The next month, he told Axios that, “I like bullet [points] or I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page: That I can tell you.” Since then, reports from The Washington Post and others have detailed how infrequently Trump has engaged with these reports or even taken the briefings.
And now we’re discovering just how much this aversion to intelligence, expertise and detail might have cost us.
It has previously been reported that the intelligence briefings contained such warnings, but the degree to which they were conveyed and the frequency was not previously known. As Miller and Nakashima report, “U.S. officials said it reflected a level of attention comparable to periods when analysts have been tracking active terrorism threats, overseas conflicts or other rapidly developing security issues.”
They go on:
For weeks, the PDB — as the report is known — traced the virus’s spread around the globe, made clear that China was suppressing information about the contagion’s transmissibility and lethal toll, and raised the prospect of dire political and economic consequences.
The timeline here is key. Trump first weighed in on the threat of the coronavirus on Jan. 22, when he dismissed the possibility of it becoming a pandemic. He would eventually issue travel restrictions on China, where the virus is believed to have originated, on Jan. 31. But for a month and half after that, he would not take major action, even as those around him were becoming increasingly alarmed.
One key aspect of the briefings is that they didn’t just offer warnings, but that they also alleged a Chinese coverup. In fact, as Miller and Nakashima report, that allegation about China’s lack of transparency was included from the very first briefing at the beginning of January.
Despite that, Trump would spend weeks praising China’s response to the virus and insisting it had it under control. He even directly praised its “transparency” on Jan. 24 and flatly dismissed the idea that it was covering anything up on Feb. 7. That soft touch troubled U.S. officials at the time. According to the new Post report, he had been advised the opposite as much as a month earlier.
A second key point here is that the new revelation suggests Trump might not have been forthcoming about when he was receiving such dire warnings. Facing a bevy of revelations about unheeded, early warning signs, he said this month that he had first learned of the severity of the situation shortly before he issued the China travel restrictions on Jan. 31.
“When I learned about the gravity of it was sometime just before closing the country to China,” Trump said.
According to the new report, this information was made available to him several weeks earlier, yet he proceeded to vouch for China well into late February and to downplay the situation until midway through March.
Trump’s statement might have been strictly accurate. He may not have learned himself of the severity of the situation, because he didn’t actually take the briefings. (There is some reason to doubt that, given experts told The Post that such developments would likely have been summarized orally for Trump, at the very least.) But whether Trump actually consumed the information or not is kind of beside the point. The point was that the warnings were there, and he either didn’t bother to consume the information or was informed and proceeded to cast doubt on all of it.
This is something that has reportedly mattered. On Feb. 25, a top official in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nancy Messonnier, publicly warned that an outbreak was “inevitable” and that people needed to prepare for significant disruptions. Trump blew up at this and, according to reporting from the New York Times, that was enough to convince health officials not to recommend the more aggressive measures to combat the virus that they had decided were necessary at the time.
Trump and his defenders have shrugged off his weeks and weeks of downplaying the threat by arguing he was just being “optimistic.” The increasing number of warning signs we’re learning about from within the administration, though, and Trump’s repeated public statements contradicting that information suggest something more serious was playing out behind closed doors.