WATCH: As the COVID Threat Ramped Up, Trump Resisted Sounding the Alarm
It was the last week of February, and as coronavirus cases mounted across the globe, President Donald Trump was reassuring.
“You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country,” Trump said on Feb. 25 at a press conference while visiting India. “We have very few people with it.”
Back in the U.S., though, Trump’s team of health officials had become increasingly concerned about the growing threat from COVID-19, and worried that the travel restrictions involving China that the president had implemented in late January weren’t enough. In fact, as a new FRONTLINE documentary explores, top officials were planning to confront the president when he returned on Feb. 26 and urge him to take new, more serious actions.
But that meeting didn’t happen.
The above excerpt from The Virus: What Went Wrong tells the story of why, illuminating a pivotal sequence of events in the administration’s handling of what would become the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
As Trump prepared to return home from India, CDC official Dr. Nancy Messonnier pre-empted the meeting by issuing a dire warning, telling reporters that community spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. was a foregone conclusion. As Michael Shear of The New York Times says in the clip, by the time Air Force One landed, the U.S. media was abuzz, the stock market had plummeted — and the president was enraged. He refused to attend that day’s planned meeting with top public health officials, put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus task force, and at its briefing that same day, walked back Messonnier’s warning.
“As someone who served in government, I can tell you, that kind of behavior sends a very, very clear signal to government workers about what is and is not permissible to say,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, says, comparing the situation to China’s silencing of doctors as the virus first emerged in Wuhan.
As the film recounts, top officials including CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield would continue to insist that the risk to the American public was low, and that they should carry on with their normal lives. In a tough conversation with correspondent Martin Smith, Redfield said the stance was true at the time.
When Smith presses him, Redfield responds, “Well, I think the purpose, I’m sure, of your documentary is to help identify lessons and correct them so we don’t repeat this. Many of us are in the arena where, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, we’re marred and bloody. We’re trying to dare greatly. Hopefully at best we’ll know the triumph of high achievement, and, you know, at worst we’ll fail by daring greatly.”
The first COVID death to be identified in the U.S. would come just days after the aborted meeting. Ultimately, Trump wouldn’t call for social distancing measures to help slow the spread of the virus for over two weeks.
“I would equate it to something like seeing a hurricane offshore that has just taken out a couple of the Caribbean Islands and is strengthening to category five as it heads for Florida, and not bothering to tell people to get off the beach and board their windows. And only starting to do that when you see the storm surge coming ashore, by which point it’s, of course, far too late,” Konyndyk says of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
Currently, the confirmed U.S. death toll has surpassed 115,000.
For the full story, watch The Virus: What Went Wrong?, a 90-minute FRONTLINE special from award-winning filmmakers Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The documentary traces the novel coronavirus’s emergence in Wuhan and its path across the globe, and investigates why leaders in the U.S. were so unprepared. It will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting Tuesday, June 16 at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 9:30/8:30c.