On the January day a new coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China, Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump’s former homeland security adviser, tweeted a stark warning: “we face a global health threat.”
“Coordinate!” he implored.
At the time, the coronavirus outbreak was isolated to China — a distant threat to America that did not seem to overly concern President Donald Trump. But Bossert was just one of several former Trump administration officials waving their arms. Other people like Scott Gottlieb, head of the Food and Drug Administration until 2019, and Gary Cohn, who once helmed the National Economic Council, were also on TV and Twitter, arguing the administration must prepare for the situation to get worse. The people who had once been seen as Trump’s guardrails inside the administration were now trying to educate from the outside.
“My sole motivation for weighing in is to promote good public health awareness to do everything within our means to limit human loss or suffering,” Bossert said in an interview Thursday.
Indeed, the advice proved prescient. The virus has now landed on American shores and is infiltrating communities across the country. Theaters are shuttered, sporting events have ground to a halt, travel has slowed to a crawl. Offices are closed and officials are asking people to stay home. Around the world, financial markets are trembling.
And many health experts have said the situation has grown dire because the Trump administration didn’t heed these warnings.
The ominous message coming from former administration officials often stood in contrast to the upbeat White House narrative. As people like Bossert and Gottlieb pushed for the administration and public to recognize the virus’s disruptive potential, those immediately around the president publicly echoed Trump’s refrain that everything would soon return to normal. The disconnect is perhaps an example of the evolution of Trump’s administration — dissenting voices have fallen away in favor of those more willing to toe the Trump line.
A former administration official who worked with Gottlieb said the ex-FDA chief “saw pretty early on that people weren’t taking this seriously. And I can’t say if he was talking about the administration or the public at large, but he was trying to sound the alarm.”
On Twitter and TV, Gottlieb, Bossert and Cohn, among others, struck an urgent tone, while the president insisted the virus was “very much under control in the USA,” even predicting in late February that the number of cases would be close to zero “within a couple of days” and falsely claiming that a vaccine would soon arrive. As of Thursday, the number of cases had sailed past 1,000 and a vaccine remains at least a year away.
Recognizing the escalating situation, Cohn, a Wall Street heavyweight, has called for airline bailouts and economic support for gig workers and people in travel industries. At the White House, Cohn’s replacement, Larry Kudlow, has grabbed attention for a different reason — asserting in February, “We have contained this, I won't say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”
Bossert said the administration should mimic the strict mitigation efforts of Hong Kong and Singapore to avoid an uncontrolled outbreak. He praised Trump’s early move to restrict travel from China but gave a blunt assessment in March of the situation, calling it “a fire that threatens to burn out of control.”
“Simply put, as evidence of human-to-human transmission becomes clear in a community, officials must pull the trigger on aggressive interventions,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Gottlieb was perhaps the most vocal of the group. He appeared on television, authored op-eds and tweeted up a storm calling for social distancing and a federal bailout package.
Gottlieb’s comments on testing and test distribution even caught Trump’s attention.
“I watched Scott Gottlieb today, who was with us, and I respect him a lot. I like him and respect him. He was talking about how — in some instances, in California we have too many [coronavirus tests], and in other cases, distribution can be a little different for different areas,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday. “We've done a good job on testing. It's very interesting. You might ask Scott about it, actually.”
But Gottlieb views the administration’s testing shortcomings as a “historic blunder,” according to the former official. And Gottlieb made his opinion known.
“There should have been, I think, a sense of urgency about taking an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach and trying to get all of the diagnostic players into the game as early as possible,” Gottlieb told the USA Today editorial board. “We ended up doing all those things but we ended up doing them late. And now we’re still behind the curve.“
He reiterated the message Thursday on MSNBC: “I fear that we are a little late to this.”
Bossert said he and others he served with are speaking up not as a check on the White House but to share their experience.
“People that have been involved in serious and high level positions in government who have some experience often exhibit two qualities — the first is an underlying desire to serve and the second is a desire to help the effort,” he said. “They’ve learned from their experience and want to use it and be useful.”
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.