A senior White House adviser warned the Trump administration in late January and again in February that not containing coronavirus could cost billions of US dollars and millions of American lives.
President Donald Trump’s business advisor Peter Navarro issued his first gloomy warning in a January 29 memo – just days after the first reports of COVID-19 in the United States were reported.
At the time, Trump publicly downplayed the risk the new coronavirus posed to Americans – although weeks later, he would argue that no one could have predicted the devastation seen today.
Navarro wrote a second memo about a month later, on February 23, in which he warned that up to two million Americans could die from the virus as he tightened his grip on the nation.
The notes were obtained Monday by the New York Times and Axios, while the number of COVID-19 cases in the country exceeded 368,200 with at least 11,000 deaths.
Trade advisor Peter Navarro warned senior Trump officials in late January and again in February that not containing coronavirus could cost trillions of dollars and millions of American lives in the United States. Trump is seen with Navarro (center) at a March 9 press conference on the coronavirus
Navarro’s memos were obtained Monday by the New York Times and Axios, while the number of COVID-19 cases in the country has exceeded 368,200 with at least 11,000 deaths
The January note marks the first known high alert to circulate in the west wing as officials planned their first substantive measures to fight the disease that had already gotten out of hand in China.
This serves as evidence that senior administration officials had considered the possibility that the epidemic would turn into something far more serious than Trump publicly acknowledged at the time.
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans helpless in the event of a large-scale coronavirus outbreak on American soil,” wrote Navarro.
“This lack of protection increases the risk that the coronavirus will develop into a full-blown pandemic, endangering the lives of millions of Americans. “
Navarro said the administration was faced with a choice as to how aggressive it would be to contain the epidemic, offering two different scenarios.
The first scenario suggested that the disease could be compared to a “seasonal flu”, resulting in relatively low human and economic costs.
But Navarro also said that “the risk of a worse pandemic scenario should not be overlooked,” based on reports from China.
He specifically cited one of the worst scenarios in which more than 500,000 Americans could die.
Navarro’s initial memo is dated January 29 – a few days after the first reports of COVID-19 were reported in the United States. At the time, Trump publicly downplayed the risk the virus posed to Americans
Navarro sent the first memo to the National Security Council before it was distributed to Trump administration officials, according to the Times.
It was written the same day that Trump unveiled his task force at the White House to deal with the threat.
The next day, the president announced limits on travel from China – something Navarro asked for in his memo.
But it was not until weeks later that Trump implemented more aggressive measures to stem the spread of the virus, under the continued criticism of many who said he had acted too slowly.
People familiar with the distribution of the note told The Times that it had reached a number of senior officials – including assistants to the then chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
However, sources said it was unclear if Trump had ever seen him.
Navarro and Matthew Pottinger, the deputy head of the National Security Council, were among the few responsible for pushing the administration to take more aggressive action against the growing threat of coronaviruses in late January.
Some officials have argued that their concerns are more evident in hindsight than they were then.
An official told Axios that the January memo “struck me as an alarmist attempt to draw attention to Peter’s anti-China agenda while presenting an artificially limited range of political options.”
Trump announced limits to travel from China the day after Navarro published the memo. In the photo: a medical worker treats a COVID-19 patient in a hospital in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak occurred in late December
Navarro opened the note by writing: “If the probability of a pandemic is greater than about 1%, a theoretical analysis of the coronavirus game indicates that the clear dominant strategy is an immediate ban on travel to China. “
At another time, he concluded, “Whether the coronavirus turns out to be a pandemic-level epidemic or not, there are certain costs associated with adopting policies to contain and mitigate the spread of the disease.
“The most readily available option to contain the spread of the epidemic is to impose a travel ban to and from the source of the epidemic, namely mainland China. “
He quoted an estimate from the Council of Economic Advisers that banning travel from China would cost $ 2.9 billion a month – $ 34.6 billion a year.
But he also noted that without containment, a pandemic could cost the United States up to $ 5.7 billion, depending on the severity of its death.
Navarro highlighted the history of pandemic influenza by suggesting that the chances of a new outbreak are increased by the new strain of coronavirus.
“A historical precedent alone should suffice to demonstrate the need to take decisive action to contain the epidemic,” he wrote.
He went on to say that early figures on the ease of spread of the virus indicated that it posed even greater risks than the aforementioned pandemic flu.
Navarro’s second note was addressed specifically to President Trump, but was not explicitly signed by the trade advisor.
In it, he warned that a third of the country could be infected with COVID-19, causing between one million and two million deaths.
He asked for $ 3 billion in immediate aid to “support prevention, treatment, inoculation and diagnostic efforts”, writing: “Now is NOT the time to make money or trade of horses on the hill. “
The White House official who spoke to Axios about the memos said that the second “had no basis for his projections, which led some staff to fear that he might unnecessarily shake the markets and not steer funding where it was really needed. ”
Neither Navarro nor the White House has returned requests for comment from The Times or Axios.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon defended Navarro’s motives with Axios, calling the memos “prophetic.”
Bannon accused Navarro of having been forced to express his concerns in writing because “there was a complete blockage for these facts to be presented to the President of the United States”.
He said that the “naivety, arrogance and ignorance” of White House advisers “put the country and the world at risk” – adding that Navarro had been sidelined from the task force after expressing his concerns.
“In this Kafkaesque nightmare, no one would pay attention to him or the facts,” said Bannon.