NSC Sounded Coronavirus Alarm But Was Ignored
Political considerations overruled warnings from national security and health professionals.
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.