A top White House official in January privately warned that a pandemic could cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and wipe trillions of dollars off of the economy while at the same time telling the public that it had ‘nothing to worry about.’
Peter Navarro, who is President Trump’s most senior adviser on trade issues, wrote two memos in late January and late-February to his White House colleagues expressing alarm over the prospect of a pandemic.
At the time, reports out of China indicated that authorities were struggling to contain an outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan.
The memo warned of an ‘increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic’ that had the potential to infect as many as 100 million Americans and could kill ‘as many as 1-2 million souls.’
Peter Navarro, President Trump’s top trade adviser, appeared on CNBC on January 29, the same day he wrote a memo demanding an immediate travel ban from China due to the coronavirus outbreak
The January memo marks the earliest known high-alert to circulate within the West Wing as officials planned their first substantive steps to confront the disease that had already spiraled out of control in China.
The second memo, dated February 23, was much more dire. It warned that up to 2 million Americans could die and trillions of dollars would be lost because of the virus.
‘This is NOT a time for penny-pinching or horse trading on the Hill,’ Navarro wrote.
Navarro urged the government to provide funding in order to ‘minimize economic and social disruption.’
‘Any member of the [coronavirus] Task Force who wants to be cautious about appropriating funds for a crisis that could inflict trillions of dollars in economic damage and take millions of lives has come to the wrong administration,’ Navarro wrote.
The memos were circulated by the NSC to various agencies in the government, which has been criticized for its slow response to the crisis.
Navarro wrote two memos warning of a possible pandemic, but President Trump (seen far left) said this week that he had not read them as of Tuesday
It serves as evidence that top officials in the administration had considered the possibility of the outbreak turning into something far more serious than Trump was acknowledging publicly at the time.
‘The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on US soil,’ Navarro wrote.
‘This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.’
But while Navarro was striking an urgent tone in private, in public it was business as usual.
On the same day he wrote the first memo, Navarro appeared on the financial news channel CNBC to tout Trump’s signing of the USMCA, the free trade agreement agreed to by the US, Canada, and Mexico.
During the broadcast, Navarro was asked whether the coronavirus outbreak in China threatened to offset some of the economic gains of the administration.
‘Well, we have a really strong leadership with (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Alex) Azar and the CDC,’ Navarro told CNBC.
‘We’re working very carefully and diligently on this, so, well, let’s see how this unfolds.
‘This is not my lane per se, so I’m going to let others come on CNBC and inform that.’
Two days after the first memo was circulated, the White House imposed travel restrictions from mainland China on January 31, but not an outright ban as Navarro proposed.
When asked about his CNBC appearance, Navarro told CNN: ‘A question about agricultural purchase commitments is clearly not my lane.’
On Tuesday, President Trump said he wasn’t aware of Navarro’s memos at the time.
As of Tuesday, the president said he still had not read the memos.
‘He wrote a memo and he was right and I haven’t seen the memo,” the president said.
‘I will see it later on, after this. But it didn’t matter whether I saw or not, because I acted on my own.
‘I guess I had the same instincts as Peter.’
A day after Navarro circulated his second memo on February 23, he told reporters that there was ‘nothing to worry about for the American people’ under Trump’s leadership.
‘Since the day that President Trump pulled down the flights from China to the US, he has been actively leading the situation in terms of this crisis with the task force. Nothing to worry about for the American people,’ Navarro said.
‘This country’s done a beautiful job under President’s leadership [sic] in terms of managing this situation.
‘He’s working on a daily basis with the task force and we’re taking steps to anticipate – what I like to say – where the puck’s gonna be.
‘We’re skating there in defense of the American people and the American economy.
‘So you can be sure you’re that in great hands with the Trump administration.’
When asked about this ‘nothing to worry about’ comments, Navarro told CNN: ‘”Nothing to worry about” indicates the American people should be confident in the strong leadership of President Trump handling the crisis, NOT the seriousness of the crisis itself.
‘To suggest otherwise is simply mischief and fake news.’
On February 23, Navarro appeared on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures program hosted by Maria Bartiromo.
Navarro said that the US economy was not ‘particularly vulnerable to what happens in China’ as it relates to the coronavirus outbreak.
‘With respect to the economic impacts, Maria, I think what we have learned, with President Trump’s tough stand on China, is that the American economy is extremely strong and not particularly vulnerable to what happens in China,’ he said.
‘So we’re going to go about our business and try to get what we need in Trump time.’
Navarro also told radio host Hugh Hewitt that the coronavirus outbreak was ‘not likely to materially harm this economy.’
‘I think if we learned anything in the trade negotiations with China, it’s that our economy can be very, very strong in the presence of tariffs and reduced imports from China,’ Navarro said.
‘So the fact that China is struggling is not likely to materially harm this economy.’
When asked by CNN about his comments downplaying the potential economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, he said: ‘I was explicitly asked whether a slowdown in the China economy would harm the US economy and clearly responded “No” because the US economy is not highly dependent on China.
‘I was NOT asked either explicitly or implicitly about the potential impact of a pandemic on the US economy and any suggestion by CNN that my comments pertained in any way to the possible economic impacts of a possible pandemic is misleading and irresponsible.’
In 2006, Navarro warned of a pandemic originating in China in his book The Coming China Wars.
‘China has become the world’s prime breeding ground for new and exotic strains of influenza and other viruses, including both the deadly SARS virus and avian flu,’ Navarro wrote.
‘The primary reason, as the preceding excerpt indicates, is that so many different farm animals live in such close proximity to humans and other species.’
Some conspiracy theories circulated in far-right circles in the United States allege that the Chinese government created coronavirus in a lab, though experts say there is no evidence of this.
During a February 10 appearance on Fox News, Navarro said: ‘The question of how this started ultimately has to be answered.
‘I don’t think now is necessarily the time to do that ’cause what we have to do is fight the crisis first.
‘But China will have to be held accountable for how that started.
‘Fourteen years ago in a book called The Coming China Wars that I wrote, I actually predicted a pandemic from a virus from China precisely because of the way they run their country in terms of the animal husbandry practices.
‘So whether it was bats or other things, I’m not really sure at this point, but I was very surprised that the Chinese ambassador did not answer that question.’
Experts have not definitively stated where they believe the coronavirus came from.
It is believed by some to have originated in a food market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.
Health experts think it may have originated in bats and then passed to humans, possibly via another species.
When asked by CNN to explain his comments about China ‘being held accountable,’ Navarro clarified that the origins of the virus were still as of yet unknown.
‘When I was asked whether the China virus “started in a research lab,” my response was simply that the question of the origin of the virus would ultimately have to be answered,’ Navarro said.
‘There is no other possible answer to that question until we know the origins of the virus.’
DID THE U.S. KNOW ABOUT CORONAVIRUS IN NOVEMBER? HOW A CRISIS UNFOLDED
November 17, 2019: Date China now says it has traced the first coronavirus infection to, in Hubei province. Data now suggests that there were up to five new cases each day for the next few days. If U.S. intelligence was aware of such an outbreak, it suggests an excellent source or deep infiltration of Chinese government communications
‘Late November.’ ABC News reports that National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) produced a report detailing concerns about a contagion in the area around Wuhan. The NCMI denies such a ‘product/assessment’ existed ‘in November of 2019’
November 28: Thanksgiving. ABC News says the intelligence that there is a mystery illness in and around Wuhan is in circulation among U.S. agencies by the holiday
December 1: The first case which has now been concluded to have happened without direct exposure to the Wuhan wet market is recorded
‘December’: ABC News reports that warnings of contagion around Wuhan are circulating extensively in U.S. intelligence circles
December 17: First double-digit rise in cases in Wuhan and region
December 27: Zhang Jixian, a doctor at Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, tells China’s CDC equivalent that he believes the mystery illnesses are caused by a new – novel – coronavirus
December 31: China reports the existence of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan to the World Health Organization, saying they started on December 12. Confirmed cases stand at 266
January 1: Chinese authorities close the Wuhan wet market, in the belief that wild animals sold for meat may have been the source of the virus, Confirmed cases are 281
January 3: Alex Azar, HHS secretary, and other health officials are first warned about contagion in China. President’s daily briefing is reported by CNN to include a warning about the outbreak in Wuhan for the first time; the Washington Post however suggests it was some days after this
January 5: SARS and MERS are not the source of the pneumonia infections, China says
January 7: Novel coronavirus is reported to have been isolated by Chinese authorities
January 9: First reported death from the virus, a 61-year-old man said to have been exposed at the wet market
January 11: WHO are told by China’s national health commission – its equivalent of the CDC – that the outbreak is associated with the Wuhan wet market
January 16: Japanese authorities report the first infection outside China, a man who traveled to Wuhan
January 20: Dr Tony Fauci announces the NIH has started work on a virus
January 20: First case on U.S. soil is reported in Washington, a 35-year-old man who had been in Wuhan
January 22: Donald Trump addresses coronavirus for the first time when he is interviewed by CNBC’s Squawkbox at Davos. ‘Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?’ he is asked by anchor Joe Kernen, and answers: ‘No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.’
January 29: Peter Navarro writes ‘memo for the president’ warning of up to 5 million dead Americans and a $6 trillion hit on the economy from the virus. On April 7 Trump says he ‘never read it’ then on April 8 dodges whether he was briefed on it saying he does not remember