NSC Sounded Coronavirus Alarm But Was Ignored

Political considerations overruled warnings from national security and health professionals.

President Donald J. Trump is seen on a cellphone screen as he addresses his remarks at a White House Coronavirus Taskforce update briefing Monday, March 9, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
President Donald J. Trump is seen on a cellphone screen as he addresses his remarks at a White House Coronavirus Taskforce update briefing Monday, March 9, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

There has been a lot of finger-pointing at decisions to lower the visibility of pandemic response at the National Security Council. But the team nonetheless warned the White House very early to take urgent action.

Josh Rogin for WaPo (“The National Security Council sounded early alarms about the coronavirus“):

The NSC’s behind-the-scenes role has been overlooked by critics narrowly focused on whether the folding into the NSC of a previously separate “pandemic office” resulted in what’s seen as the administration’s chaotic response. But the NSC was actually calling for more robust action and working to get more health officials involved.

Throughout January and much of February, senior Trump administration officials heatedly debated the scope and scale of the coronavirus pandemic, which had emerged from China and was spreading around the world. New national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and his deputy, Matthew Pottinger, were among those pushing early for strong action. Pottinger, who lived in China as a Wall Street Journal reporter during the SARS crisis, had witnessed how the Chinese government deals with internal crises and knew they were underplaying the problem.

Before Vice President Pence took over the White House Coronavirus Task Force in late February, Pottinger led the interagency meetings to respond to covid-19. Fluent in Mandarin and intimately familiar with the Chinese government’s pattern of lying and obfuscation, he and O’Brien repeatedly pressed other top officials to take the threat more seriously.
“The guy who was co-chairing most of the task force meetings before the vice president took over, reported on and lived through the SARS breakout in China,” a senior administration official told me. “Pottinger maintains significant contacts in the region that have proved very useful in providing context and information for us as we have been dealing with the crisis.”

Some other top Trump administration officials at the time were not convinced. The NSC pushed hard to cut off travel from China, which was announced by the State Department on Jan. 31. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff at the time, said in late February the media was exaggerating the threat in an effort to bring down President Trump. (Mulvaney was pushed out in early March.)

Two officials told me that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also resisted calls from the NSC and the State Department for early moves that Trump now touts — including the travel bans from China and, later, Europe. Mnuchin argued the moves would negatively impact trade, markets and industries like airlines. (The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

“The NSC has been absolutely out front on this,” the senior administration official said. “The NSC was first to call for the cruise ship ban. The NSC experts were the first ones, with the health-care professionals, to call for the air travel cutoffs from China and Europe. This came from the NSC staff and leadership.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that this is simply old fashioned after-the-fact reputation management and score-settling. We don’t know who the officials talking to Rogin are or what their agenda might be.

And the fact that Pottinger just happened to speak Mandarin and have personal experience with how the PRC handled SARS—it’s inconceivable that he was chosen for the job for those qualities—doesn’t speak to a smooth staffing system so much as happenstance.

Still, the report is consistent with what we know about how the administration operates. The first consideration is always how this impacts Trump personally and politically. Wouldn’t want to impact his ratings. And the second concern is always economic.

It stands to reason that the NSC, even a depleted one, would be issuing urgent warnings throughout January. By that point, the Chinese government had stopped covering up the spread of the disease. While it hadn’t yet broken out in Italy, much less the United States, it was obviously coming.

Meanwhile, the President and most of his cabinet were still actively downplaying the threat of the disease and arguing it was a liberal plot to bring down the administration.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kari Q says:

    The first consideration is always how this impacts Trump personally and politically.

    In the short term. Apparently no one in the White House is capable of thinking past the day’s news cycle or is allowed to if they can. Anyone who was looking long-term would have known that ignoring this would be far worse for Trump politically and personally than any effort to contain it would be.

    8
  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Walls work!

    “The NSC has been absolutely out front on this,” the senior administration official said. “The NSC was first to call for the cruise ship ban. The NSC experts were the first ones, with the health-care professionals, to call for the air travel cutoffs from China and Europe. This came from the NSC staff and leadership.”

    Except for when they don’t. If this is the extent of recommended actions offered up by the NSC we still go back to the disbanding of the pandemic unit as a major mistake and contributing factor to the bungled response to this crisis and very much indicative of the general incompetence of the trump admin.

  3. SC_Birdflyte says:

    The reaction of the typical Trumpidian would be, “Meh.” If there’s one thing that seems to be consistent about Trump fanatics, it’s that they know little about what expertise in any field means, and they care even less. Just one example: a few days ago, the WSJ had an op-ed column commenting on the latest Covid-19 development, from a medical authority – a urologist.

    2
  4. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The travel cutoffs would have been hugely helpful if implemented early. By the time they were done, the horse was out of the barn.

    I don’t know what other steps they advocated, if any. It’s an 800-word column.

    1
  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    China initially reported the outbreak, and the US became aware of it, in December of 2019.
    The CDC issued its first warning on Jan 8.
    Trump held campaign rallies on Jan 9, Jan 14, Jan 28, Jan 30, Feb 10, Feb 19, Feb 20, Feb 21 & Feb 28.
    He played golf on Jan 18, Jan 19, Feb 1, Feb 15, Mar 7 & Mar 8.
    The first time he admitted the coronavirus might be a problem was Mar 13.

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  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:

    By the time they were done, the horse was out of the barn.

    This is exactly correct…and I guess that’s what is meant by “Stable Genius?”
    See what I did there…
    https://i1.wp.com/www.dailycartoonist.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Moran.png

    5
  7. Pylon says:
  8. Teve says:

    I envy people who speak Mandarin. I’m basically tone deaf and couldn’t learn Mandarin in a million years. I’m learning Italian right now, and that’s hard enough.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    The travel cutoffs would have been hugely helpful if implemented early.

    I would argue that with this admin they would have been less than useless. With a competent Admin those travel bans could have given us more time to prepare. With this Admin they would have said, “Problem solved!” After all, that’s what they have been saying all along.

    3
  10. SenyorDave says:

    The first consideration is always how this impacts Trump personally and politically. Wouldn’t want to impact his ratings. And the second concern is always economic.

    Everything you want in a president. He’s an ego-driven sack of crap whose inaction ultimately will cost tens of thousands of people their lives. And many more people will have their lives affected by lingering side effects from the illness, especially anyone who had respiratory issues prior to contacting the virus. Come late summer and fall the ads against Trump during the campaign need to very harsh, and stress the fact that he did nothing for two months after being briefed about the dangers, and his inaction had repercussions that included far greater spread of the virus than if he had responded the way a leader should have. Make it clear that the buck stops with him, and he has blood on his hands.
    I want to see the clip of him saying “I take no responsibility” over and over.

    6
  11. SenyorDave says:

    @Pylon: The funniest bit on Trump I’ve ever heard, not sure if it is possible to top.

  12. inhumans99 says:

    This observation should go in one of the open threads on this site but while President Trump continues to be behind the 8 ball and is still reacting to events instead of anticipating and trying to mitigate the damage of the Covid tsunami that is sweeping across the states his press conferences have straight up turned into re-elect Trump rallies…for Pete’s sake he had the My Pillow Guy step up to the mic yesterday to blow smoke up his rear, does anyone who considers themselves part of President Trump’s Base have any dignity or self-worth?

    I know the humorous answer is that folks will observe that I have to be asking a rhetorical question because the obvious answer is no, but I hope they start to acquire some self-worth.

    I hold out a sliver of hope that citizens in this country can be embarrassed by their President’s actions, or lack thereof during this crisis. But the My Pillow Guy presser tells me we are a long ways from that happening anytime soon.

    2
  13. Kathy says:

    It feels we’re living in a 70s disaster movie, where the lone expert keeps warning of impending disaster, and they’re ignored by people who care more about appearances and money.

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  14. Kingdaddy says:

    @Kathy: I have that thought every day. I keep waiting for a recording of someone saying, “We can’t tell the public the truth. Imagine the panic!”

    3
  15. Kari Q says:

    @Kathy:

    I keep thinking “They all want to be the mayor from Jaws.”

    4
  16. Scott F. says:

    @Kathy:
    If Irwin Allen would have pitched a film with a cast like Trump and his cabinet the movie never would have been made as such characters would have been seen as implausible.

    4
  17. R.Dave says:

    @James Joyner: The travel cutoffs would have been hugely helpful if implemented early. By the time they were done, the horse was out of the barn.

    From what I’ve read, there’s evidence that even early travel bans are only marginally helpful because they create counterproductive incentives for people to conceal their travel and health status to circumvent the ban rather than self-report and cooperate with monitoring. I think the jury is still very much out on that, though. Either way, I think it’s mostly a theoretical debate, because in practice, the economic and political toll of travel bans is so high that governments will almost always wait to implement them until it’s too late for them to do much good. I believe they still help on the margins, but I wouldn’t call them “hugely helpful”.

    2
  18. Kathy says:

    @Scott F.:

    Maybe as an “Airplane!” or “Naked Gun” type comedy. You know, where things are ridiculous past the point where they are preposterous

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: Have you seen “Zero Hour”? It’s the movie “Airplane!” borrowed the script from, and if you know your “Airplane!”, it will give you a type of humor you have never experienced.

    Over and over, it sets up jokes and then never delivers because it is oh so very serious.

    1
  20. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy:

    It feels we’re living in a 70s disaster movie, where the lone expert keeps warning of impending disaster, and they’re ignored by people who care more about appearances and money.

    Except with a lot more experts.

    1
  21. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I haven’t. But I kind of recall hearing something similar before.

    I’m sure I thought “Airplane!” was based off the “Airport” disaster movies.

  22. Kit says:

    @Gustopher:

    Over and over, it sets up jokes and then never delivers because it is oh so very serious.

    That reminds me of Leslie Nielsen’s role as the captain in The Poseidon Adventure. When he’s on screen, the build up to the punch line that never comes is unbearable!

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @SenyorDave:

    He’s an ego-driven sack of crap whose inaction ultimately will cost tens of thousands of people their lives.

    If it’s only tens of thousands, we’ll have had a narrow escape. He’s already killed tens of thousands; they just haven’t died yet. His Easter plan would have killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

    2
  24. charon says:
  25. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @charon:

    This is a guy with zero relevant qualifications.

    Republicans have people, with similar qualifications, working on Climate Science.

  26. al Ameda says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    China initially reported the outbreak, and the US became aware of it, in December of 2019.
    The CDC issued its first warning on Jan 8.
    Trump held campaign rallies on Jan 9, Jan 14, Jan 28, Jan 30, Feb 10, Feb 19, Feb 20, Feb 21 & Feb 28.
    He played golf on Jan 18, Jan 19, Feb 1, Feb 15, Mar 7 & Mar 8.
    The first time he admitted the coronavirus might be a problem was Mar 13.

    And now Mitch McConnell is putting out the message that Democratic Party efforts to impeach the president were the cause of the delayed federal and president’s response to the emerging virus situation.

    1
  27. DrDaveT says:

    @al Ameda:

    And now Mitch McConnell is putting out the message that Democratic Party efforts to impeach the president were the cause of the delayed federal and president’s response to the emerging virus situation.

    This really needs to be paraphrased as “Mitch McConnell asserts that Trump can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” by every Democrat who gets asked about it.

    1
  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Zero Hour is basically the first of the Airport-type movies from 1957. It’s the OG, if you will, of airplane disaster movies. ETA: The new idea, if you will, of Airplane was making a satire instead of a drama.

  29. Kari Q says:

    @al Ameda:

    And now Mitch McConnell is putting out the message that Democratic Party efforts to impeach the president were the cause of the delayed federal and president’s response to the emerging virus situation.

    And Trump is so incompetent that he doesn’t even realize McConnell is cover for him and denies it.

    @DrDaveT:

    This really needs to be paraphrased as “Mitch McConnell asserts that Trump can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” by every Democrat who gets asked about it.

    Exactly.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    And Trump is so incompetent that he doesn’t even realize McConnell is cover for him and denies it.

    Despite his many flaws, Joe Biden has to be able to beat this dumb ass…

  31. SR Nunn says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Total BS. Hear is the real COVIG-19 Timeline:

    – Jan 14, WHO declared no evidence of human-to-human transmission of virus.
    – Jan 21, Dr. Fauci makes this statement about the Coronavirus: ““This is not a major threat to the people of the United States and this is not something that the citizens of the United States should be worried about right now,”
    – Jan 23, At an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization, the WHO says that the Wuhan coronavirus does not yet constitute a public health emergency of international concern.
    – Jan 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom in Beijing. At the meeting, Xi and the WHO agree to send a team of international experts, including US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff, to China to investigate the coronavirus outbreak.
    – Jan 29, The White House announces the formation of a new task force that will help monitor and contain the spread of the virus.
    – Jan 31, Trump bans travel from Wuhan, press cites “experts” claiming it is counterproductive.
    – Feb 1, Florence holds “Hug a Chinese Person Day”.
    – Feb 4, President Trump dedicates part of State of the Union Address to the Coronavirus issue. Nancy Pelosi tears up her copy of this address on national television.
    – Feb 9, NYC holds Chinatown parade with assurances of no danger from the mayor
    – Feb 23, 1st evidence of community transfer within U.S.
    – Feb 24, Pelosi says to shop more: “‘Come to Chinatown … come join us”
    – Feb 25, Mardi Gras was held with few people sounding warnings
    – Feb 26, Pence takes over task force, daily briefings begin.
    – March 1, just 42 confirmed cases in U.S.
    – March 3, NYC mayor encourages New Yorkers to go to the movies.
    – March 5, NYC mayor rides the subway to assure people it is safe to do so.
    – March 11, WHO acknowledged a pandemic scale virus on March 11

  32. Matt says:

    @SR Nunn: You started off with a lie. The tweet on JAN 14th said

    Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China

    Note the WHO is only saying what China is telling them. The WHO was not making any sort of declaration as you claimed.

  33. Matt says:

    @SR Nunn: You then proceed to continue to outright lie or overly simplify the reality of the situation as your list goes on.

    For example here is what really happened on the 23rd of Jan

    https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/23-01-2020-statement-on-the-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

    It’s going to take way too many posts to cover the rest of your timeline but anyone else reading this can see for themselves if they want.