We’re committed to keeping our readers informed.
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.
The president’s claim last month that he had an early awareness of the significance of the coronavirus could either go down as a lie or an indictment, depending on whether he chose not to pay attention or not to act on the information in front of him. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” Trump said on March 17. “All you had to do was look at other countries.”
But there’s a growing body of evidence asserting that the president ignored what was coming out of other countries: In late March, the Washington Post reported that intelligence officials had warned the White House of the threat of a pandemic in early January. And on April 8, ABC News reported that the White House was first made aware of the contagion even earlier, shortly after the community intelligence learned about the virus around Thanksgiving. And if there were concerns that the information wasn’t being relayed to Trump directly, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar personally informed the president in January, though he was dismissed as being too alarmist.
Now the Washington Post is reporting that U.S. intelligence agencies placed warnings in the president’s daily brief, the “sensitive report that is produced before dawn each day and designed to call the president’s attention to the most significant global developments and security threats.” Over a dozen times in February and early January, the paper informed the White House on the virus’s spread throughout Wuhan, the Chinese government’s attempts to downplay the severity of the crisis, and the potential for COVID-19 to impact the global economy. While it’s previously been reported that intelligence officials cautioned Trump on the coronavirus, the Post report reveals just how frequently Trump was presented with the information, which should have raised alarms: “U.S. officials said it reflected a level of attention comparable to periods when analysts have been tracking active terrorism threats, overseas conflicts or other rapidly developing security issues.”
There’s one glaring issue about the efficacy of including the coronavirus threat in the president’s daily brief: Trump is notorious for not reading them, preferring the publicly available, highly filtered information from his favorite television station over that from one of the most elaborate, expensive intelligence systems in the world. Even if Trump opted for the excuse that he didn’t know about the coronavirus threat because he didn’t read the briefings — which for commanding officers below the commander-in-chief would be considered a dereliction of duty — one official told the Post that in mid- to late January, his staff was informing him in person of the threat. The virus was also included in Trump’s “executive updates,” the White House term for the summary of the intelligence summary that is just short enough for the president to consider reading.
Trump’s preference for low-information intelligence briefings and his tendency to skip them reportedly hasn’t changed, despite the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Last week, the New York Times reported that the president is often a no-show for daily coronavirus task force meetings.