The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More damning revelations about Trump. Yet another bogus defense.

President Trump at the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

CNN scoops:

Two top administration officials last year listed the threat of a pandemic as an issue that greatly worried them, undercutting President Donald Trump's repeated claims that the coronavirus pandemic was an unforeseen problem.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Tim Morrison, then a special assistant to the President and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense on the National Security Council, made the comments at the BioDefense Summit in April 2019.
“Of course, the thing that people ask: ‘What keeps you most up at night in the biodefense world?’ Pandemic flu, of course. I think everyone in this room probably shares that concern,” Azar said, before listing off efforts to mitigate the impact of flu outbreaks.

This is an important revelation, though it confirms what we already know — that many officials inside the administration knew that pandemics posed a dire threat.

We’ve already learned that a 2019 report from White House economists warned that our preparedness for pandemics was dangerously inadequate given the scale of the damage they can do. And we know officials from the previous administration warned incoming Trump officials of various pandemic scenarios.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Yet there’s something uniquely ugly about how the White House is trying to spin away this new revelation. Because we’re likely to hear more of this, it’s worth engaging. Here’s what they’re saying:

“It is not inconsistent to acknowledge the threat posed by pandemics and posture the government to respond, and also acknowledge that this is a new or never seen before virus that came out of nowhere and was initially covered up by the Chinese Communist Party,” a senior administration official told CNN.

That’s narrowly true — those two things are not necessarily inconsistent on their faces. But as a defense, this is still preposterously dishonest.

The Fox News personality's coverage has been so irresponsible that he should be off the air, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

The implication here is that the Trump administration did not react effectively enough both because this particular pandemic could not be anticipated and because China’s coverup somehow held them back from mounting an effective response.

But this is absurd. First, the fact that this pandemic is so destructive is not exonerating, since the whole point of these new revelations is that they show officials fully understood that a pandemic was a real possibility and that if one hit, it would be really terrible. It kept Azar up at night more than anything else did. So officials actually did warn of the very thing that is now being held up as the excuse for not heeding those warnings.

Second, the basic timeline blows up the spin that China’s coverup is somehow to blame.

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It’s true that Beijing tried to get away with a coverup in the early days. But this isn’t exonerating, either. Intelligence officials were reportedly tracking coronavirus, and sounding internal warnings about it, throughout the month of January, and around the time of the first confirmed case in the United States.

Azar himself has testified that officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first learned of coronavirus directly from Chinese officials on Jan. 3.

Indeed, CNN’s revelations about Azar’s early concerns are particularly interesting — and damning — in light of other aspects of the timeline. As Politico reports, as early as mid-January, the HHS secretary urgently tried to warn Trump to take the coronavirus extremely seriously, but Trump’s aides “mocked and belittled Azar as alarmist.”

This shouldn’t need saying, but given that officials inside Trump’s own administration were sounding the alarm and understood the dire nature of the threat, the China excuse is absurd.

What’s more, the vast bulk of the catastrophic failures on the administration’s part, the ones that could have vastly mitigated the situation once it was upon us, occurred after the administration fully understood what was happening.

Trump regularly downplayed the threat for weeks and weeks as confirmed cases and deaths mounted. Some of this was because Trump feared rattling the markets — and harming his reelection chances.

Then came the massive failure to ramp up testing, which allowed the virus to rage out of control, and the failure to deploy federal power to secure needed lifesaving equipment in time to be prepared when cases swamped hospitals. All of that took place long after everyone knew what was happening.

Let’s make this simple. We know how to fight pandemics, having done it before. Many officials inside the government fully understood that a pandemic could come along, and that when it did, it would pose a dire threat. Many officials knew (and know) how to spot threats early. In fact, in this case, that actually happened.

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What did not happen in spite of all these existing resources concerns the president of the United States. He did not take the general threat of pandemics seriously. He did not listen or act when officials actually spotted one. And he failed to listen for weeks as his own officials and many outside efforts screamed at him to treat it with urgency.

We don’t have to over-complicate this. That’s what happened. We’re now dealing with the consequences. They will get worse.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The nation’s heroic hospital workers deserve thanks — and equipment

Joseph G. Allen: You need to wear a mask. Here’s how.

Colbert I. King: Wondering what’s behind Trump’s improved poll numbers? His attacks on the press.

David Von Drehle: Whatever happened to the CDC?

Max Boot: The only official fired over the virus? A captain who tried to protect his crew.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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