“So there’s never been anything like this in history. There’s never been,” he said. “And nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”
He added Wednesday: “Nobody ever saw numbers like this even with regard to testing.”
“I just think this is something … that you can never really think is going to happen,” he said March 6.
“It’s an unforeseen problem,” he added the same day. “What a problem. Came out of nowhere.”
Even as Trump offered his latest such comments Thursday, reporting was again fleshing out just how many warnings there were and how foreseen such a problem was.
On Thursday morning, news broke that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Feb. 27 privately offered a dire forecast for the coronavirus, saying, as first reported by NPR, “It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” and “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
This was a time, of course, when Trump was still downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus. The very same day as Burr’s briefing, Trump predicted the 15 cases the country was seeing at that point would soon be reduced to zero.
But it is not even just that other politicians saw a much more serious threat than Trump did at earlier stages of the coronavirus outbreak; it is also that during his presidency, officials have been raising red flags.
Moments before Thursday’s briefing began, the New York Times reported on warnings about just such a pandemic hitting the country. Perhaps most notably, it highlighted a previously undisclosed October internal administration report that laid out how underprepared and underfunded the effort would be to fight a virus for which there was no cure.
Politico has also reported that, in the days before Trump was inaugurated in 2017, his incoming team — including many who would become his Cabinet officials — were warned about a flu epidemic that “could become the worst influenza pandemic since 1918.”
In the months that followed, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) fought back against the administration’s proposed cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by casting a pandemic as a more imminent threat than terrorism.
“I promise you the president is much more likely in his term to have [to] deal with a pandemic than an act of terrorism,” Cole said. “I hope he doesn’t have to deal with either one, but you have to be ready to deal with both.”
There were similar warnings even shortly before Trump in 2018 disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic-response team and put it under the control of then-national security adviser John Bolton. The day before that happened, the director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the NSC marked the anniversary of the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 50 to 100 million people.
“The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern,” Luciana Borio told an audience at Emory University. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”
That 1918 date is key. There have been plenty of comparisons between the current coronavirus outbreak and the other 21st-century outbreaks. Trump has been particularly fond of comparing it to the far-less-deadly seasonal flu, though he seems to have now abandoned that, and of attacking the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu, which was even more significantly less deadly than coronavirus. Others have invoked the panics over Ebola, Zika and other outbreaks to suggest the current response is overzealous.
Trump now seems to acknowledge the current situation is more hazardous than all of them. But even if there is very little precedent for what we have seen, the fact is that there was precedent for a massive pandemic, as 1918 showed us. To say “nobody’s ever seen anything like this” would sure seem to be news to historians who studied that catastrophe, as well as things such as the Bubonic Plague, smallpox and cholera.
Trump’s efforts to cast the situation as unprecedented is part and parcel of many of his other attempts to skirt blame. He has increasingly accused China of failing to alert the world to the virus — which is entirely reasonable — and he has accused the Obama administration of leaving the government unprepared for such a situation.
Trump said last week “I don’t take any responsibility at all” for the testing failures on coronavirus, because of what he inherited and the scope of the problem. He was asked Monday whether the buck stops with him, and he said, “Yeah, normally. But I think when you hear the — you know, this has never been done before in this country.”
Trump’s shift in tone about the severity of the coronavirus is notable, but he is layering on top of that plenty of revisionist history about both his own past downplaying of the threat and about how foreseeable something like this could have been. It may be that no government can be 100 percent prepared for such a situation, but that does not mean it was as unthinkable as Trump has conveyed.