- Eric Liptoninvestigative reporter for The New York Times.
Image Credit: White House
As the United States surpasses the coronavirus death toll of any country in the world with more than 22,000 dead, we look how President Trump led the country to this point with Eric Lipton, lead author of The New York Times’s explosive new exposé, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the United States surpasses the death toll of any country in the world with more than 22,000 COVID-19 deaths, we begin today’s show looking at what led us to this point. In a minute, we’ll be joined by the lead author of an explosive exposé in The New York Times headlined “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.” But first we go to this video, which is called “Trump’s Coronavirus Calendar.” It was produced by The Recount, capturing the months of downplaying and denial before Trump pivoted to coronavirus crisis mode. It starts on January 22nd.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. … We think we have it very well under control. …
We pretty much shut it down, coming in from China. … You know, in April, supposedly it dies, with the hotter weather. … When it gets warm, historically, that has been able to kill the virus. … The people are getting better. They’re all getting better. … And the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero. … It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle. It will disappear. … And you’ll be fine. …
Now, they’re going to have vaccines, I think, relatively soon. … Not only the vaccines, but the therapies. Therapies is sort of another word for cure. … We’re talking about very small numbers in the United States. … Our numbers are lower than just about anybody. … It’s really working out, and a lot of good things are going to happen. … And we are responding with great speed and professionalism. … It’s going to go away. … Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all. … We’re going to all be great. We’re going to be so good. …
This came up. It — we came up so suddenly. … This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. All you had to do was look at other countries. …
The coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. This is their new hoax. We have 15 people 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. We’re doing great. Our country is doing so great.
AMY GOODMAN: That montage of President Trump was produced by The Recount.
This is how The New York Times began its investigation into Trump’s failure to respond to the threat of the coronavirus: quote, “’Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,’ a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, wrote on the night of Jan. 28, in an email to a group of public health experts scattered around the government and universities. [He goes on,] ‘The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe [unquote].’
“A week after the first coronavirus case had been identified in the United States, and six long weeks before President Trump finally took aggressive action to confront the danger the nation was facing — a pandemic that is now forecast to take tens of thousands of American lives — Dr. Mecher was urging the upper ranks of the nation’s public health bureaucracy to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far more drastic action.
“[quote] ‘You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools,’ he wrote to the group, which called itself ‘Red Dawn,’ an inside joke based on the 1984 movie about a band of Americans trying to save the country after a foreign invasion. [Mecher goes on,] ‘Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities [unquote].’
“His was hardly a lone voice. Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.”
Those are the first few paragraphs of this remarkable exposé in The New York Times.
For more on how Trump was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, we’re joined by the lead author of that exposé, Eric Lipton, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, investigative reporter for The New York Times. Together with a number of other Times reporters, he wrote this in-depth piece, headlined “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.” His follow-up piece, “The ‘Red Dawn’ Emails: 8 Key Exchanges on the Faltering Response to the Coronavirus.”
Eric Lipton, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, take us back to that time, and then we’ll talk about why this is so significant today, I mean, reflected in the fact that as we speak today, the U.S. has surpassed any country’s death toll in the world. Take us back to those warnings, those first early warnings that scientists and members of his government were issuing.
ERIC LIPTON: Actually, I think you need to go back way before January of 2020, and you go back to — way back to 2006, believe it or not, and you go back to the Bush administration, when it was during the Bush administration, of George W. Bush, that there were key advisers to President Bush who realized that it was only a matter of time before a significant infectious disease came to the United States, like it happened, you know, shortly after World War I, and it was going to cause widespread illnesses and deaths, and that the United States was not properly prepared for it. And so, it was in 2006 that the United States designed a comprehensive pandemic plan, which has two essential stages, and the stages are containment and mitigation.
And the first stage is containment, in which you attempt to — essentially, like the word sounds, you attempt to contain the infection and prevent it from spreading. And you do that by preventing people who are ill from coming to the United States with it, you know, or if someone is ill, you do what’s called contact tracing, in which you identify anyone that’s had contact with that individual, and you isolate them until they become better, so that you — just like happened in China after the number of cases began to explode. So that’s containment.
But at a certain point, it becomes — there’s community spread. And once you have community spread, then you need to switch to mitigation, in which you take steps to — there is no vaccine. And it’s called — actually, another term for mitigation is nonpharmaceutical interventions — NPIs, they call it. And the biggest issue here was, on day one, in January of 2020, Carter Mecher, who is a physician, a doctor that works at the Veterans Administration, was already — when he’s talking about closing colleges and universities, he’s talking about NPIs, these nonpharmaceutical interventions, or mitigation. He’s already anticipating that this is going to be necessary.
And that’s the most important thing that we have to look back on in the United States right now, is that: When did they move from containment to mitigation, and did they move soon enough? And the answer is, they did not move soon enough to mitigation. And the result is that more people are dying, and there are more illnesses, than would have been necessary if they had shifted to mitigation sooner. And that’s the point that Dr. Mecher was making in January of 2020, was we need to be prepared to move to mitigation as soon as there is sufficient evidence that community spread has started. And if you want to understand the biggest failure that is consequential in the United States, it was the slowness with which we moved to mitigation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to the so-called Red Dawn string of emails, in which infectious disease specialists shared their concerns about the coronavirus very early on. Actually, this one was March 13th. The former adviser to Presidents Bush and Obama, infectious disease specialist James Lawler — I think he was at the University of Nebraska — wrote, quote, ”CDC is really missing the mark here. By the time you have substantial … transmission, it is too late. It’s like ignoring the smoke detector and waiting” for your whole house to be on fire before you call the fire department. If you can comment? And go back even further, because his own people, Trump’s own people, like Navarro, like Azar, were warning, sounding the alarms in January. In fact, intelligence agencies were saying a pandemic is about to explode on the global scene.
ERIC LIPTON: Right. Well, again, it’s like, the thing about mitigation, or nonpharmaceutical interventions, is it’s a very simplistic — you know, it’s like you would think we’re such a — we’re so modern, we’re so advanced in our science, that we would have to resort to things like closing of schools and businesses and social distancing, which seems so crude, because you would think there would be some treatment or some scientific method. But unfortunately, the reality is, with viruses which the population has no resistance to and that there’s no treatment for, going back to the Plague, there really is no solution other than forced-upon isolation.
And so, again, when Dr. James Lawler from University of Nebraska, who was on the National Security Council during the Bush administration, as well, and participated in the drafting of that 2006 pandemic plan and then became an adviser to President Obama on pandemic preparations — what he, again, was upset about with the CDC was when the CDC, in March, said that it questioned the effectiveness of shutting down schools in the United States. That made these pandemic experts so frustrated and so angry, because, again, the fire alarm was going off.
They have a very scientific method, these pandemic infectious disease doctors, where they have — there’s like a moment when the first death occurs. From the date that the first death occurs, you have a certain amount of time to institute mitigation, nonpharmaceutical interventions. If you don’t do that in that small window, the number of deaths that are going to occur — and basically it’s an equation. You can show how many deaths will happen if you don’t pull the switch on mitigation by a certain date. And they knew what that date was.
Now, it’s not as if you needed to do national mitigation all at once. You didn’t. You need to do it by hot spot. When you had the first death in a community or certain number of infectious cases, then you needed to say, “Boom! Time to institute NPIs, social distancing.”
And the problem is that the — what these doctors told me when I interviewed them is that the governors, who really have the power to do that, the governors are — you know, it’s hard for a governor to get out in front when there’s one death in a state the size of Washington state or Oregon or California, when there’s a single death or a handful of infections. It’s very hard for the governor to tell the citizens of his or her state that we need to shut down the economy on our own. It needs a federal official to come out and say this must happen. You know, now, they don’t actually have the power to do that — the president or the surgeon general or the head of the CDC — but they have kind of the platform to call for such a step. And that’s what had to happen.
And that’s what HHS, the Health and Human Services, wanted the president to do in February. And the president was not willing to do that, and so it sat for several weeks. And then it was up to the governors, one at a time, to make the move. And some of them did it early, like California, and did it early. New York did it later, because they didn’t have the federal guidance and kind of backing to say, “Now move. Do it.”
AMY GOODMAN: When you look at the numbers — the U.S. said it had its first coronavirus case around the same time as South Korea. Now the U.S. has 50 times more cases, hundred times the fatalities. Look at the population of the U.S. and the world: 4.25% of the world’s population — that’s less than 5% of the world’s population — 30% of the confirmed cases and 20% of the deaths in the world.
So let’s go back to those Red Dawn email chain that you’ve exposed. In an email at the end of January, Dr. James Lawler, the infectious disease doc, wrote, quote, “Great Understatements in History: Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow — ‘just a little scroll gone bad’ Pompeii — ‘a bit of a dust storm’ — Hiroshima — ‘a bad summer heatwave’ AND Wuhan — ‘just a bad flu season.’”
So these docs were sounding the alarm, but so were President Trump’s most trusted advisers. Talk about what Azar had to say, head of Health and Human Services. Talk about what Navarro was saying, saying that this was going to be serious. And talk about who was countering them. It’s not that President Trump didn’t know. I mean, he no longer had his pandemic task force within the National Security Council, which would have been sounding the alarm. He had that disbanded back in 2018. But he also had countering forces, like Mnuchin, deeply concerned about the economy and shutting anything down, in fact canceling a doctors’ meeting, you write about, when one of the doctors said, you know, “We have to do something about this.”
ERIC LIPTON: I think that what the context that this happened is it’s the impeachment in January in the Senate is going on, and as this thing is just getting underway in terms of its first infections coming to the United States. And not only that, but it’s now an election year in January 2020, and the president is really focused on his reelection, and the single, by far, theme that is going to define his reelection campaign is “Look at the stock market. Look at the incredible rise, the record stock market numbers. Look at the economic growth in the United States.”
And also, in January, he was in the midst of finalizing negotiations with China on what they called Phase 1, that was going to try to remove — he was going to try to remove some of the tariffs in the trade war that was going on. That was going to be signed on January 15th, and so, you know — and the ability to reach an agreement with China was central to the stock markets continuing to rise and economic growth recovering, and the farmers being happy because soybeans would be bought by China again.
All of this was in the balance for Trump. So, if he was seriously considering taking steps to shut down businesses, schools, and force social distancing by urging governors to take such steps, he was going to essentially be undermining the economy that was going to be the central theme of his campaign. And that was the last thing that he wanted to do.
But what he didn’t realize is that if they allow this infection to bloom in the United States, and then potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths to occur because they never did mitigation, that the economy would have been shut down by the force of the virus itself in an even more devastating way, because the number of deaths would have been in the hundreds of thousands.
And it goes back to the fact that this is an administration that you had an acting chief of staff for over a year who had very little clout across the White House. You had lots of turnover among the top people in the various agencies, acting head of homeland security, I mean, different DOD secretaries, different national security advisers. And you had lots of infighting among these different advisers. You had a secretary of health and human services, Azar, who was not respected by the president, whose voice did not carry much weight in the White House. You had Peter Navarro, who was —
AMY GOODMAN: They called him alarmist?
ERIC LIPTON: Yes. You had Peter Navarro, who was a trade adviser, who was one of the earliest voices of concern. People said, “Oh, it’s crazy. He’s crazy. We don’t want to listen to him in the White House.” And so — and then you have a lacking functional process of policymaking, in which the chief of staff is supposed to be the person that considers all these debates and then brings to the president his recommendation, but then Mulvaney, since he had his comments late last year in October that, oh, it was a quid pro quo, was so on the outs that no one was really listening to him, and was about to be fired from his job, which ultimately he was, in the middle of this.
So you had a dysfunctional White House that was unable to make the right policy choice and bring it to the president, and then a president who was so fixated on his reelection that he wasn’t in a position to listen to people who were warning that this was a pandemic of historic proportions that was coming at us and that we had a small window of an opportunity to act decisively to limit the number of deaths.
And then, that result was that in late February, when all of his advisers, all of his medical advisers, from Health and Human Services, CDC, from the Veterans Affairs, had concluded that the United States needed to announce that it was time to shift to mitigation and social distancing, that the moment had come when it was up to the president to endorse this — and that’s when he got angry, when someone from the CDC said that was something that was going to have to happen. And the announcement on that was put off by several weeks. Those several weeks were the difference between — there are many people that will have died because of that delay, particularly in New York state, of mitigation.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to — I mean, you have — Navarro had also recommended the ban on China. And when you talk about travel ban, President Trump’s ears perk up. So he did do the travel ban on China, but it was, to say the least, filled with loopholes. Eventually, he would do Europe. But at the same time, every time he says, “Look, I did that early,” since he understood the significance of what was taking place early — that was the beginning of what? February. Is that right? If he had started ramping up the testing and the supply chain to ensure that there were PPEs — right? — the personal protective equipment, that doctors and nurses and the janitors in hospitals so severely lack right now, if it had started like it started in Taiwan — they didn’t even close the country there. But here, this has led to this absolute catastrophe. The most significant part of it is the massive loss of life.
ERIC LIPTON: Well, I mean, a couple of points you make there. The first was about the, again, two phases here: containment and mitigation. So, relative to the containment phase, the president, in late January, announces the limitation on flights in China. But, as you say, there was a very problematic implementation, in quite a number of ways. And perhaps among them is that there were approximately 400,000 people that came to the United States from China, as my colleague Steve Eder reported recently, that — from the time that we know that the virus was spreading in China to most recently. And 45,000 of them, approximately, came in the period after the president limited flights.
And the problem was that it was not really a — in the world today, it’s next to impossible to stop movements of people entirely. And you can’t ban American citizens from coming back to the United States. And so American citizens and naturalized citizens were coming into the United States, tens of thousands of them, even after he adopted this limitation. And they weren’t, actually, in many cases, doing sufficient testing of those people or requiring isolation of those people for two weeks to ensure that they weren’t infected.
So, if you were really going to do a, quote, “travel ban,” you needed to have mandatory quarantines, unfortunately, which is a civil liberties issue. You needed to have mandatory quarantines for those people, and you needed to have sufficient testing to make sure that they were not actually bringing the virus in. Neither of those happened. Those people were bringing in many cases of infections. And so, the first stage, containment, containment was a failure. OK?
So, the second stage, then, even during containment, you needed to be working on mitigation, because you know that it’s going to spread anyway. The question is: How much will you have? So, during containment, you need to be ramping up all of your preparations, you know, Plan B. You need to have the PPEs. You need to have the ventilators. You need to have the hospitals. You need to have the hospital personnel. But what we learned was that it was — I was working on a story with my colleague Zolan, who covers the Federal Emergency Management Agency in The New York Times, and Department of Homeland Security. It was March 17th, and we asked the Army Corps of Engineers, “Have you been given any assignments yet to help the United States respond to the pandemic?” And at that point, you know, New York City had had —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Eric.
ERIC LIPTON: Oh, OK. The Army Corps of Engineers had not been given an assignment as of March 17th, which was extraordinary. So they had not shifted to Plan B until way too late.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us and and end with Dr. Fauci. On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci about your New York Times piece.
JAKE TAPPER: Do you think lives could have been saved if social distancing, physical distancing, stay-at-home measures had started third week of February instead of mid-March?
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, Jake, again, it’s the what would have, what could have. It’s very difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously no one is going to deny that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking yesterday on Jake Tapper’s show on CNN. In response, President Trump retweeted a tweet that ended with “fire Fauci.” Eric Lipton, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, investigative reporter for The New York Times.
When we come back, we go to Detroit, the site of the first major U.S. study into whether or not the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine could help prevent the spread of coronavirus, this coming after weeks of President Trump promoting the drug despite warnings from medical experts.
And this latest breaking news: George Stephanopoulos of ABC News has just tested positive for the coronavirus. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Amazing Grace,” sung by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli as he stood on the steps outside the Duomo cathedral, the final song in a concert called “Music for Hope,” the cathedral in the region of Italy that’s been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.