WASHINGTON — In mid-March, a National Security Council team rushed to fix what they saw as a threat to the U.S. government’s ability to function amid the advancing pandemic: a lack of masks to protect enough staff on the White House complex.
Alarmed by the small cache and the growing signs of an acute shortage of protective gear in the United States, a senior NSC official turned to a foreign government for help, according to people familiar with the situation.
The outreach resulted in a donation of hundreds of thousands of surgical masks from Taiwan, which had plentiful domestic production and had sharply curtailed the spread of the coronavirus on the island.
While the bulk of Taiwan’s goodwill shipment went to the Strategic National Stockpile, 3,600 were set aside for White House staff and officials, administration officials said.
“While the administration had detailed pandemic response plans, somehow those did not include maintaining a supply of masks for White House personnel,” said an administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “That was a lesson learned. We did look at buying some, but couldn’t find available supply.”
A White House spokesman disputed the notion that the complex did not have a sufficient supply of masks, but declined to say how many were on hand or why the NSC turned to a foreign government for a donation.
The urgent appeal to Taiwan on March 14 highlights a stark conflict between the Trump administration’s stance then on the use of masks and the race behind the scenes to obtain them for key White House personnel. At the time, the U.S. government was discouraging the public from wearing masks, saying that healthy people didn’t need them and that the gear should be saved for front-line medical workers most at risk of infection.
Because of that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House was not issuing masks to its staff, according to two officials. But inside the NSC, a top deputy was convinced that face coverings should be used more broadly to protect both his team and the public at large.
The resulting arrangement he struck with Taipei made thousands of masks available for White House staff use two weeks before the administration reversed policy and advised that citizens should broadly begin wearing cloth face coverings in public.
The episode reveals how some top White House officials were pushing for a wider embrace of masks early on to help slow the infection’s spread.
President Donald Trump resisted endorsing such guidance, the subject of sharp debate between his advisers and government health experts, and even after doing so, declared that he would not personally wear one.
But some NSC aides believed masks should be widely available to help contain the outbreak. They discovered in early March there were not enough on stock for all personnel on the White House complex, according to an administration official.
The White House Military Office, which oversees the medical unit, is responsible for girding the White House for a crisis, including supplying necessary protective equipment and ensuring the continuity of government operations.
The White House said the office had sufficient supplies to protect the president, the first family and essential personnel.
“While we would never discuss the specifics about safety and security measures at the White House, the Medical Unit and Military Office have the needed supplies to execute on long-standing continuity of government plans that essential personnel are protected by and briefed on as soon as they arrive — and quite frankly, it’s ignorant, naive or intentionally dishonest for anyone to suggest otherwise,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.
The White House has enough masks for all senior personnel who are deemed essential to continue operating the government, a small subset of the staff, said another administration official said, who noted that roughly three-quarters of White House staff are now teleworking due to the crisis.
At the time the NSC secured masks from Taiwan, “it was not CDC guidance for all staff to have them, so in the same way you couldn’t request a test if you were asymptomatic and had no cause for concern, we weren’t giving masks from our stockpiles at that time,” the official said.
If wearing masks became mandatory, “we would have enough for staff still in the building to protect them,” the official said, and could obtain more from a federal agency stockpile.
When Taiwan later announced its mask donation, it did not mention that a portion were going to White House staff. A joint statement between the two countries said they would collaborate on “exchanges of medical supplies and equipment.”
The deal was sensitive in Taiwan, which had banned commercial exports of masks to protect supply for its citizens. China, which claims the island as part of its territory, called the transfer of masks to the United States during a pandemic “despicable behavior” and said it was provoking a “confrontation with the Motherland.”
A spokesman for the Taiwanese government declined to discuss private diplomatic discussions with the U.S. government, but pointed to public statements about its shipments of medical supplies to the United States.
After its initial shipment of masks for the U.S. government, Taiwan late last month announced it was donating 10 million masks to foreign countries to help combat the pandemic. It is now expected to send 3.5 million to the United States, earmarked for emergency medical workers.
The search at the White House for more protective masks came amid a blizzard of conflicting messages and division within the administration about the best ways to stem the spread of the virus and the deadly COVID-19 disease it causes.
“It’s going to disappear,” Trump said on Feb. 27. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
From January until April 3, the White House Task Force, the CDC and the U.S. Surgeon General were all telling the American public that healthy people should not use masks or face coverings to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams stressed most Americans faced low risk of infection, but warned that mask wearers could heighten their risk because they were more likely to touch their faces as they adjusted their masks. He urged the public to save the supply for medical workers on the front lines.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” Adams tweeted on Feb. 29, as stores across the country sold out. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
But inside the White House, another team had become convinced that a broader user of masks could help reduce infection and save American lives, as well as ensure the White House functioned without widespread illness, according to people familiar with the situation.
Since January, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger had been monitoring the coronavirus outbreak in Asia, aides said, and was warning White House leaders that he believed it posed a grave threat to the United States.
Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had covered the SARS epidemic in Asia, had been in regular talks with his Asian contacts about their strategies for limiting the spread of infection and focused on a striking correlation.
A handful of places that had kept infection rates miraculously low — specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan — also had citizens who broadly wore face coverings and masks in public from the earliest signs of the virus in their communities. Despite having high density populations, and being near the epicenter of the Wuhan outbreak in China, both had managed to control the outbreak.
As of Tuesday, Taiwan had 393 people infected and six die; while Hong Kong recorded 1,013 cases and four deaths. By contrast, Australia, a country similar to Taiwan in its population that has significant trade links to China, has more than 6,000 cases.
Pottinger, who began wearing a basic surgical mask before his senior peers, was in search with members of his team of both a reliable supply of face coverings for the nation and for NSC staff and other White House personnel, according to people familiar with the situation.
While health-care experts have emphasized the need for front-line medical workers to have N95 respirators, which filter at least 95% of airborne particles, widespread use of simple cloth masks in parts of Asia cut transmission there.
NSC leaders were concerned about keeping essential White House personnel safe, including those on the council and in the Situation Room, who couldn’t work remotely but had to continue to work in proximity on secure systems.
And there was a growing worry about a mask crunch in the United States amid reports that the Strategic National Stockpile had not significantly replenished since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and widespread accounts of supplies running out for emergency medical workers.
“Matt certainly has a lot of expertise in Asia, and lived there during the SARS epidemic, so I think his personal experience was informing his policy recommendations and response,” said Randall Schriver, who left the Trump administration in December as the top Asia policy expert at the Pentagon.
NSC staff first consulted with the medical unit, a team of about two dozen that acts as a clinic and treats the president, vice president and White House staff, officials said.
“We were told that the medical staff had a good supply of masks, but that, like any other medical unit in the coronavirus response, they could always use more,” an NSC official said.
White House aides then turned to the private market for masks and encountered a dearth of immediately available supplies, according to an administration official.
Pottinger hit on another idea: He had learned that Taiwan, an island of 24 million, had a robust domestic supply chain for cloth masks and the capacity to manufacture billions.
During a call on March 14 with an official in the Taiwanese government, he asked if the country would be willing to provide the U.S. government with some of its supply. Days later, Taiwan formally agreed to a government-to-government shipment of 500,000 masks, according to people familiar with the arrangement. The island donated surgical masks, not N95 respirators.
NSC officials decided to earmark a small portion for the White House, while the rest went to the national stockpile according to the people familiar with the situation.
At the time, Taiwan had a ban on the commercial export of masks to meet the needs of its own citizens, which were only allowed to buy a limited number a week.
The shipment of masks between the United States and Taiwan sidestepped this ban because it was a government-to-government arrangement, rather than a foreign purchase from a Taiwanese manufacturer, according to people familiar with the deal.
Around March 24, 500,000 masks arrived in the United States from Taiwan, including the shipment of 3,600 for the White House, they said.
The NSC kept half for its staff and gave the remaining 1,800 to the White House medical unit to issue to other personnel on the White House complex.
The handling of the goodwill shipment to the U.S. government concerned some U.S. officials involved in the arrangements, who were disturbed that a subset of masks went directly to the White House at a time when doctors and nurses were crafting homemade gear and U.S. policy stated that civilians shouldn’t wear masks, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
White House officials noted that the vast majority of the masks from Taiwan were prioritized for medical staff and front-line responders and sent to the Strategic National Stockpile.
Taiwan’s contributions to the United States also rankled China. Its Taiwan Affairs Office sharply criticized the island’s announcement on March 18 that it would send hundreds of thousands of masks to the United States, calling it tantamount to “kidnapping the health and well-being of the people of Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu dismissed China’s criticisms, saying his duty is to promote friendly relations with other countries, not to “flatter China.”
On April 3, the CDC reversed its guidance to the public on wearing masks — three weeks after the NSC made its emergency plea to Taiwan. In doing so, the agency noted that people should use simple cloth masks, not N95 masks or surgical masks, which should be reserved for medical workers.
The reversal came as prominent infectious disease experts began arguing that wearing face coverings could help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and amid increasing medical evidence that people without any symptoms of infection were transmitting the virus to others.
Trump was not enthusiastic about the move, which he and senior advisers feared could cause a panic, but agreed to it after briefings.
In announcing the decision, the president added that he would not likely cover his face in public.
“You don’t have to do it,” he said. “They suggested for a period of time. This is voluntary. I don’t think I am going to be doing it.”