- President Donald Trump dismissed warnings from Health Secretary Alex Azar about the threat posed by the coronavirus in January as “alarmist,” reported The Washington Post Saturday.
- Azar was reportedly concerned that the president was not taking his warnings seriously enough, but officials told the Post Azar could’ve stressed the urgency of the problem more strongly.
- A White House spokesman dismissed the report as “palace intrigue.”
- In the early weeks of the outbreak, Trump dismissed the coronavirus as no worse than the common flu, described it as a “hoax,” and predicted the problem would pass in a matter of weeks.
- The US now has more coronavirus infections than anywhere else in the world.
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President Donald Trump dismissed as “alarmist” warnings back in January from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, reported The Washington Post Saturday.
In an investigation into the series of wasted opportunities in government agencies and the Trump administration to mitigate the impact of the outbreak, the Post reported that Azar called Trump back on January 18 while the president was staying at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to brief him about the disease.
According to the report, the president cut Azar off before he could begin to renew criticism of him over a botched federal vaping ban.
At the time, the virus was rapidly spreading in China but Trump’s attention was fixed on the ongoing impeachment trial being conducted in the US Senate.
It was on January 18 that the US introduced screening procedures for people travelling from China who showed signs of the illness.
The health secretary, who was involved in the federal government's response to 9/11 and the 2002 SARS outbreak, told several associates that the president believed his warnings were "alarmist," and asked one confidante for advice as he struggled to get the president to focus on the issue.
Some officials told the Post that in retrospect Azar could've been more forceful in stressing the urgency of the threat facing the US.
The HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to the Post, White House spokesman Judson Deere said: "While the media would rather speculate about outrageous claims of palace intrigue, President Trump and this Administration remain completely focused on the health and safety of the American people with around the clock work to slow the spread of the virus, expand testing, and expedite vaccine development."
The US now has more than 200,000 recorded cases, the highest number in the world, and hospitals are struggling to obtain crucial equipment to treat victims and protect front-line health workers from infection.
Trump according to the Post was warned in a January intelligence briefing about the threat posed by the virus as well as by his health secretary, but in public statements for weeks continued to downplay the likely impact of the disease.
Days after receiving the warning from Azar, Trump told reporters that "we have it [the coronavirus] totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control."
By mid-February he was claiming that the virus would be gone by April, and at a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 28 described the coronavirus as the Democrats' "new hoax."
It was a lack or urgency from the White House, the failure to formulate a coherent chain of command and bureaucratic delays that meant that the US was unable to formulate a mass testing program in the early weeks of the outbreak to effectively track and isolate it, according to critics.
It was only in March - more than two months after being briefed by Azar - that Trump finally realised the scale of the problem facing his administration, and that his legacy would be defined by his response, according to the Post.