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Team Trump received pandemic warning - in January 2017

Trump recently said that one can "never really think" something like COVID-19 might happen, but his team was warned about something extremely similar.
Image: Donald Trump arrives to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017.
Donald Trump arrives to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA file

Donald Trump's presidential transition period was an unusually chaotic period. To be sure, the crash-course process is difficult for even the most prepared and well-organized operations, but the Republican's team struggled more than most. As Inauguration Day approached, the incoming administration simply wasn't prepared to govern.

That was not for lack of effort on the part of the outgoing Obama administration. The week before Trump took the oath of office, Obama's team prepared an exercise in which the incoming team was presented with a series of hypothetical scenarios -- including one in which the world faced a deadly viral outbreak -- and how the U.S. federal government would have to respond.

Politico reported today on those exercises, and the fact that several attendees described the atmosphere as "'weird' at best, chilly at worst."

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.

In theory, the session should've helped prepare the Trump administration for the crisis that's currently unfolding. In practice, it didn't quite work out that way.

The whole article is worth your time, but to quickly note some of the key elements, part of the problem is that Team Trump has experienced extraordinary and frequent turnover. Many of the officials who were presented with the pandemic warnings in January 2017 were gone soon after.

Another element to this was the Republican officials' belief that Obama's team had nothing of value to offer them and made little effort to learn from the outgoing officials before taking office.

But then there was Donald Trump himself, who spent much of the transition holding post-election rallies in red states, and who showed little interest in preparing for the job.

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."

The former official added, "He was never interested in things that might happen. He's totally focused on the stock market, the economy and always bashing his predecessor and giving him no credit. The possibility things were things he didn't spend much time on or show much interest in.... Even though we would put time on the schedule for things like that, if they happened at all, they would be very, very brief. To get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard."

Trump recently said that one can "never really think" something like this is "going to happen." Evidently, his team was warned that something extremely similar to this might very well happen, but the Republican's operation didn't much care.