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What new reports reveal about Trump’s response to COVID-19

New reporting from The New York Times has revealed even more early warnings about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus pandemic -- and raises questions about whether President Trump and his administration waited too long to take important steps. Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for the Times, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss a critical three-week delay from February into March.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    New reporting from The New York Times has revealed even more early warnings about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and raises questions about whether the president and his administration waited too long to take important steps.

    Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter at The Times, and he joins us now.

    Eric Lipton, thank you so much for joining us.

    Your reporting revealed the existence of these so-called Red Dawn e-mails between doctors, medical experts in the administration. They were obtained, in part, through the Freedom of Information Act request.

    And in one e-mail that I want to ask you about, Dr. James Lawler, who is an infectious disease expert — he served in both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations — wrote: "We have thrown 15 years of institutional learning out the window and are making decisions based on intuition."

    What were these e-mails, and what came out of your finding out about them?

  • Eric Lipton:

    Well, what was going on was that there was a group of physicians and pandemic experts that, from the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the CDC, the Veterans Administration, that were consulting and comparing notes, that — and they were trying to make a really critical decision, which was, at what point do we go from saying we are going to attempt to contain the infection to which it's — we have community spread, and we now need to move to mitigate its spread through actions like social distancing?

    So, at first, the goal was just to contain it, but, at a certain point, you need to say, we need to flip the switch and say, schools need to close, businesses need to close.

    These guys were comparing notes to try to figure out, when was the moment that we needed to flip the switch? The fire alarm had gone off. Now we needed to mitigate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And from your reporting, what were some of the earliest warnings that the president got? And how did he respond to those?

  • Eric Lipton:

    Look, I mean, the president's National Security Council — there were members on the National Security Council that in January were quite concerned about what was going on in China and were worried that it was just a matter of time before the pandemic would be in the United States.

    And the Health and Human Services secretary, Azar, spoke with the president in January as well to express his concern about the fact that this was almost assuredly coming to the United States and was going to be a public health emergency here.

    The president told him to, you know, calm down, that he was too worried about it. And, repeatedly, in that period, while it's true that the president did limit travel by Chinese citizens to the United States in late January, there were — among many of his aides, there was a belief that the United States needed to be preparing for the next stage of mitigation. And it took weeks too long to get to that point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On January the 22nd, in an interview with CNBC, President Trump was asked about a pandemic and whether there were worries about it.

    Here's what he said:

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China. And we have it under control.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what did we know about the coronavirus at that point in late January? What did people know in the administration?

  • Eric Lipton:

    They knew that it was already here in the United States. They knew that it was almost — it was just a matter of time before it started to spread widely in the United States and that, while containment was still important to try to do contact tracing to limit the spread, that they needed to be preparing for widespread illnesses.

    That was evident to any public health expert at that point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there is an audio that I want to play for the audience, because, on February the 25th, Dr. Nancy Messonnier with the Centers for Disease Control — she's the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases — she had a briefing call with news reporters in which she issued a warning.

    Here's that.

  • Nancy Messonnier:

    These measures might include missed work and loss of income. I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just one day later, President Trump said this:

  • President Donald Trump:

    And, again, 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 have done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Eric, why was that a key moment in the administration's response?

  • Eric Lipton:

    Arguably, that was one of the most essential moments in the whole saga, as we look back on it, on history, because that was the moment when they had been a consensus among his medical advisers that the United States needed to announce that we needed to move to social distancing that's in hot spots in particular.

    And the president was unready to — unprepared and unready to do that. And, in fact, he lashed out at the human — health and human services secretary, Azar, after Nancy Messonnier made that statement while he was in India and on his way home.

    So, what Trump — President Trump did instead was to wait three weeks before he embraced the need for social distancing, and the net result was that there are many more illnesses and deaths in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we are now in — Eric, in what is called mitigation, this — these widespread closures, all about enforcing social distancing.

    President Trump announced the first social distancing initiative, 15 days to stop the spread, he called it, and that was on March the 16th. But how early was this first proposed to the president as a solution? And what is known about why he waited to adopt it?

  • Eric Lipton:

    It was a month prior to that that essentially a consensus was forming among medical experts in the United States government that we now needed to move to mitigation.

    And the thing is there — it's almost down to a science. Once you have the first death from a contagious disease like this, or you have a certain percentage of people who are — who have the illness, you have a window of about one to two weeks to take severe — significant mitigation steps.

    If you don't do it, you're going to — it's like waiting for a house fire to get from being, you know, on the stove in the kitchen to the roof is burning and the structural elements of the house are on fire, and then you call the fire department.

    We waited until the roof was burning and the structure was on fire in New York state and New York City before we called the fire department. And that was a decision that the president made, was to not move ahead with those announcements.

    Now, again, it's the governors' choices as to when to do that, but it's the federal government's role to play a leadership — and to help the governors make the choices by letting them know what the public health officials think is needed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know, Eric, that the lack of testing, the lack of personal protective equipment has all — all of that has also been a significant and ongoing challenge.

    What did your reporting reveal about the delays in dealing with all that?

  • Eric Lipton:

    Again, there's two phases in this process, the containment and the mitigation phase.

    But during containment, it was evident to any public health expert that this was going to spread in the United States. So, as of January, they knew that there was going to be illnesses in pockets across the United States. They didn't know how many.

    But they should have known in January that now is the time to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy face masks and other protective equipment for hospitals. They knew that the material in their supplies was expired and there wasn't enough of it.

    Now, they didn't order that stuff until March, but they could have started in January. They could have started the process of getting ventilators built in January, knowing that they likely were going to need them. That didn't happen until March. And that has severe consequences as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eric Lipton with The New York Times, congratulations on some really extraordinary reporting. Thank you.

  • Eric Lipton:

    Thank you.

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