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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

How Trump looked past experts' input as a coronavirus disaster neared

Dr. Robert Redfield, right, director of the Centers

Dr. Robert Redfield, right, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listens as President Donald Trump meets with nurses March 18 at the White House. Credit: Bloomberg / Kevin Dietsch

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Time after time, President Donald Trump displays a unique gift for turning away from expert advisers and then telling the public whatever he feels like saying.

Now, with the U.S. swept by a dangerous pathogen, his listening deficit might seem like a pathology.

Last September, White House economists warned in a study that a pandemic could, hypothetically, kill half a million Americans and wreck the economy. Among other things, the study called for new federal efforts to develop different influenza vaccines.

More pointedly, a series of U.S. Health and Human Services run-through exercises that ended last August resulted in a draft report, marked "not to be disclosed."

The report, posted in full by The New York Times, suggested that underfunding and a lack of statutory authority would hamper federal response to an influenza pandemic.

And it flagged confusion about who'd be in charge, how state officials and hospitals would face problems finding available equipment and how states and cities would go different ways on school closings.

Sound familiar?

Other interesting information has been made available to the president, including a classified U.S. intelligence report showing that China has minimized its own coronavirus outbreak by underreporting numbers of cases and deaths.

Trump said Wednesday he had yet to see the information, but he told reporters Beijing's rendition of the problem appeared “to be a little bit on the light side, and I’m being nice when I say that, relative to what we witnessed and what was reported."

He then emphasized his "very good" relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

On television in early February, with fewer than a dozen U.S. coronavirus cases reported, Trump said travel restrictions in the U.S. stopped the spread.

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” he said.

Days later, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “This virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year."

A week later, however, Trump moved the goalposts, saying, "There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus.”

There were other theories, too, including what we face now.

In 2018, the White House disbanded the National Security Council's pandemic office, established under President Barack Obama, after only two Ebola cases in the U.S. proved fatal. These were from among nine people who had traveled here as regular airline passengers or medical evacuees.

Beth Cameron, a biodefense expert, ran the office before its demise in 2017. She wrote in an opinion piece posted last month: "I was mystified when the White House dissolved the office, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19. The U.S. government’s slow and inadequate response to the new coronavirus underscores the need for organized, accountable leadership to prepare for and respond to pandemic threats."

Dismissing the views of inside experts, without spelling out reasons or alternatives, seems to be standard White House practice.

When nonpartisan diplomats and security professionals called Trump's threats of a Ukrainian aid cutoff to solicit a political “favor” a bad idea, the objections were waved aside.

When environmental scientists in government sought to contest the administration's climate-change apathy, they, too, were blown off.

Advised by his strongest GOP allies in Congress against siphoning military funds for the border wall, Trump went ahead and did that, too.

Ignoring expert advice may be a president's choice, but if he isn't lucky, big trouble can result.


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