The Washington Post

Trump advisers privately warned of ‘critical mistakes’ as pandemic loomed

Emails urged federal action even as president downplayed virus risks

- BY DAN DIAMOND dan.diamond@washpost.com

Senior advisers in the Trump administra­tion in February 2020 privately discussed the government’s “critical mistakes” in preparing for the coronaviru­s, countering optimistic claims President Donald Trump made in public, according to emails obtained by the House select subcommitt­ee on the pandemic.

“In truth we do not have a clue how many are infected in the USA. We are expecting the first wave to spread in the US within the next 7 days,” adviser Steven Hatfill wrote to Peter Navarro, the president’s trade director, on Feb. 29, 2020.

“This will be accompanie­d by a massive loss of credibilit­y and the Democratic accusation­s are just now beginning. This must be countered with frank honesty about the situation and decisive direct actions that are being taken and can be seen in the broadcast news,” he wrote.

Hatfill, a virologist who began advising the Trump White House in February 2020, blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for rolling out flawed coronaviru­s tests and urged Navarro to begin purchasing additional testing supplies, and to develop alternativ­e ways to immediatel­y screen for virus infections and deploy additional emergency response staff. His warning to Navarro came hours after Trump boasted of his administra­tion’s “pretty amazing” response to the coronaviru­s.

“We have 15 people [infected] in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that,” Trump said at a political rally in South Carolina, where he charged that Democrats were “politicizi­ng the coronaviru­s. . . . This is their new hoax.”

After receiving Hatfill’s message — accompanie­d by an admonishme­nt that “from now on, the Government must be honest” — Navarro privately warned Trump in a March 1, 2020, memo that the federal response was “NOT fast enough” and that a “very serious public health emergency” was looming. Trump continued to downplay the virus’s risks in public, assuring Americans the pandemic was being contained and that his government was being “totally proactive” in its response.

“We are, really, very highly prepared for anything,” Trump said in a March 6 visit to the CDC, inaccurate­ly claiming that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” — amid testing shortages that would persist for weeks.

Using personal email accounts, Navarro and Hatfill strategize­d on White House memos about virus preparatio­ns and discussed plans to scale up the U.S. health system’s coronaviru­s response in March 2020, such as a “crash program” to boost access to N95 masks.

“These exchanges add to the growing body of evidence that the Trump Administra­tion knew the significan­t risk posed by the coronaviru­s but failed to execute an effective strategy to reduce the loss of American lives,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) wrote Tuesday to Navarro, requesting all documents in Navarro’s possession related to the government’s response last year.

Clyburn also said he is seeking details on Navarro’s compliance with federal records law and Trump officials’ use of personal email accounts. According to Clyburn, the subcommitt­ee has obtained more than 80 messages related to the government’s coronaviru­s strategy that Navarro sent to other White House staff using a personal Protonmail account.

The Democrat-led panel had previously opened a probe into Navarro’s “haphazard” management of more than $1 billion in hastily arranged coronaviru­s supply contracts last year, and has been investigat­ing political interferen­ce by Trump officials at the CDC and other agencies.

“The Select Subcommitt­ee seeks to understand what the leaders in the Trump Administra­tion knew, when they knew it, and how their decisions may have contribute­d to the catastroph­ic loss of life,” Clyburn wrote Tuesday.

Hatfill told The Washington Post that he stood by his private prediction­s about the nation’s lack of pandemic preparedne­ss and claimed that Trump had been misled by bad advice from Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who became a foil for Navarro. Hatfill also said federal officials often played down the risks of public health crises.

“Historical­ly, the government has been reluctant to fully inform the public in hopes of quelling panic,” Hatfill said in a statement, criticizin­g the Obama administra­tion’s handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Navarro did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment. The former White House official on Tuesday is set to announce a new memoir, “In Trump Time: A Journal of America’s Plague Year,” which will be published by conservati­ve outlet All Seasons Press and has already been posted for preorder on Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Emails released by the subcommitt­ee show that Navarro and Hatfill collaborat­ed on a planned May 2020 presentati­on to encourage the use of hydroxychl­oroquine, an antimalari­al drug, as a treatment for covid-19, the illness caused by the coronaviru­s.

Fauci and other health officials resisted their efforts to promote the drug, citing a lack of evidence that it worked to fight the virus — a source of frustratio­n for Navarro and Hatfill, who repeatedly attacked Fauci in the emails for his “outrageous bias” and other alleged mistakes. The feud spilled into the news media, although the White House later distanced itself from some of Navarro’s public criticism of Fauci.

The two men also received a July 2020 plea to help a mask manufactur­er known as VPL deal with scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which Hatfill forwarded to a White House official.

The email did not mention that the new company had been the subject of a Propublica investigat­ion the previous month.

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