PerspectiveU.S. Intelligence Reports from January and February Warned about a Likely Pandemic

Published 25 March 2020

The U.S. intelligence community was issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Donald Trump and lawmakers who support him played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence community’s reporting. White House officials told Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey, and Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post that one of the main reasons for Trump’s false and misleading statements in January and February was the fact that he chose to believe China’s President Xi Jingping rather than the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of the coronavirus. During January and February, China was still adamantly denying that there was any epidemic spreading in China.

The U.S. intelligence community was issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Donald Trump and lawmakers who support him played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence community’s reporting.

Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey, and Ellen Nakashima write in the Washington Post that

The intelligence reports didn’t predict when the virus might land on U.S. shores or recommend particular steps that public health officials should take, issues outside the purview of the intelligence agencies. But they did track the spread of the virus in China, and later in other countries, and warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.

Taken together, the reports and warnings painted an early picture of a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic that could require governments to take swift actions to contain it. But despite that constant flow of reporting, Trump continued publicly and privately to play down the threat the virus posed to Americans. Lawmakers, too, did not grapple with the virus in earnest until this month, as officials scrambled to keep citizens in their homes and hospitals braced for a surge in patients suffering from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The Post writers quote multiple sources who say that Trump’s advisers struggled to get him to take the virus seriously, but to no avail.

Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, who was aware of the intelligence reports, could not get through to Trump until 18 January – but when he finally reached Trump by phone, the president changed the topic of the conversation vaping, and devoted the rest of the phone call to asking Azar about when flavored vaping products would be back on the market.

While the intelligence community’s warning about the pandemic were growing increasingly more dire, Trump continued to make public announcements which contradicted the views of the administration’s experts. “I think it’s going to work out fine,” Trump said on Feb. 19. “I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus.”

“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” Trump tweeted five days later. “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”

Officials who spoke with the Post said that the reason from Trump’s misleading public statements, and his refusal to push his administration’s agencies to take more decisive steps to prepare the United States for the pandemic, was his distrust of the U.S. intelligence community and his dismissal of expert opinion. Just as Trump chose to believe Vladimir Putin rather than the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – he chose to believe China’s President Xi Jingping rather than the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of the coronavirus.

Trump’s rejection of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions and recommendations

seemed to rest in his relationship with China’s President Xi Jingping, whom Trump believed was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China, despite reports from intelligence agencies that Chinese officials were not being candid about the true scale of the crisis.

Some of Trump’s advisers told him that Beijing was not providing accurate numbers of people who were infected or who had died, according to administration officials. Rather than press China to be more forthcoming, Trump publicly praised its response.