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The one way to tell Trump didn’t take coronavirus seriously

Focusing on threat earlier could have derailed impeachment

If President Donald Trump had seen the coronavirus pandemic coming and spent the beginning of this year focusing on it, Democrats might not have been able to pursue impeachment over his dealings with Ukraine, Gonzales writes.
If President Donald Trump had seen the coronavirus pandemic coming and spent the beginning of this year focusing on it, Democrats might not have been able to pursue impeachment over his dealings with Ukraine, Gonzales writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After weeks of minimizing the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump now claims that he took it seriously from the beginning and knew about the pandemic before anyone else. There’s one key piece of evidence that shows that is not true.

If Trump had taken the coronavirus more seriously, more quickly, he could have avoided the Senate impeachment trial and maybe even impeachment altogether.

Republicans and the president blame Democrats for focusing government resources on impeachment while the outbreak was occurring in China, when it’s Trump who could have essentially stopped the process in its tracks.

Imagine Democrats holding Senate deliberations about a phone call that took place six months ago, while the president was publicly preparing the nation to combat a historic health crisis. If Trump had used his bully pulpit effectively, Democrats would have had little choice but to wrap up their proceedings earlier than planned. Their political grievances, even if legitimate, would have looked small in comparison to the potential physical toll on thousands of Americans.

But that’s not how this has played out.

On Jan. 11, Chinese state media reported the first known death from coronavirus, according to the timeline from The New York Times. On Jan. 15, the House voted to send the impeachment articles it had approved on Dec. 18 to the Senate, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi named trial managers. Recall that Pelosi took fire over the holidays for holding on to the articles, seeking a Senate deal on trial procedures that never came.

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‘Totally under control’

On Jan. 20, the first confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States.

A CNBC reporter asked Trump on Jan. 22 whether there were worries about a pandemic. “No, not at all. We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” he responded.

That same day, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton (the senator who saw the coronavirus coming, according to the National Review) sent a letter encouraging the administration to consider banning travel from China and sounded the alarm on Twitter. “Once again, a deadly virus is emanating from China. Hundreds have fallen ill in Asia and at least one confirmed case has reached the United States. It’s imperative that the CCP be fully transparent and share information so we can stop this disease from spreading.”

A day later, on Jan. 23, House impeachment managers laid out their opening arguments on the Senate floor and, halfway across the world, China locked down the city of Wuhan.

‘Well under control’

A week later, on Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, senators were asking final questions during their trial before a critical vote on witnesses, and Trump predicted a good ending to the coronavirus.

“We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five — and those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us … that I can assure you,” he said in Michigan.

The next day, on Jan. 31, the president announced a ban on entry to foreign travelers, although not all travelers, who had been in China in the previous two weeks. And other members of Congress were sounding the alarm, “#Coronavirus is spreading as quickly as Spanish flu, which infected ~500 Million. And the #CCP is likely under-reporting cases. W/out reliable info, a pro-active response is needed. Quarantine is a good 1st step, @HHSGov,” Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks tweeted.

Almost a week later, on Feb. 5, the Senate voted to acquit president on both impeachment charges.

Pivoting to crisis response wouldn’t have spared Trump getting impeached by the House, since that official vote took place before the outbreak in China was known. But rather than trying to sabotage the impeachment trial on Twitter, Trump could have ended the whole process earlier than Democrats wanted by focusing on an external threat making its way to the homeland.

The House action, however, wasn’t a given either.

“This is a pandemic,” Trump told reporters on March 17. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” If we take him at his word, and he knew of the threat long before everyone else, then he could have focused on the coronavirus before the House vote.

In order to get ahead of the curve, the president might have been able to rely on intelligence from Predict, a program through the United States Agency for International Development that surveilled dangerous animal viruses that someday may infect humans. But funding for the program was cut by the federal government in September, the same month Pelosi announced the House would launch an impeachment inquiry into the president and his dealings with Ukraine.

Of course, Trump is going to say he knew about something before everyone else, and fact-checkers are going to call him on it. But, in the case of the coronavirus, he could be evaluated on his actions, not his words.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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