Every day seems to bring another round of the great national question: “How is it possible that Donald Trump missed so many chances to stop this?” In fact, Trump so consistently veered in the pro-death direction that it’s hard to believe he’s not #TeamCovid.
But because that evidence is piling up, and going past, with such regularity, here’s a quick catalog of some of Trump’s biggest screw ups and moments when he so tortured competence that everyone screamed. The nation is lurching to the end of a week from hell, and it’s headed toward months in hell’s subbasement. It only seems right to make another review of exactly who put us here.
PREDICT was a global program bringing together American scientists and foreign scientists in an effort to spot new threats in viruses making the leap between animals and people. Among the labs that were part of the PREDICT network was one in Wuhan, China that was looking specifically at SARS-related coronaviruses as a potential source of a pandemic. Both SARS and MERS had demonstrated the potential threat behind these viruses, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine a virus that was a little less deadly, and a little more contagious, turning into a massive global threat.
That program had identified over 150 such viruses, and that lab in Wuhan was the first to identify the virus behind COVID-19. But two months before that moment, Trump chopped the funding and dropped U.S. involvement, despite being repeatedly warned about the value of the program—an action that blinded the nation, just at the critical moment.
Throughout January, as the 2019 novel coronavirus exploded in China and experts in the United States and around the world warned that the threat of pandemic was becoming all but certain, various agencies took a swing at trying to explain to Trump just what that would mean. Among them was the Army, who on Feb. 3 assembled a presentation showing that COVID-19 was potentially a massive “black swan” event that would completely disrupt the U.S. economy and result in over a 100,000 deaths. Even though many aspects of that Army analysis have turned out to be optimistic, the impact projected made COVID-19 the biggest threat the nation has faced since the Cold War. It didn’t matter … because Trump completely ignored it.
Trump dismissed a CDC report showing America unprepared for the next pandemic
In 2018 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commemorated the 1918-1919 flu pandemic by conducting a review of America’s current standing. The outcome of the seminar that capped that review: A talk co-hosted by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warning that the U.S. was completely unprepared to face a repeat visit from a pandemic respiratory disease. Warnings indicated that the health care system would be overrun, that the supply chains—both for medical products and consumer products—would be strained, and that deaths could actually exceed what was seen a century earlier. Similarly blunt assessments got Messonnier sidelined from handling the novel coronavirus response and kept her off the coronavirus response team … even though she is the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Messonnier’s co-host for that event? Dr. Luciana Borio, who was a part of the National Security Council pandemic response team that … well …
After 9/11, it seemed only reasonable that the National Security Council (NSC) expand to look at a broader range of threats. That included threats such as biological weapons and pandemics. But Donald Trump, and his then National Security Advisor John Bolton, weren’t interested in dealing with novel threats. They were concentrated on the old-fashioned “who can we blow up today?” sort of option. So the entire global health security team was disbanded in May 2018. That included firing Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, an expert in dealing with both disasters and organizing a response to epidemics. However, before they were all gone, the pandemic response team produced a playbook on how to handle these emerging threats. And that playbook … well …
Psych. In 2017, Trump announced that it was “about time” that the nation have a coordinated plan for dealing with biological attacks—at about the same time Trump’s team was warning against the threat of disease spread by “Central American caravans” and pondering if “prayer rugs” left on the border might be sprinkled with Ebola. However, this was a twofer screw you, America. Because not only did the U.S. already have a plan for both pandemics and biological attack, but the guy who was supposed to be heading this effort was, yup, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer. Who Trump then canned.
If there is anything that Trump hates more than competent experts, it’s competent experts who worked for Barack Obama, which is a large overlapping set since Obama didn’t share Trump’s fear of people who might know more about a specific topic than he does. So it didn’t help that the NSC’s pandemic team completed their pandemic playbook in 2016 and handed it to an incoming Trump. That book took everything that had been learned in dealing with H1N1 flu and with Ebola and distilled it down into rules that made it dead simple to understand the weak points in the system and determine appropriate first steps when dealing with a new disease. If anyone in the Trump team bothered to read it, they certainly didn’t use it—particularly the part that emphasized the importance of testing, testing, testing.
Maybe no one on Trump’s team read the pandemic playbook, but multiple members of the incoming White House staff were brought into a simulation of a pandemic as part of their training during the transition. That simulation explicitly dealt with a flu-like illness that emerged in Asia, spread around the world, and threatened the planet with the biggest pandemic since 1918. It warned that the United States could face “shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was 'paramount.'" But Trump’s team seemed as uninterested in this exercise as they were in every other thing that had to do with the real threats facing the nation.
Every year from 2005 to 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducted a review that included modeling the effect that a pandemic would have on critical infrastructure across the nation. After that many years of effort, the DHS simulation was robust, and modeled not just the spread of disease but the effects on transportation, the economy, and how America could shift its workforce into work-from-home situations. In fact, it anticipated an amazing number of the issues that have appeared during the current crisis … so it might have been a very good thing if Trump hadn’t killed the process as soon as he came into the White House, putting all the results three years out of date.
Trump blew off a warning from a simulation that came just last fall
Operation Crimson Contagion (CC) has to be right up there in terms of spy game coolness. But that didn’t seem to help anyone in the entire Trump White House either pay attention to the results or refer to the results of the pandemic simulation that happened just weeks before COVID-19 emerged. CC was actually a whole series of exercises that tested every aspect of the government’s response to the outbreak of a novel disease, and the end result was a report stamped “not to be disclosed.” Not shockingly, it’s been disclosed. And what’s inside is a report that says … Honestly, you can guess what it says. It says the federal response was nothing short of terrible. It says that different agencies weren’t clear on who was responsible for various aspects of the response. It said there was no clear federal guidance. It said that hospitals were short on ventilators, and protective gear, and overrun with cases. Without necessary federal coordination, states and localities were left on their own when it came to determining things like school closings and other restrictions. The whole thing was a fair description of chaos. Or an incredibly accurate simulation.
This doesn’t even start to look at the ways that Trump has screwed up the real thing since it started. This is just how many times someone tried to wave a flag in the face of his team and get them to pay attention to what they were repeatedly told was the greatest potential threat facing the nation. It’s an amazing catalog of not just failures, but deliberate failure and willful ignorance.