As Trump administration debated travel restrictions, thousands streamed in from China

By Katherine Eban
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Trump leads daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House in Washington

By Katherine Eban

(Reuters) - In defending his strategy against the deadly coronavirus, President Donald Trump repeatedly has said he slowed its spread into the United States by acting decisively to bar travelers from China on Jan. 31.

“I was criticized by the Democrats when I closed the Country down to China many weeks ahead of what almost everyone recommended. Saved many lives,” he tweeted, for instance, on March 2.

But Reuters has found that the administration took a month from the time it learned of the outbreak in late December to impose the initial travel restrictions amid furious infighting.

During that time, the National Security Council staff, the state department and other federal agencies argued about everything from how best to screen for sick travelers to the economic impact of any restrictions, according to two government officials familiar with the deliberations.

The NSC staff ultimately proposed aggressive travel restrictions to high-level administration officials - but it took at least a week more for the president to adopt them, one of the government officials said.

In meetings, Matthew Pottinger, deputy national security adviser and a China expert, met opposition from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, said two former NSC officials and one of the government officials involved in the deliberations. The two top aides were concerned about economic fallout from barring travelers from China, the sources said.

Each day that the administration debated the travel measures, roughly 14,000 travelers arrived in the United States from China, according to figures cited by the Trump administration. Among them was a traveler who came from Wuhan to Seattle in mid-January, who turned out to be the first confirmed case in the United States.

On Jan. 22, Trump downplayed the threat posed by the virus, telling CNBC from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “We have it totally under control.”

The battle within the White House over whether and how to stop infected travelers from China lasted nine more days.

On Jan. 31, Trump issued a proclamation barring entry of non-U.S. citizens, other than the immediate family of citizens and permanent residents, who had traveled to China within the last two weeks. The restrictions have since been expanded to many other countries.

It is unclear when the president was made aware of the NSC’s proposal and what prompted his decision to act, but the decision followed the World Health Organization's declaration the day before that the epidemic was a "public health emergency of international concern.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials told Reuters that they contributed to the decision as part of the administration's newly convened coronavirus task force.

A Treasury Department spokesperson said that Mnuchin “never objected to the decision to restrict flights from China.”

A White House spokesman, Judd P Deere, said: “Any suggestion that Larry Kudlow objected to restricting flights from China to contain COVID-19 and protect the health of the American people is completely false. Larry fully supported the President’s bold decision.”

In a statement, NSC spokesman John Ullyot said that the council’s early meetings about the coronavirus involved great expertise and robust discussion and were professional.

As of April 4, the coronavirus has infected more than 300,000 people in the United States, and killed over 8,000, according to the Reuters coronavirus tracker. The country has more cases than anywhere else in the world.

The sources for this story, former NSC members, public health officials and others involved in, or briefed on, the administration’s response, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the record.


POPPING A FLARE

The NSC, which operates within the White House to coordinate policies and recommendations involving national security across agencies, was at the center of the effort to formulate the early response to the outbreak.

The council was first notified of the outbreak on the morning of Dec. 31, according to one of the government officials involved, when an NSC official was forwarded an email from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attache in Beijing that had been sent to senior HHS officials the night before.

The “pop-a-flare” notice, as it is known, described strange cases of pneumonia that could not be definitively traced to seasonal flu, said the government official, who saw the message. The email said the Chinese would soon be notifying the World Health Organization, the official said.

On Jan. 3, Dr. Gao Fu, head of China’s disease control agency, informed his U.S. counterpart, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, in an emotional telephone call that the outbreak was growing out of control, according to the same federal official and a former NSC official. Both said they had been informed of the details.

Gao’s agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Ullyot, the NSC spokesman, disputed the timeline, saying the council did not learn of the coronavirus outbreak until Jan. 3. The CDC, a part of HHS, confirmed to Reuters that it learned of an outbreak in late December and that the call with Gao occurred Jan. 3.

Health agencies were scrambling to gather information, the two government officials involved in the deliberations said. Questions went back to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and experts across the government: How many travelers arrive daily from Wuhan, China, the initial site of the outbreak? What U.S. airports do they fly into? What would be the pros and cons, including costs, of any travel restriction?

In discussions with the NSC, public health officials, including from HHS and CDC, initially argued for the targeted approach of medically screening travelers from Wuhan, as they sifted through information about where and how quickly the virus was spreading, one of the government officials involved said. Public health officials tend not to favor border closures because they can restrict medical response and divert limited resources.

The NSC’s Pottinger was pushing hard for strict travel restrictions - expressing doubt about the truth of the data China was releasing, according to the official.

There was “a lot of yelling, a sign of frustration,” said a former NSC staffer who was not in the meetings but got messages from colleagues in attendance expressing dismay. The person described the messages but did not share them with Reuters. The two current federal officials confirmed the acrimony.

The NSC struggled to reconcile conflicting viewpoints, the two government officials involved said.

The debate delayed the screening of travelers from China by at least a week, one of the officials said. CDC officials ultimately announced enhanced medical screenings for travelers from Wuhan at three international airports, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York’s John F. Kennedy, on Jan. 17, expanding them to 20 U.S. airports by Jan. 28.

At one point, during a meeting, Pottinger snapped at health officials that their approach “really has to take a step back,” so that national security interests could shape the response, the official said.

The CDC declined to comment on the debate.

Some former NSC officials who spoke to Reuters traced what they saw as an ineffective response by the council in part to structural changes in 2018 in which former National Security adviser John Bolton had folded the council’s Global Health Security and Biodefense directorate into a larger operation, with the result that pandemic planning was not as great a priority. Others said that, under Bolton, the NSC worked effectively on biopreparedness, but after he departed it lost a number of important experts.

NSC spokesman Ullyot rejected as false the suggestion that the council lacked expertise. The council is staffed by officials with “extensive experience in virology, infectious disease epidemiology, global health security, public health, and emergency response,” he said.

The NSC’s own public health experts were involved in the discussions from the beginning, advocating “early and often” for traveler screening and raising the issue of banning flights from Wuhan, he said.

While the conflict soured the interactions, one of the government officials involved said, data soon emerged that led the health agency officials to agree with Pottinger: A travel restriction for all of China was needed. They saw that there were thousands of travelers arriving daily from Wuhan’s Hubei province to the United States, as well as a rising number of Covid-19 cases reported by the Chinese government beginning in mid-January, the source said.

In its statement to Reuters, the CDC did not directly address what led to its ultimate decision to support the travel restrictions.

By Jan. 24, the staff of the NSC had proposed restricting flights from China, said the government official involved in the deliberations. But as Pottinger met with deputies from other cabinet-level agencies, the recommendation met with resistance because of concerns about spooking the markets and scaring the public, three sources with knowledge of the deliberations told Reuters.


STILL DIVIDED

With opinions still divided, the matter went to top White House aides, at which point Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Kudlow argued strongly against the travel restrictions, said two former NSC officials and the government official involved in the deliberations.

In addition to the impact on the stock market, the two top aides expressed concern about the supply chain for everything from semiconductors to ingredients for pharmaceuticals, said one of the government officials involved in the deliberations.

Pottinger was “pleading with Mnuchin and others” to stop travelers from coming, the former NSC official said.

By then, the first known patient in the United States - a man in his 30s who had traveled from Wuhan to Seattle on Jan. 15 – tested positive for the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

He had slipped through travel screenings because his trip had been broken up, so the Wuhan origin of his trip had not been obvious to customs agents, said the government official with knowledge of the deliberations.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump told CNBC on Jan. 22: “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

On Jan. 29, the Council of Economic Advisers, which advises the president on economic policy, presented an analysis describing a worst-case scenario of what a pandemic and travel restrictions could do to the economy, according to one of the government officials involved in the deliberations, who read it. The report supported Kudlow and Mnuchin’s arguments against such restrictions and “scared everyone,” the source said.

The next day, at an afternoon meeting of the White House’s newly formed coronavirus task force, as well as other attendees, travel restrictions were still being debated, according to the government official involved in the deliberations and a former NSC official who learned of the meeting from former colleagues.

During the meeting, Mick Mulvaney, then President Trump’s chief of staff, entered the room, telling a smaller group, including Pottinger: “The president wants to see you now,” according to the official involved in the deliberations and the former NSC officials.

Mulvaney referred questions to the White House, which did not respond.

Trump issued the order the next day. By then, the novel coronavirus was already carving a lethal path through a Seattle nursing home.


(Eban reported from New York; Editing by Elyse Tanouye and Julie Marquis)