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Red Dawn

Published on May 13th, 2020

The NY Times had an incredible behind the scenes investigative article on how the Trump Administration responded to the coronavirus.

Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,” a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, wrote on Jan. 28, in an email to a group of public health experts scattered around the government and universities. “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

This was known six long weeks before Trump finally took action to confront the pandemic that will kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. Dr. Mecher was urging the upper ranks of the nation’s public health bureaucracy to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far more drastic action. Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.

“You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools,” he wrote to the group, which called itself “Red Dawn,” an inside joke based on the 1984 movie about a band of Americans trying to save the country after a foreign invasion. “Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities.”

Trump was slow to absorb the scale of the issues. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives.

  • The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports in early January predicting the spread of the virus to the United States, and within weeks was raising options like keeping Americans home from work and shutting down cities the size of Chicago. Mr. Trump would avoid such steps until March.

  • Trump was told at the time about a Jan. 29 memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, laying out in striking detail the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses. “We have it totally under control,” he told an interviewer a few days later while attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “It’s going to be just fine.”

  • The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president responded that Mr. Azar was being alarmist.

  • Mr. Azar publicly announced in February that the government was establishing a “surveillance” system in five American cities to measure the spread of the virus and enable experts to project the next hot spots. It was delayed for weeks. The slow start of that plan, on top of the well-documented failures to develop the nation’s testing capacity, left administration officials with almost no insight into how rapidly the virus was spreading. “We were flying the plane with no instruments,” one official said.

  • By the third week in February, the administration’s top public health experts concluded they should recommend to Mr. Trump a new approach that would include warning the American people of the risks and urging steps like social distancing and staying home from work. But the White House focused instead on messaging and crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded.

When Mr. Trump finally agreed in mid-March to recommend social distancing across the country, effectively bringing much of the economy to a halt, he seemed shellshocked and deflated to some of his closest associates. One described him as “subdued” and “baffled” by how the crisis had played out.

When Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, convened the White House coronavirus task force on Feb. 21, his agenda was urgent. It was becoming apparent that the administration had botched the rollout of testing to track the virus at home, and a smaller-scale surveillance program intended to piggyback on a federal flu tracking system had also been stillborn. There were deep cracks in the administration’s strategy for keeping the virus out of the United States. They were going to have to lock down the country to prevent it from spreading. The question was: When?

Trump was predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” His White House had yet to ask Congress for additional funding to prepare for the potential cost of wide-scale infection across the country, and health care providers were growing increasingly nervous about the availability of masks, ventilators and other equipment.

The White House Task Force concluded they would soon need to move toward aggressive social distancing, even at the risk of severe disruption to the nation’s economy and the daily lives of millions of Americans. Dr. Kadlec and the others decided to present Mr. Trump with a plan titled “Four Steps to Mitigation”.

A memo dated Feb. 14, prepared in coordination with the National Security Council and titled “U.S. Government Response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” documented what more drastic measures would look like, including: “significantly limiting public gatherings and cancellation of almost all sporting events, performances, and public and private meetings that cannot be convened by phone. Consider school closures. Widespread ‘stay at home’ directives from public and private organizations with nearly 100% telework for some.”

The memo did not advocate an immediate national shutdown, but said the targeted use of “quarantine and isolation measures” could be used to slow the spread in places where “sustained human-to-human transmission” is evident. The meeting that evening with Mr. Trump to advocate social distancing was canceled, replaced by a news conference in which the president announced that the White House response would be put under the command of Vice President Mike Pence. As February gave way to March, the president continued to be surrounded by divided factions even as it became clearer that avoiding more aggressive steps was not tenable.

The push to convince Mr. Trump of the need for more assertive action stalled. With Mr. Pence and his staff in charge, the focus was clear: no more alarmist messages. Statements and media appearances by health officials like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield would be coordinated through Mr. Pence’s office. It would be more than three weeks before Mr. Trump would announce serious social distancing efforts, a lost period during which the spread of the virus accelerated rapidly and thousands were exposed.

“Everybody questioned it for a while, not everybody, but a good portion questioned it,” Mr. Trump said earlier this month. “They said, let’s keep it open. Let’s ride it.”

Over nearly three weeks from Feb. 26 to March 16, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States grew from 15 to 4,226. Since then, nearly half a million Americans have tested positive for the virus and authorities say hundreds of thousands more are likely infected.

From the time the virus was first identified as a concern, the administration’s response was plagued by the rivalries and factionalism that routinely swirl around Mr. Trump and, along with the president’s impulsiveness, undercut decision making and policy development.
Faced with the relentless march of a deadly pathogen, the disagreements and a lack of long-term planning had significant consequences. They slowed the president’s response and resulted in problems with execution and planning, including delays in seeking money from Capitol Hill and a failure to begin broad surveillance testing.
On Monday, March 16, Mr. Trump announced new social distancing guidelines, saying they would be in place for two weeks. The subsequent economic disruptions were so severe that the president repeatedly suggested that he wanted to lift even those temporary restrictions. He frequently asked aides why his administration was still being blamed in news coverage for the widespread failures involving testing, insisting the responsibility had shifted to the states.
During the last week in March, Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser involved in task force meetings, gave voice to concerns other aides had. She warned Mr. Trump that his wished-for date of Easter to reopen the country likely couldn’t be accomplished. Among other things, she told him, he would end up being blamed by critics for every subsequent death caused by the virus.
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