In recent weeks, there have been a variety of reports about the coronavirus warnings Donald Trump and his team received, but failed to heed. This Washington Post report, however, strikes me as the most devastating.
U.S. intelligence agencies issued warnings about the novel coronavirus in more than a dozen classified briefings prepared for President Trump in January and February, months during which he continued to play down the threat, according to current and former U.S. officials. The repeated warnings were conveyed in issues of the President's Daily Brief, a sensitive report that is produced before dawn each day and designed to call the president's attention to the most significant global developments and security threats.
As the Post's report explained, the PDB did precisely what it was supposed to do: it highlighted the growing viral threat; it raised doubts about the veracity of the claims from Chinese officials; and it warned of dire domestic consequences. What's more, the frequency with which the coronavirus was mentioned in the PDB "reflected a level of attention comparable to periods when analysts have been tracking active terrorism threats, overseas conflicts or other rapidly developing security issues."
Common sense suggests a president would receive see intelligence briefings like this one and take swift action to prevent a disaster from unfolding in his own country. And yet, the more intelligence officials issued warnings, the more Donald Trump publicly downplayed the threat and took few steps to address the looming crisis.
One possibility is that the president questioned the reliability of the information. The Republican has, after all, spent several years denigrating the work of his own country's intelligence professionals.
But the more likely explanation is that he never bothered to read the information in the first place. As the Post's article added, "[T]he alarms appear to have failed to register with the president, who routinely skips reading the PDB and has at times shown little patience for even the oral summary he takes two or three times per week."
This may seem brutally damning, but it's actually a staple of Trump's presidency. Indeed, we learned more than two years ago that he "rarely, if ever" reads the PDB prepared for him.
Trump has been surprisingly candid on this point, repeatedly acknowledging his disinterest in reading intelligence reports. During his transition process in 2016, for example, he skipped nearly all of his intelligence briefings. Asked why, the Republican told Fox News in December 2016, "Well, I get it when I need it.... I don't have to be told -- you know, I'm, like, a smart person."
As his inauguration drew closer, Trump acknowledged that he likes very short intelligence briefings. "I like bullets or I like as little as possible," he explained in January 2017. Around the same time, he added, "I don't need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you."
As regular readers know, intelligence professionals have gone to great lengths to accommodate the president's toddler-like attention span, preparing reports "with lots of graphics and maps." National Security Council officials have even learned that Trump is likely to stop reading important materials unless he sees his name, so they include his name in "as many paragraphs" as possible.
In August 2017, the Washington Post had a piece on then-White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who struggled to "hold the attention of the president" during briefings on Afghanistan. The article noted, "[E]ven a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president's attention span on the subject."
A Trump confidant said at the time, "I call the president the two-minute man. The president has patience for a half-page."
Evidently, more than a dozen warnings about the novel coronavirus in January and February couldn't be reduced enough.
On Aug. 6, 2001, then-President George W. Bush received an intelligence briefing and was handed the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." memo. He was on a month-long vacation at the time. After listening to the briefer, Bush reportedly replied, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." A month later, we saw the consequences.
Nearly two decades later, Trump received multiple reports with equally serious warnings about a viral threat. We're still dealing with the consequences now.
Postscript: As regular readers may recall, Trump used to take an interest in the presidential daily intelligence briefing, as we saw in 2014, when he seemed convinced that Barack Obama wasn’t taking the national-security briefings as seriously as he should.
“Fact – Obama does not read his intelligence briefings,” Trump complained, making up details that in no way reflected reality. Around the same time, Trump added, “Obama has missed 58% of his intelligence briefings” – which, again, was completely untrue.
The irony is hard to miss.