In October 2014, with the threat of Ebola looming, President Obama put Ron Klain in charge of coordinating the administration’s response. A longtime Democratic operator before he became the “Ebola czar,” Klain had previously served as the chief of staff to vice-presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden and was Gore’s lead lawyer during the 2000 election recount. (He’s kept it up since then: a debate prep expert, he advised Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he’s now doing the same for Biden’s presidential campaign.) Klain spent nearly five months overseeing the government’s deployment of resources to West Africa, its domestic and international preparations, and its response to cases and scares within the United States. Now he’s watching the Trump administration’s response (and lack thereof) to the coronavirus from the sidelines. I called him on Tuesday to hear his thoughts on what’s happened so far, what comes next, and what he’d still like to see.
Do you see parallels here to Ebola?
There are similarities, and there are differences. The differences are obvious: Our main challenge with Ebola was fighting it overseas in poor countries in West Africa and trying to contain it there and avoid its introduction to the United States. And then here at home, we did have a focus on finding out who was coming from West Africa, treating the occasional case of Ebola we had here, and getting the homeland ready for the risk of that future epidemic. Here, any effort to contain this overseas has already failed; we’re dealing with it as a domestic problem principally. So far, where it’s raging overseas it’s in countries that can manage their own health-care problems. With Ebola, we sent 10,000 people to West Africa to fight the disease; we’re not going to send 10,000 people to Italy or China to fight the disease. So it’s mostly a domestic issue. Where it’s the same is, at the end of the day, the key challenge is mustering all of government effectively, efficiently, and quickly to fight this disease. And that’s what we did in 2014, and that’s exactly why there are some problems in 2020.
So what worries you most when you look at the current administration’s handling of this?
I think there are problems of competence, and there are problems of confidence. On the competence side, this testing fiasco is a fiasco of the first order. Any hope we had of isolating the disease — preventing its widespread transmission in the U.S. — rested on quickly testing people to identify where the disease is and who has it. And the administration made much of their policy of excluding some travelers from China, and whatever you think of that policy, it was always doomed to fail eventually. It bought time, not protection. And then they didn’t use the time that it bought to get this testing thing sorted out. So when you wake up in the morning and you see that 150,000 people have been tested in South Korea and fewer than probably 4- or 5,000 were tested here, that’s a failure of execution. There’s no technology or special skills they have in South Korea we don’t have in the United States. And so that’s a giant failure. And the second thing I’m most concerned about is: Where are we on building the surge capacity we need — in what will ultimately probably be a handful of cities that will need emergency additional hospital beds, emergency additional treatment capacity, to prevent their health-care system from being overwhelmed by this disease, and having consequences for people who will never get coronavirus? Because if you look at epidemics, what happens is, yes, some people die from the disease. But when they get bad, what happens is, people die from many other things, because the health-care system stops being responsive, doctors and nurses are sick, hospitals are filled, and lots of other things kill people, too. So with the time we had, we should have been in a place where there were readily deployable medical facilities that we could drop down into cities to deal with this capacity problem. Those are the two things I’m most worried about on the competence side.
On the confidence side, the communication from the president — and to a lesser extent the vice-president, but mostly from the president — has been horrible. False assurances: 15 days ago, he said we only have 15 cases in America and they’re all going down. Everything the president’s said has been wrong, and that has two real-world consequences, aside from our standard, Oh, Trump lies. One is that’s helped to create this economic panic. Markets and economies react to confidence and the lack thereof and the fact that it seems like our president doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I think it also has an impact on the first set of problems I mentioned. Because on the best days, you want the federal government to respond quickly, forcefully. The president has to be saying: This is a big problem, and I want people to attack this big problem, and really put the pressure on to attack the problem. What the president has said, in February and March, is, This is not a problem. His chief of staff called it a hoax. That has the opposite effect on the bureaucracy, the people who are working to fix the tests and to fix the hospitals, they’re hearing from the leader, I don’t want to hear about bad news, don’t bring me problems. This is all going to go away. So the communication has a concrete impact, it’s not just we don’t like hearing it.
Then what’s your diagnosis for why the U.S. appears to be so ill-prepared and uncoordinated in its response, even compared with a country like Italy — which is really saying something?
Let’s look at what happened before this all happened, and then what’s happened since. Not to relitigate the past, but in 2018 President Trump abolished the White House office on pandemic preparedness, so there was a whole bunch of people who were supposed to be getting ready for this event, and we got rid of them. That didn’t help. The president has cut the Centers for Disease Control, the people who were supposed to find these diseases around the world. He cut three-quarters of those offices. So we were less prepared to deal with this the day it arrived than we were three years earlier. We un-prepared for the preceding three years. Since it broke out, instead of going and attacking these problems, the president has tried to deny these problems, to say, No big deal, nothing to see here, so on and so forth. We know that officials have said internally that this is a serious thing, we need to really step up. They were either swept to the side or deliberately silenced, and that unquestionably has an effect on the intensity and pace of the response.
So if Trump had called you when reports of the disease first came out of Wuhan late last year, what would you have advised him to do?
A couple things. Once it became clear how bad this was in China, in late December you had to know it was coming here. It’s just, that’s a fact. So you would need to do a couple of things. One, even if he had previously abolished the White House office of pandemic preparedness, he should have then put someone in charge in the White House. That’s the first thing. So we had no one in charge in the White House until essentially last week, when he put Pence in charge. So that’s a lot of lost time in January and February, early March. Second thing is, he should have really upped the pressure on China at the highest levels to get U.S. experts on the ground in China, to get a really accurate read on what’s happening and what we know. So he finally did call President Xi several weeks into this thing, but you remember the very first White House briefing on this thing, when Azar chaired the task force, he said, basically, We’re trying to get into China, we called their health minister, they said no, blah. As opposed to, you know, this is a White House problem. The president of the United States calls the president of China and says we’ve got to know what’s going on there. That was the second lost opportunity in January. And then, you know, some of this is basic blocking and tackling and good government. Which is, someone running a task force at the White House should have made a list of what the urgent priorities are, like testing, like capacity, and started to execute against that list, early. And, if anything, over-prepared. Like, if we had ordered the capacity to test 30 million people in January and we didn’t need it, that’s just life. Instead, we’re waiting until we know we need it, and that’s just too late.
We’re clearly now at a point where a lot of faith is being lost in the government, in these public institutions — do you worry about whether it can be regained at this point?
The facts speak for themselves. I remember when Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola in New York five years ago. And there was speculation about how dangerous it would be, and I remember saying that night that our Ebola response was going to be tested in real time — that either we would successfully treat Craig Spencer and no one else would get it, and then our subsequent statements would be validated, or we unsuccessfully treat Craig Spencer, the disease spreads in New York, and our statements wouldn’t matter. And I think the challenge here is this isn’t something that the president can just tweet away. Either the number of cases go up or they go down, our hospitals are capable of doing it or they’re not. People are seeing this on the ground in their communities right now, their local news is telling them every day: Ten new cases, 20 new cases. This person couldn’t be tested, blah, blah, blah. That’s a reality, and people will judge the reality for themselves. The president can try to tell his supporters it’s a hoax, or whatever, but the reality is going to speak volumes here.
So do you think it’s too late for the government to get control of the spread of this here?
It depends what we mean by “control.” I think we can certainly slow the spread and perhaps — perhaps — protect some areas, perhaps not; ultimately it might get everywhere. But slowing the spread is vital because what you can’t have is a sudden surge of cases that overwhelms the health-care system. So by using testing, by isolating people who have it and treating them and not letting it spread and not letting it get into the hospitals and not letting doctors and nurses get sick, we can slow the pace with which this is being transmitted and then smooth out the curve so no particular city or hospital or health-care system is overwhelmed at any given moment.
So is it still possible to do that kind of mass mobilization without causing panic in the streets, or at least reaching a new level of public concern?
It’s the absence of this that’s causing panic. We as human beings, and as Americans, if you tell us, Here are the five things you need to do, we tell them clearly, we have an action plan, we have the resources against it, we can face some challenges. And I think what’s really lacking is that we don’t really have a plan, and we’re not executing a plan. And I think that’s what creates anxiety. The more the president has told us, Don’t worry about it, it’s all going to go away, it’s going to disappear, a miracle, you know, the more people say, I don’t see a miracle. So with clear communications, clear strategy, people seeing resources deployed against it, things would calm down.
How should Democrats talk about this? Obviously they don’t want to politicize it …
I don’t think it should be politicized, I don’t think it’s a political issue. But I think it’s not politics to point out what’s gone wrong with the response and demand that it be changed. And to say that this testing fiasco is a fiasco and the administration needs to fix it? I don’t think that’s political; that’s just demanding action. And I hope everyone, on both sides — I hope Republicans say it, too — will say, Look, here’s what’s gone wrong, here’s what we need to do, and let’s go do it. I mean, let’s give Congress some credit here — a sentence not heard very often. While I thought the administration took too long to put together the emergency spending package and then put together a package that wasn’t up to the challenge, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, in literally a matter of days, gave the administration $8 billion to fight this virus. In the category, Can Congress get some things done? This is: Yes. They did.
This interview has been edited and condensed.