What did the president know about the coronavirus, and when did he know it? What did members of Congress know, and when did they know it?
According to a Post report, quite possibly a lot, and for quite a while: Intelligence agencies “were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat.”
These intelligence assessments about the global danger posed by the virus made the rounds in the executive and legislative branches, sources told The Post, but the American people weren’t told about them. Now Americans should know precisely what their government knew about an impending crisis that would jeopardize their livelihoods and lives.
These reports should be declassified, to the maximum extent feasible, and released as soon as possible, along with the identities of senior administration officials and members of Congress who learned of it. That’s especially true given how Trump repeatedly told the public that the impact of the virus on the United States would be minimal.
A small sampling. Jan. 22: “We have it totally under control.” Feb. 2: “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Feb. 10: “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” Feb. 24: “The Coronavirus very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” Feb. 26: “The risk to the American people remains very low.” At the same time, The Post reported, “Trump’s advisers struggled to get him to take the virus seriously,” despite telling him that “the virus was likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.”
The Post also reported that U.S. intelligence agencies “warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak,” with Trump being “told … that Beijing was not providing accurate numbers of people who were infected or who had died.” Yet Trump repeatedly praised China, and he even tweeted praise for its “transparency” on Jan. 24: “China has been working very hard … In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
The intelligence reports raise questions about Congress as well. Every January or February for more than a decade, the House and Senate intelligence committees have held an unclassified public hearing on worldwide threats. The chiefs of the major intelligence agencies and the director of national intelligence appear under oath, and it’s one of the only opportunities for the public to hear from them directly. Accompanying that hearing comes a comprehensive, unclassified report on the most pressing national security threats facing the nation.
This year the briefing was not held, and now it likely never will be due to coronavirus. It was reportedly delayed last month because officials feared their assessments might anger the president. It turns out, though, that some private congressional briefings still took place containing dire warnings about the coronavirus. Not only did members not publicly pass on those warnings to their constituents, but at least two senators, including the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, profited by selling stock in advance of the market chaos that was to come.
In light of all this, the astounding dichotomy between public optimism and concealed concern, both political branches of the government must level with the American people.
No doubt Trump will claim the reports and briefings are classified. But it’s quite likely that much of the intelligence regarding coronavirus relied heavily on open-source information, which of course doesn’t need to be kept under wraps. To be sure, some sources and methods will need to be protected — such as, perhaps, the basis for assessments of Xi — but anything that could jeopardize that could easily be removed.
Once that’s done, little else should stand in the way. After all, this isn’t information about military or diplomatic matters that could undermine national security, and classification isn’t meant to protect the president from the revelation of information whose only sensitivity is potential embarrassment.
Declassification of the coronavirus reports and briefings could occur quickly, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t. Congressional intelligence committees can make immediate requests for the assessments and reports, and they can seek declassification for public release directly from the agencies that produced the information. While decisions regarding classification can, when difficult, percolate up to the director of national intelligence, or even the president, they don’t have to; agency heads have sufficient discretion of their own.
But here, if handled in good faith, classification issues shouldn’t prevent public disclosure. It’s not the details of how the agencies collected the information but rather their assessment that the American people need to know. For what truly matters is who knew what, and when — and what actions they took to protect the public in response.
And there’s no legitimate reason to keep that a secret.