'The system was blinking red': Virus warnings went unheeded

"You can never really think is going to happen," Trump recently said about the virus. There were warnings, however, that went unheeded.
Image: A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle on March 17, 2020.
A nurse wears protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Seattle on March 17, 2020.Brian Snyder / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

In recent weeks, Donald Trump and his team have repeatedly defended the administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic by pointing to the unpredictable circumstances. "I just think this is something ... that you can never really think is going to happen," the president said on March 7.

It's easy to understand the reasoning behind the talking point: if officials were caught completely off-guard, and the crisis came out of nowhere without warning, then the administration's poor handling of the crisis might be easier to understand.

But evidence pointing in the opposite direction keeps piling up. Politico reported last week on a presentation prepared for Team Trump during the presidential transition process, which warned the incoming Republican administration about how the U.S. federal government would have to respond to a deadly viral outbreak.

It didn't appear to have much of an effect. When Politico talked to a former senior Trump administration official who attended the meeting, and asked whether the then-president-elect received information from the Jan. 13 session, the person said it wasn't "the kind of thing that really interested the president very much."

Two days later, the New York Times reported on government exercises, including one conducted just last year, warning officials that the country was ill-prepared for a pandemic. As the article explained, an unreleased HHS report described a likely outcome that sounds awfully familiar: "Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings."

While the president told reporters last week, "Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought we would need tens of thousands of ventilators," the federal exercise last year specifically projected shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators in the event of a viral outbreak.

And in case that weren't quite enough, the Washington Post published this report over the weekend.

U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.

The Post spoke to one U.S. official who reportedly had access to intelligence reporting and who told the newspaper, "Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were -- they just couldn't get him to do anything about it. The system was blinking red."