Memos sent to National Security Council in January and February warned of worst-case scenarios of COVID-19 outbreak

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White House Coronavirus Update Briefing

Ivana Venema-Nunez , Reporter

A memo written by Peter Navarro, President Trump’s trade adviser, warned back in January of this year of the consequences that the coronavirus outbreak could potentially bring, during a time that Trump was downplaying the outbreak, reportedly insinuating that Democrats were using the situation to sabotage his re-election campaign.

According to an article in the New York Times, the memo said that the administration faced a choice about how aggressive to be in containing an outbreak, suggesting that if taken seriously the economic costs would be relatively low.

“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenceless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” Navarro’s memo said. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperilling the lives of millions of Americans.”

According to the NYT article, this is the earliest, highest alert known to have been sent to the White House and Navarro emphasized that the “risk of a worst-case pandemic scenario should not be overlooked”, given the information coming from China, and warned that 500,000 Americans could die in a worst-case scenario.

The day this memo was sent was reportedly the same day President Trump named the Task Force to deal with the threat.

According to Axios a senior administration official, who is unnamed, felt skeptical when the January memo was received because of Navarro’s motives and warnings.

“The January travel 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,” the official said. “The supplemental memo 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.”

In addition, there was a second memo sent to numerous officials through the National Security Council (NSC) on Feb. 23. which was unsigned, but attributed to Navarro, where he warned of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1.2 million souls.” Navarro also wrote that this not to be the time for “penny-pinching or horse-trading on the Hill.” 

It is not clear if  Trump saw the second memo but it seemed aimed at members of the White House Task Force, according to the NYT article.

“Any member of the Task Force who wants to be cautious about appropriating funds for a crisis that could inflict trillions of dollars in economic damage and take millions of lives has come to the wrong administration,” the memo said.

Axios reported that Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist defended Navarro’s motives since he believes Navarro was 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,” Bannon reportedly said. “The naivete, arrogance and ignorance” of White House advisers who disagreed with Navarro “put the country and the world in jeopardy,” adding that Navarro was sidelined from the task force after the second memo, according to the article.

Navarro is now in charge of supply chain issues for medical and other equipment needed to deal with COVID-19.