On January 30th, during an event in Michigan, President Trump wanted his supporters to know that they had nothing to worry about when it came to the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in China and was fast spreading across the planet. “Hopefully it won’t be as bad as some people think it could be,” Trump said. “But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. That I can assure you.”
At the time Trump said those words, one of his own top advisers was issuing dire warnings about the potentially catastrophic impacts of a coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.
According to reporting in Axios and the New York Times, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro circulated a memo dated January 29th — the day before Trump downplayed the virus in Michigan — warning administration officials that a coronavirus pandemic that could wipe out hundreds of thousands of jobs, erase trillions of dollars in economic activity, and sicken if not kill millions of people. He also argued for “an immediate travel ban on China.”
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” Navarro wrote in his January 29th memo. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”
Navarro’s memo is one of the highest-level warnings known to come from inside the Trump White House. The Times reported that Navarro’s memo was sent to the National Security Council and circulated among several of the White House’s most senior staffers, including then-acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Navarro’s memo factored in different degrees of severity for a potential coronavirus outbreak, but urged fellow White House staffers to not overlook the possibility of a “worst-case scenario” that would decimate the U.S. economy.
If Trump read Navarro’s warnings, he did not take them seriously. For the next month Trump said in interviews and public statements that his administration had the coronavirus situation “very much under control”; that he believed the number of infections “are going to get progressively better as we go along”; and that the new coronavirus — later named COVID-19 — was “going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
On February 23, Axios reported, Navarro wrote a second memo that was even more urgent in its tone. He wrote that there was an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1.2 million souls.” He urged the White House Coronavirus Task Force to negotiate a relief package for Americans who would get sick or lose their jobs and businesses in a pandemic.
“Any member of the Task Force who wants to be cautious about appropriating funds for a crisis that could inflict trillions of dollars in economic damage and take millions of lives has come to the wrong administration,” the memo said.