President Donald Trump said Tuesday he had not seen jarring memos drafted by his trade advisor Peter Navarro that warned of catastrophic potential outcomes from the coronavirus.
Trump was asked about the memos – which claimed as many as 2 million Americans might die and a full-blown pandemic could cost the economy trillions, while warning of the desperate need for medical equipment.
He spoke hours after the Navarro memos surfaced, as the nation grappled with 12,000 coronavirus deaths and counting and rushed to produce ventilators and face masks.
‘I didn’t see them, but I heard he wrote some memos talking about pandemic. I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them either,’ Trump said.
‘I didn’t see them, but I heard he wrote some memos talking about pandemic,’ Donald Trump said Tuesday after reports of doomsday scenarios his trade advisor circulated in the White House
Trump did express familiarity with recent press reports on the memos – and said he talked to Navarro about them recently. He described himself as responding to the urgent tone by closing down travel from China, an action he took Feb. 2 that included non-U.S. citizens from China.
‘But that was about the same time as I felt that we should do it. That was about the same time that I closed it down. I asked him [Navarro] about it just a little while ago because I read something about a memo. I said, did you do a memo? I didn’t look – I didn’t see it,’ Trump said.
Trump also indicated he had not yet seen the memos – which were reported in the New York Times and printed in their entirety by Axios.
‘I didn’t ask him to show it to me. He said, yes, I talked about the possibility of a pandemic. Nobody said it’s going to happen, but, you know, there is a possibility, there always has been a possibility, but people wouldn’t talk about it. but it was right about the time that I closed it down,’ Trump said.
Trump was again asked about his optimistic statements at the time that said the number of U.S. cases would soon be down to zero.
‘But you have to understand, I’m a cheerleader for this country,’ Trump said.
Trump said his action on China, which came about two weeks after the first U.S. infection through travel: ‘And it was right about that time. But i’m not going to go out and start screaming this could happen, this could happen. So, again, as president, I think a president has to be a cheerleader for their country. But at the same time I’m cheerleading, I’m also closing down a very highly infected place,’ Trump said.
Navarro, a China hawk within the administration, warned the Trump administration in late January and again in February that failing to contain coronavirus could cost the US trillions of dollars and millions of American lives.
Asked when he learned about the memos, Trump said: ‘I read about it a day ago, maybe two days ago.’ The February memo seeking a congressional appropriation was titled: ‘MEMORANDUM TO PRESIDENT THROUGH NSC, COS, COVID-19 TASK FORCE,’ in reference to the chief of staff and the coronavirus task force.
A dire January 29 memo was titled: ‘MEMORANDUM TO NSC’ – the National Security Council – and bore Navarro’s name. Axios described it as a memo to White House staff.
Navarro, Trump’s trade advisor, issued his first grim warning in a memo dated January 29 – just days after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the US.
At the time, Trump was publicly downplaying the risk that the novel coronavirus posed to Americans – though weeks later he would assert that no one could have predicted the devastation seen today.
Navarro penned a second memo about a month later on February 23, in which he warned that as many as two million Americans could die from the virus as it tightened its grip on the nation.
The memos were obtained by the New York Times and Axios on Monday, as the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide surpassed 368,200 with at least 11,000 deaths.
Trade adviser Peter Navarro warned top Trump officials in late January and again in February that failing to contain coronavirus could cost the US trillions of dollars and millions of American lives. Trump is seen with Navarro (center) at a March 9 press briefing on coronavirus
Navarro’s memos were obtained by the New York Times and Axios on Monday, as the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide surpassed 368,200 with at least 11,000 deaths
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.
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 U.S. 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.’
Navarro stated that the administration faced a choice about how aggressive it would be in containing the outbreak, offering two different scenarios.
The first scenario suggested that the disease could be on par with a ‘seasonal flu’, resulting in relatively low human and economic costs.
But Navarro further asserted that ‘risk of a worst-case pandemic scenario should not be overlooked’, given information emerging from China.
He specifically cited one worst-case scenario in which more than 500,000 Americans could die.
Navarro’s initial memo is dated January 29 – days after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the US. At the time, Trump was publicly downplaying the risk the virus posed to Americans
Navarro sent the first memo to the National Security Council before it was distributed among Trump administration officials, according to the Times.
It was penned on the same day that Trump unveiled his White House task force to address the threat.
The following day, the president announced limits on travel from China – which Navarro had pushed for in his memo.
But it wasn’t until weeks later that Trump implemented more aggressive measures to stem the spread of the virus, under ongoing criticism from many who’ve said he acted too slowly.
People familiar with the memo’s distribution told the Times that it reached a number of top officials – including aides to then-Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
However, the sources said it was unclear if Trump ever saw it.
Navarro and Matthew Pottinger, the chief deputy at the National Security Council, were among the few officials pushing for the administration to take stronger action against the growing coronavirus threat in late January.
Some officials have argued that their concerns are more prescient in hindsight than they were at the time.
One official told Axios that the January memo ‘struck me as an alarmist attempt to bring attention to Peter’s anti-China agenda while presenting an artificially limited range of policy options’.
Trump announced limits on travel from China one day after Navarro issued the memo. Pictured: A medical worker treats a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak originated in late December
Navarro opened the memo by writing: ‘If the probability of a pandemic is greater than roughly 1%, a game-theoretic analysis of the coronavirus indicates the clear dominant strategy is an immediate travel ban on China.’
At another point he concluded: ‘Regardless of whether the coronavirus proves to be a pandemic-level outbreak, there are certain costs associated with engaging in policies to contain and mitigate the spread of the disease.
‘The most readily available option to contain the spread of the outbreak is to issue a travel ban to and from the source of the outbreak, namely, mainland China.’
He cited an estimate by the Council of Economic Advisers’ which indicated that banning travel from China would cost $2.9billion per month – or $34.6billion over a year.
But he also noted that without containment a pandemic could cost the US up to $5.7trillion, depending on how deadly it was.
Navarro pointed to the history of pandemic flus as he suggested that the chances of a new one were elevated by the novel coronavirus strain.
‘Historical precedent alone should be sufficient to prove the need to take aggressive action to contain the outbreak,’ he wrote.
He went on to say that early figures on how easy the virus was spreading indicated that it posed even greater risks than aforementioned pandemic flus.
Navarro’s second memo was addressed specifically to President Trump, but was not explicitly signed by the trade adviser.
In it he warned that a third of the country could be infected by COVID-19, resulting in anywhere between a million and two million deaths.
He requested $3billion for immediate aid to ‘support efforts at prevention, treatment, inoculation, and diagnostics’, writing: ‘This is NOT a time for penny-pinching or horse trading on the Hill.’
The White House official who spoke to Axios about the memos said that the second one ‘lacked any basis for its projections, which led some staff to worry that it could needlessly rattle markets and may not direct funding where it was truly needed’.
Neither Navarro nor the White House returned requests for comment from the Times or Axios.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon defended Navarro’s motives to Axios, calling the memos ‘prophetic’.
Bannon charged that Navarro had been forced to put his concerns in writing because ‘there was total blockage to get these facts in front of the President of the United States’.
He said that ‘naivete, arrogance and ignorance’ from White House advisers ‘put the country and the world in jeopardy’ – adding that Navarro had been sidelined from the task force after voicing his concerns.
‘In this Kafkaesque nightmare, nobody would pay attention to him or the facts,’ Bannon said.