Timeline considerations are paramount in any examination of coronavirus accountability. On this front, The Post’s story yields this key morsel:
The warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies increased in volume toward the end of January and into early February, said officials familiar with the reports. By then, a majority of the intelligence reporting included in daily briefing papers and digests from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA was about covid-19, said officials who have read the reports.
Bolding added to note a convergence of sorts: Warnings from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other media sources also increase toward the end of January and into early February. On Jan. 23, for instance, Carlson informed his audience, “A mysterious virus spreading in China has gotten hundreds of people sick. At the top of the hour, the death count has doubled to nearly 25 so far that we know of. Now, the virus is spreading to this country and fast. The strain of coronavirus is believed to have jumped from bats and snakes — which are commonly eaten in this part of China — to people."
He kept at it. On Jan. 27, Trump could have tuned in to hear Carlson ringing the alarm again: "Well, the coronavirus, which has incubated in China for some unknown period of time and now has escaped China, is getting worse by the day.”
Carlson pounded the story over and over again:
Jan. 31: “This is a Fox News Alert. The Trump administration has announced new travel restrictions meant to slow the spread of China’s deadly coronavirus. ... Coronavirus, in other words is not a small thing. It’s a big deal. Thousands of lives are at stake, maybe more.”
Feb. 4: Carlson says, “The coronavirus has actually received relatively little attention in the press relative to what a big deal it is right now in Asia and could be here. But my sense is a lot of people are growing concerned about it.”
Feb. 5: Carlson says, “In the rest of the world, the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down in China. More cases continue to pop up here in the United States as well.”
Feb. 10: Carlson says, "The coronavirus claimed another — at least another 108 lives in China today — remember, those are the official numbers, not reliable. The disease’s death toll is now greater than 1,000 worldwide. It’s safe to say the disease is not under control, anything but, and as it spreads it’ll affect far more people than just those who are infected.”
And so on. Carlson’s work is noteworthy because it contrasted so sharply with the propaganda of his Fox News prime-time partner Sean Hannity, who will forever be known as the guy whose political affections for Trump overrode his obligations to report the truth about an emerging public-health crisis. On Feb. 27, Hannity opened his show with these words: “Tonight, I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent, and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours, and it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think. They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump.”
By no means was Carlson the only person in U.S. media staying abreast of the coronavirus’s alarming spread. Take CNN, an organization with 36 editorial operations worldwide and 3,000 employees. Coverage of the coronavirus surfaced as early as Jan. 6 on the network’s website. By mid-January, the focus had expanded to other CNN platforms. Even during the impeachment proceedings, CNN was running regular segments on the encroaching medical threat.
The New York Times on Jan. 10 noted that Chinese officials had reported the first death from the coronavirus, and the paper’s coverage ramped up from there. The Post followed a similar trajectory, with stories starting in early January. On Jan. 20, correspondent Anna Fifield reported that China’s Spring Festival, the “biggest human migration on the planet,” was facing a fresh challenge: “the spread of a mysterious, pneumonia-like virus that has killed four people. Experts initially thought that the virus, which began in an animal market, could not be spread between people but have now confirmed is being transmitted between humans.”
Here’s one thing that unifies CNN, The Post and the New York Times: On one occasion or another, Trump has boasted that he ignores these outlets. “It amazes me when I read the New York Times. It’s not even — I don’t — I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with the Washington Post,” said Trump in a briefing Thursday.
Whatever his sources, Trump did impose travel restrictions on China on Jan. 31, a step for which he has gotten credit from experts. Yet the Trump administration was caught flat-footed on testing, a key element in a country’s response to a pandemic. The president himself compounded poor preparation with ill-considered remarks as he stressed to Americans that things were under control. “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” Trump said on Feb. 10.
The Post story on Trump’s intel briefings suggests he may have accorded certain sources excessive deference:
Trump’s insistence on the contrary seemed to rest in his relationship with China’s President Xi Jingping, whom Trump believed was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China, despite reports from intelligence agencies that Chinese officials were not being candid about the true scale of the crisis.
Another point about those briefings: They derived to a great degree from information supplied by the media. Again, from The Post’s story:
As the disease spread beyond China, U.S. spy agencies tracked outbreaks in Iran, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, the officials familiar with those reports said. The majority of the information came from public sources, including news reports and official statements, but a significant portion also came from classified intelligence sources. As new cases popped up, the volume of reporting spiked.
Well, there you have it: The U.S. intelligence community — an institution whose credibility Trump has attacked — was formulating its coronavirus assessments with input from the media — an institution whose credibility Trump has attacked. No wonder Trump wasn’t listening: He was hearing the same message from two institutions that he had tuned out long ago.