Senior advisers in the Trump administration in February 2020 privately discussed the government’s “critical mistakes” in preparing for the coronavirus, countering optimistic claims President Donald Trump made in public, according to emails obtained by the House select subcommittee on the pandemic.
“In truth we do not have a clue how many are infected in the USA. We are expecting the first wave to spread in the US within the next 7 days,” adviser Steven Hatfill wrote to Peter Navarro, the president’s trade director, on Feb. 29, 2020. “This will be accompanied by a massive loss of credibility and the Democratic accusations are just now beginning. This must be countered with frank honesty about the situation and decisive direct actions that are being taken and can be seen in the broadcast news.”
Hatfill, a virologist who began advising the Trump White House in February 2020, blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for rolling out flawed coronavirus tests and urged Navarro to begin purchasing additional testing supplies, and to develop alternative ways to immediately screen for virus infections and deploy additional emergency response staff. His warning to Navarro came hours after Trump boasted of his administration’s “pretty amazing” response to the coronavirus.
“We have 15 people [infected] in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that,” Trump said at a political rally in South Carolina, where he charged that Democrats were “politicizing the coronavirus … this is their new hoax.”
After receiving Hatfill’s message — accompanied by an admonishment that “from now on, the government must be honest” — Navarro privately warned Trump in a March 1, 2020, memo that the federal response was “NOT fast enough” and that a “very serious public health emergency” was looming. Trump continued to downplay the virus’s risks in public, assuring Americans the pandemic was being contained and that his government was being “totally proactive” in its response.
“We are, really, very highly prepared for anything,” Trump said in a March 6 visit to the CDC, inaccurately claiming that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” — amid testing shortages that would persist for weeks.
Using personal email accounts, Navarro and Hatfill strategized on White House memos about virus preparations and discussed plans to scale up the U.S. health system’s coronavirus response in March 2020, such as a “crash program” to boost access to N95 masks.
“These exchanges add to the growing body of evidence that the Trump Administration knew the significant risk posed by the coronavirus but failed to execute an effective strategy to reduce the loss of American lives,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., wrote Tuesday to Navarro, requesting all documents in Navarro’s possession related to the government’s response last year.
Clyburn also said he is seeking details on Navarro’s compliance with federal records law and Trump officials’ use of personal email accounts. According to Clyburn, the subcommittee has obtained more than 80 messages related to the government’s coronavirus strategy that Navarro sent to other White House staff using a personal ProtonMail account.
The Democrat-led panel had previously opened a probe into Navarro’s “haphazard” management of more than $1 billion in hastily arranged coronavirus supply contracts last year, and has been investigating political interference by Trump officials at the CDC and other agencies.
“The Select Subcommittee seeks to understand what the leaders in the Trump Administration knew, when they knew it, and how their decisions may have contributed to the catastrophic loss of life,” Clyburn wrote Tuesday.
Hatfill told The Washington Post that he stood by his private predictions about the nation’s lack of pandemic preparedness and claimed that Trump had been misled by bad advice from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who became a foil for Navarro. Hatfill also said federal officials often played down the risks of public health crises.
“Historically, the government has been reluctant to fully inform the public in hopes of quelling panic,” Hatfill said in a statement, criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The former White House official on Tuesday is set to announce a new memoir, “In Trump Time: A Journal of America’s Plague Year,” which will be published by conservative outlet All Seasons Press and has already been posted for sale on Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Emails released by the subcommittee show that Navarro and Hatfill collaborated on a planned May 2020 presentation to encourage the use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, as a treatment for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Fauci and other health officials resisted their efforts to promote the drug, citing a lack of evidence that it worked to fight the virus — a source of frustration for Navarro and Hatfill, who repeatedly attacked Fauci in the emails for his “outrageous bias” and other alleged mistakes. The feud spilled into the news media, although the White House later distanced itself from some of Navarro’s public criticism of Fauci.
The two men also received a July 2020 plea to help a mask manufacturer known as VPL deal with scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which Hatfill forwarded to a White House official. The email did not mention that the new company had been the subject of a ProPublica investigation the prior month.