nasty careerism, on the part of each and every grotesque administration toady allowing Trump to kill Americans, willingly, through intentional inaction. Mike Pence's eagerness to step in to facilitate Trump's propaganda-laced sabotage of government action is unforgivable. It is unforgivable that Senate Republicans nullified criminal acts by Trump with the explicit intent of allowing him to get away with the same, or worse, a bargain that within months brought on both a pandemic and an economic depression when Trump took them up on their invitation, treating an emerging global crisis as, once again, fodder for self-promotion, falsehoods, and patronage.
It is absolutely clear that Trump, Mike Pence, and the rest of the White House knew in January that a deadly pandemic was coming, and that the Trump administration united to allow Trump to sabotage federal response efforts. It is absolutely unforgivable.