Thursday, March 19, 2020

Obama administration officials tried to warn incoming Trump team about a possible deadly pandemic, but the insights seemed to fall mostly on hardened skulls

Susan Rice, former Obama national security adviser

After the 2016 presidential election, members of the outgoing Obama administration met with incoming Trump officials to brief them about the possibility of a deadly pandemic occurring on their watch. Reaction from the Trump side ranged from indifference to sleepiness, according to a report this week at Politico. Now, we have the coronavirus in all 50 states, and one model has it potentially killing up to 2.2 million Americans.

The response from the Trump White House has been so inept it's as if the administration had no warning such an event could take place. But it did, and Politico has obtained documents and conducted more than a dozen interviews to prove it.

If this sounds familiar, it's probably because members of the outgoing Bill Clinton administration met with George W. Bush officials following the 2000 election and warned about the threat of a terrorist group called Al Qaeda. According to multiple published reports, Team Bush more or less ignored the warnings, and we wound with 9/11 and roughly 3,000 American deaths.

Perhaps the two most devastating U.S. catastrophes of the modern era have happened on Republican watches, after specific warnings from Democratic predecessors. Such governmental incompetence makes you wonder why any Americans -- especially "white, Christian conservatives" -- vote for the GOP. Do they have a death wish -- at least for other people? Here is how Politico describes the effort to educate Team Trump about the kind of public-health crisis we now face:

Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his aides faced a major test: the rapid, global spread of a dangerous virus in cities like London and Seoul, one serious enough that some countries were imposing travel bans.

In a sober briefing, Trump’s incoming team learned that the disease was an emerging pandemic — a strain of novel influenza known as H9N2 — and that health systems were crashing in Asia, overwhelmed by the demand.

“Health officials warn that this could become the worst influenza pandemic since 1918,” Trump’s aides were told. Soon, they heard cases were popping up in California and Texas.

The briefing was intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the globe, this 2017 crisis didn’t really happen — it was among a handful of scenarios presented to Trump’s top aides as part of a legally required transition exercise with members of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama.

And in the words of several attendees, the atmosphere was “weird” at best, chilly at worst.

How bad was it? Politico has the details:

POLITICO obtained documents from the meeting and spoke with more than a dozen attendees to help provide the most detailed reconstruction of the closed-door session yet. It was perhaps the most concrete and visible transition exercise that dealt with the possibility of pandemics, and top officials from both sides — whether they wanted to be there or not — were forced to confront a whole-of-government response to a crisis. The Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount” — warnings that seem eerily prescient given the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

But roughly two-thirds of the Trump representatives in that room are no longer serving in the administration. That extraordinary turnover in the months and years that followed is likely one reason his administration has struggled to handle the very real pandemic it faces now, former Obama administration officials said.

“The advantage we had under Obama was that during the first four years we had the same White House staff, the same Cabinet,” said former deputy labor secretary Chris Lu, who attended the gathering. “Just having the continuity makes all the difference in the world.”

Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, was among those who participated in the meeting. He said he understood the reasons such exercises could be useful, but described the encounter as a massive transfer of information that ultimately felt very theoretical. In real life, things are never as simple as what’s presented in a table-top exercise, he said.

“There’s no briefing that can prepare you for a worldwide pandemic,” added Spicer, who left the administration in mid-2017.

How could one describe the atmosphere at the meeting, given the serious subject matter? It appears one side got it, and the other side did not:

The outgoing Obama aides and incoming Trump aides gathered for roughly three hours on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

At least 30 representatives of Trump’s team — many of them soon-to-be Cabinet members — were present, each sitting next to their closest Obama administration counterpart. Incoming Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared to keep dozing off. Incoming Energy Secretary Rick Perry was getting along famously with Ernest Moniz, the man he was replacing, several fellow participants said.

But it was clear some on the Trump team had barely, if ever, spoken with the people they were replacing. News had broken that same day about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s unusual contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, so his presence in the meeting added to the surrealness. Some members of both groups kept going in and out of the room, but most paid quiet attention to the presentations, which were led by top Obama aides.

Former Obama officials have expressed outrage at Team Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak --on multiple levels:

Obama aides, in op-eds and essays ripping the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, have pointed to the Jan. 13, 2017, session as a key example of their effort to press the importance of pandemic preparedness to their successors.

In a Friday op-ed, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, blasted Trump for comments such as “you can never really think” that a pandemic like the coronavirus “is going to happen.” She mentioned the 2017 session as one of many instances of the Obama administration’s efforts to help its successor be ready for such a challenge. She also slammed the Trump team for dismantling the National Security Council section that would play a lead role in organizing the U.S. response to a global pandemic.

“Rather than heed the warnings, embrace the planning and preserve the structures and budgets that had been bequeathed to him, the president ignored the risk of a pandemic,” Rice wrote. (Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who oversaw the dissolution of the NSC’s global health security and biodefense section, has defended it as necessary streamlining, countering that global health “remained a top NSC priority.” Trump, when recently asked about the reshuffling, called the question “nasty” and said, “I don’t know anything about it.”)

Trump himself contributed greatly to the chaos that would later put his administration in a bind:

The Trump campaign, like the rest of America, was shocked to win the November 2016 election. Soon afterward, Trump cast aside his team’s transition prep work that had happened already and started over; some of his aides described tossing carefully collected binders full of possible personnel picks into trash bins. It was days, sometimes weeks, before his nominees and their aides showed up to meet the people they were replacing — if they did so at all — or to engage in transition meetings. Obama aides said they left detailed memos for their successors, but that quite often it appeared those memos were never read. Many on the Obama side were genuinely surprised that so many actually showed up for the Jan. 13, 2017, exercise, and there were expectations that some would skip it. On the Obama side, several agencies were represented by their second-in-command at the meeting for reasons including a belief that Trump’s principals wouldn’t show. . . .

Multiple current and former Trump officials reached by POLITICO said they did not recall much about the briefing. But some Obama aides who attended said they were left with the impression that many of the Trump aides showed up to simply check off a box more than to learn. The impression was boosted in part because the transition overall was going so poorly. Several Trump nominees had barely even spoken to their Obama counterparts. . . .

“The problem is that they came in very arrogant and convinced that they knew more than the outgoing administration — full swagger,” one former Obama administration official who attended said.

“There were people who were there who said, ‘This is really stupid and why do we need to be here,’” added another senior Obama administration official who attended, alleging that Ross and incoming Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were especially dismissive in conversations on the sidelines of the session. “But some Trump people, like Tom Bossert, were trying to take it seriously. . . . ”
Asked whether information about the pandemic exercise reached the president-elect, a former senior Trump administration official who attended the meeting couldn’t say for sure but noted that it wasn’t “the kind of thing that really interested the president very much.”

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