Trump Can’t Blame Intelligence Briefings for His Coronavirus Response

He had plenty of warnings. He just didn’t want to listen.

For what seems like the umpteenth time, there’s an article out describing how difficult it is for intelligence officials to brief the current president of the United States. The new one is authored by Julian Barnes and Adam Goldman of the New York Times, and it relies on “interviews with 10 current and former intelligence officials familiar with his intelligence briefings.”

There’s not a whole lot of fresh information in the piece, so it mostly reads like something you already know. Donald Trump is a colossal moron with the attention span and memory capacity of a gnat who doesn’t read his intelligence reports, ignores the advice of experts, spouts conspiracy theories, grows impatient when his nonsense is contradicted, and is generally unpleasant to be around. As a result, his briefers are always thrashing around trying to come up with ways to get Trump to actually pay attention, learn, remember and believe what he is being told.

I suppose the nation needs to be reminded of this dangerous state of affairs from time to time, but it’s something we’ve been told repeatedly for four years now. The reason it is cropping up again now is that Trump did his Fox News interview at the Lincoln Memorial and used the occasion to blame his intelligence briefer for his slow response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“On Jan. 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said in a recent interview with Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial. “In other words, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation and it was only on Jan. 23.”

Trump didn’t name his briefer, but her name is Beth Sanner and she’s a 56-year-old senior analyst at the CIA. Apparently, she made the mistake of explaining the virus by comparing it to the first SARS virus, which obviously wasn’t nearly as contagious as this second one, and was quickly contained. So, now she’s the fall gal.

As the article points out, Trump had plenty of other information flows and warnings available to him, including several that predated his intelligence briefing on January 23, so this isn’t a viable excuse. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported on a new study from disease modelers at Columbia University who estimate that Trump’s slow response cost at least 36,000 lives.

But in blaming Ms. Sanner, a C.I.A. analyst with three decades of experience, Mr. Trump ignored a host of warnings he received around that time from higher-ranking officials, epidemiologists, scientists, biodefense officials, other national security aides and the news media about the virus’s growing threat. Mr. Trump’s own health secretary had alerted him five days earlier to the potential seriousness of the virus.

By the time of the Jan. 23 intelligence briefing, many government officials were already alarmed by the signs of a crisis in China, where the virus first broke out, and of a world on the brink of disaster. Within days, other national security warnings prompted the Trump administration to restrict travel from China. But the United States lost its chance to more effectively mitigate the coronavirus in the following weeks when Mr. Trump balked at further measures that might have slowed its spread.

Obviously, it’s not just lives that were lost, but also money. Almost 40 million new unemployment claims have been made since the pandemic arrived in America, which is why Oxford Economics now projects that Trump will lose in a landslide and get approximately 35 percent of the popular vote. They see Biden winning the Electoral college by a margin of 328 to 210, which seems far too good for Trump if he’s only pulling in the mid-thirties nationally. Personally, I will be appalled if Trump tops 200 Electoral college votes.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com