Pandemic Timeline

Pandemic Timeline: The Obama Blame Game

Obama’s team briefed Trump’s transition team on a simulation that anticipated the very type of outbreak now blanketing the earth, but Trump ignored its lessons. Trump inherited a White House pandemic response team, but he disbanded it.

The Obama Blame Game

Here are links to Part I,  Part II and Part IV of this series. An earlier background piece is here.


The Obama Blame Game

Trump claims that no one could have expected the COVID-19 outbreak and that President Obama is responsible for the “obsolete, broken system” of pandemic response — “the empty shelf” — that Trump inherited

Here are the facts that refute both lies simultaneously.

Were There Warnings About the Threat of a Global Pandemic?

Jan. 13, 2017: A week before the inauguration, at least 30 members of Trump’s transition team attend a briefing where top Obama administration officials describe an exercise simulating what could be the worst global flu pandemic since 1918. Obama’s homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and her incoming counterpart, Tom Bossert, lead the discussion.

In the simulation, the virus quickly overwhelms medical systems across parts of Asia. Experts anticipate that its arrival in the US will produce global shortages of key medical resources, including personal protective equipment for medical workers and ventilators.

Among the key lessons:

  • Bringing decision-makers to the table early is paramount — collective understanding of the science and the disease must drive response decisions
  • Transportation and containment issues are a key concern
  • A coordinated, unified national response and message is paramount
  • In a pandemic response scenario, days — and even hours — can matter

Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2017: Trump inherits the National Security Council’s global health security office — the pandemic response team — that Obama had created after the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.

July 20, 2017: Trump’s homeland security adviser at the time, Bossert, initiates the development of a comprehensive biodefense strategy to protect Americans in the event of a pandemic or biological attack. Former Navy Adm. Tim Ziemer becomes the senior director for the NSC’s pandemic response team.

Feb. 13, 2018: The US intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” warns, A novel strain of a virulent microbe that is easily transmissible between humans continues to be a major threat….” (Emphasis in original, p. 17)

How Did Trump Protect Americans From the Predicted Threat?

Apr. 10, 2018: Trump fires Bossert, who resigns at the request of incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton.

May 10, 2018: Trump dissolves the NSC’s pandemic response team and its director, Ziemer, leaves the administration. “The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security,” according to The Washington Post.

Jan. 29, 2019: The US Intelligence community annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” again warns that the US and the world are vulnerable to the next flu pandemic, which could lead to massive death rates. (p. 21)

July 2019: Trump administration eliminates the position held by an American epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency. Her job is to train “Chinese field epidemiologists who [are] deployed to the epicenters of outbreaks to help track, investigate, and contain diseases.”

Jan. 3, 2020: By the time the CDC hears from its Chinese counterpart agency about the COVID-19 outbreak, two-thirds of Trump’s representatives at the January 2017 pandemic briefing, including Bossert, are no longer in the administration.

Who is Responsible for America’s Tardy and Mismanaged Response to the Pandemic?

Jan. 10, 2020: Recognizing the national security issues at stake, Bossert tweets: “[W]e face a global health threat. Wuhan disease now identified as a *new* kind of coronavirus… Coordinate!”

Jan. 18, 2020: After trying numerous times to speak with Trump about the virus, Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar finally reaches him by phone. Trump interjects questions about vaping, wondering when flavored vaping products would be back on the market.

Late January and early February: US intelligence agencies and health officials warn Trump that COVID-19 poses a global danger. Through mid-March, he dismisses these concerns and repeatedly lies to the public about the seriousness of the threat.

Feb. 7, 2020: The Trump administration ships almost 18 tons of medical equipment to China, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators and other vital materials.

Feb. 25, 2020: Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC official, tells reporters that COVID-19 is likely to spread within US communities and that disruptions to daily life could be “severe.” Returning from a trip to India, Trump calls Azar to complain that Messonnier is scaring the stock markets.

Feb. 26, 2020: Trump announces that Vice President Mike Pence, who is avowedly anti-science, is leading the COVID-19 task force. “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump says. “When you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

Mar 12, 2020: Jared Kushner joins Trump’s coronavirus effort to focus on two areas of intense public criticism: insufficient testing and inadequate supplies of medical equipment.

Mar. 13, 2020: Trump calls a reporter’s question about the disbanding of the pandemic response team “nasty” and claims to know nothing about it.

Mar. 19. 2020: Trump says, “Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion… [W]e had to break a system — like breaking an egg — because the system we had was obsolete and didn’t work, and that was a system we inherited.”

Mar. 25, 2020: “We’ve come a long way from an obsolete, broken system that I inherited,” Trump says again.

Mar. 29, 2020.  Trump says “think of the number: 2.2 — potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing. If we didn’t do the distancing, if we didn’t do all of the things that we’re doing.” Trump goes on to say that if the US death toll remains at or below 100,000 lives — more Americans than died in the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined — it would mean that his administration will have done “a very good job.”

Mar. 31, 2020: Trump says that even with aggressive mitigation efforts, the US could suffer 240,000 deaths — a number that puzzles health experts. As The Washington Post reports, “Among epidemiologists, the estimate raised more questions than it answered — not just about methodology and accuracy but, perhaps more importantly, about purpose. The primary goal of such models amid an outbreak is to allow authorities to game out scenarios, foresee challenges and create a coherent, long-term strategy — something some experts worry doesn’t exist within the White House.”

Apr. 3, 2020: A reporter asks Trump, “Who dropped the ball?” After asserting falsely that no one anticipated the pandemic, Trump blames Obama: “The previous administration. The shelves were empty. The shelves were empty… the shelves were empty.”

How Many People Can Trump Kill on Fifth Avenue?

Obama’s team briefed Trump’s transition team on a simulation that anticipated the very type of outbreak now blanketing the earth, but Trump ignored its lessons. Trump inherited a White House pandemic response team, but he disbanded it. For three years, the leaders of the US intelligence community sounded pandemic alarm bells, but Trump paid no attention to them.

When the specific COVID-19 virus emerged in January 2020, Trump wasted precious weeks ignoring the warnings from the international health community while simultaneously lying to the public about its likely impact. To avoid responsibility for his failures, he now lies again in an attempt to shift the blame. Meanwhile, he keeps moving the goalposts for no reason other than to manage public expectations of what will qualify as his personal “win.”

Trump once said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still love him. He’s now testing that hypothesis. But he hasn’t limited his victims to New York City.

© 2020 Schumann Media Center, Inc.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on BillMoyers.com and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

RELATED CONTENT