March 16, 2020

Before Trump’s inauguration, a warning: ‘The worst influenza pandemic since 1918′

In a tabletop exercise days before an untested new president took power, officials briefed the incoming administration on a scenario remarkably like the one he faces now.

Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his aides faced a major test: the rapid, global spread of a dangerous virus in cities like London and Seoul, one serious enough that some countries were imposing travel bans.

In a sober briefing, Trump’s incoming team learned that the disease was an emerging pandemic — a strain of novel influenza known as H9N2 — and that health systems were crashing in Asia, overwhelmed by the demand.

“Health officials warn that this could become the worst influenza pandemic since 1918,” Trump’s aides were told. Soon, they heard cases were popping up in California and Texas.

The briefing was intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the globe, this 2017 crisis didn’t really happen — it was among a handful of scenarios presented to Trump’s top aides as part of a legally required transition exercise with members of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama.

And in the words of several attendees, the atmosphere was “weird” at best, chilly at worst.

POLITICO obtained documents from the meeting and spoke with more than a dozen attendees to help provide the most detailed reconstruction of the closed-door session yet. It was perhaps the most concrete and visible transition exercise that dealt with the possibility of pandemics, and top officials from both sides — whether they wanted to be there or not — were forced to confront a whole-of-government response to a crisis. The Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount” — warnings that seem eerily prescient given the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

But roughly two-thirds of the Trump representatives in that room are no longer serving in the administration. That extraordinary turnover in the months and years that followed is likely one reason his administration has struggled to handle the very real pandemic it faces now, former Obama administration officials said.

“The advantage we had under Obama was that during the first four years we had the same White House staff, the same Cabinet,” said former deputy labor secretary Chris Lu, who attended the gathering. “Just having the continuity makes all the difference in the world.”

Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, was among those who participated in the meeting. He said he understood the reasons such exercises could be useful, but described the encounter as a massive transfer of information that ultimately felt very theoretical. In real life, things are never as simple as what’s presented in a table-top exercise, he said.

“There’s no briefing that can prepare you for a worldwide pandemic,” added Spicer, who left the administration in mid-2017.

The outgoing Obama aides and incoming Trump aides gathered for roughly three hours on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

“There’s no briefing that can prepare you for a worldwide pandemic.”

At least 30 representatives of Trump’s team — many of them soon-to-be Cabinet members — were present, each sitting next to their closest Obama administration counterpart. Incoming Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared to keep dozing off. Incoming Energy Secretary Rick Perry was getting along famously with Ernest Moniz, the man he was replacing, several fellow participants said.

But it was clear some on the Trump team had barely, if ever, spoken with the people they were replacing. News had broken that same day about national security adviser Michael Flynn’s unusual contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, so his presence in the meeting added to the surrealness. Some members of both groups kept going in and out of the room, but most paid quiet attention to the presentations, which were led by top Obama aides.

Obama aides, in op-eds and essays ripping the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, have pointed to the Jan. 13, 2017, session as a key example of their effort to press the importance of pandemic preparedness to their successors.

In a Friday op-ed, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, blasted Trump for comments such as “you can never really think” that a pandemic like the coronavirus “is going to happen.” She mentioned the 2017 session as one of many instances of the Obama administration’s efforts to help its successor be ready for such a challenge. She also slammed the Trump team for dismantling the National Security Council section that would play a lead role in organizing the U.S. response to a global pandemic.

“Rather than heed the warnings, embrace the planning and preserve the structures and budgets that had been bequeathed to him, the president ignored the risk of a pandemic,” Rice wrote. (Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who oversaw the dissolution of the NSC’s global health security and biodefense section, has defended it as necessary streamlining, countering that global health “remained a top NSC priority.” Trump, when recently asked about the reshuffling, called the question “nasty” and said, “I don’t know anything about it.”)

Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, explained the thinking behind the January 2017 session in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “Although the exercise was required, the specific scenarios we chose were not,” she wrote. “We included a pandemic scenario because I believed then, and I have warned since, that emerging infectious disease was likely to pose one of the gravest risks for the new administration.”

None of the sources argued that one meeting three years ago could have dramatically altered events today. But Obama aides say the Trump administration’s fumbling of the coronavirus outbreak is partly rooted in how unprepared — and in some cases unwilling — it was to engage in transition exercises at all in late 2016 and early 2017.

David Shulkin, who was an Obama appointee at the time but had been nominated to be Veterans Affairs secretary in the Trump administration, said in an interview that with the exception of this exercise, which he didn’t recall well, he noticed that in his agency, there had been “little coordination” and “very little interest in working with the Obama appointees.”

“They had said we don’t really have a lot of need to talk to the Obama appointees,” he said.

That botched handoff sparked weeks of confusion, all the way up to Inauguration Day. “There was a frenzy before the transition where I was asked to consider staying because the [preparedness] mission was so important,” said Nicole Lurie, who served as Obama’s Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, where she worked on crises like the Ebola virus outbreak and attended the pandemic exercise. “Then through the HHS secretary’s office, the next day, I heard they changed their mind.”

The Trump campaign, like the rest of America, was shocked to win the November 2016 election. Soon afterward, Trump cast aside his team’s transition prep work that had happened already and started over; some of his aides described tossing carefully collected binders full of possible personnel picks into trash bins. It was days, sometimes weeks, before his nominees and their aides showed up to meet the people they were replacing — if they did so at all — or to engage in transition meetings. Obama aides said they left detailed memos for their successors, but that quite often it appeared those memos were never read. Many on the Obama side were genuinely surprised that so many actually showed up for the Jan. 13, 2017, exercise, and there were expectations that some would skip it. On the Obama side, several agencies were represented by their second-in-command at the meeting for reasons including a belief that Trump’s principals wouldn’t show.

The gathering was held to satisfy a requirement in a 2016 law that updated the procedures around presidential transitions to require, among other things, that the outgoing administration “prepare and host interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises.” Obama also mentioned it in a 2016 executive order laying out his transition goals.

The 2016 law came about at the urging of the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government organization that helps administrations and candidates with the transition process. The emergency preparedness provisions were inspired by how George W. Bush handled his transition to Obama; that process, regarded as the gold standard for transition planning, included joint exercises on how to react to improvised explosive devices in cities. Bush had insisted on a detailed and highly coordinated transition planning in part because he felt scarred by the rushed transition he’d experienced from the Bill Clinton administration, not to mention having to deal with the Sept. 11 attacks during his first year.

“The idea was hatched after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina precisely to prepare for situations like today,” said David Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition.

The Obama and Trump teams met in the afternoon, sitting around tables arranged in a rectangle. Participants were given a binder of unclassified materials titled “Presidential Transition Exercise Series,” the contents of which were obtained by POLITICO. The purpose of the exercise, the documents state, was to “familiarize” the incoming team with “domestic incident management policy and practices and continuity of government programs” in case it faced a major crisis. One key goal was to explain to participants the various legal authorities they had to pursue a response, and which agencies had which capabilities and responsibilities. The references provided included detailed explanations of numerous laws and regulations that might affect their work, such as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Aside from the H9N2 pandemic exercise, the participants discussed the case study of how the Obama administration handled Hurricane Sandy in 2012. One section covered a potential cyber incident. Another went through how to respond to a domestic terrorism incident, in this case one carried out by a group of U.S. citizens who placed bombs in nearby spots during a major sporting event in a U.S. city. The terror squad not only detonates the bombs, it also engages in a mass shooting and takes a dozen hostages.

Using the materials, Monaco led the discussion. Her incoming counterpart, Tom Bossert, acted as a “semi co-chair,” attendees said. Ross, the then 79-year-old incoming Commerce secretary, was spotted with his eyes closed on more than one occasion. Elaine Chao, tapped to run the Department of Transportation, paid close attention. Several attendees noted the tense body language between Rice and Flynn, who lasted only a few weeks as Trump’s national security adviser and was ousted amid questions over his dealings with Russian officials.

And then there was the Energy Department duo: Perry, the incoming secretary who previously served as the governor of Texas, and Moniz, the outgoing secretary and famed physicist. The pair seemed to get along fabulously, which stood out to other attendees given the overall distrust between the two teams and the fact that Perry had once proposed getting rid of the Energy Department altogether.

It was a “semi-bizarro lovefest” between the two, a fellow participant said. “They were ready to go make a buddy movie.”

Perry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement, Moniz, who now leads the Energy Futures Initiative, said, “It is correct that [Perry] and I offered relevant perspectives from a governor’s and Cabinet secretary’s seat, respectively. As governor of Texas for a long time, Perry had been through many episodes needing crisis management.”

For the most part, however, the Trump team was in receive mode.

Partly, that was not a surprise: Many of Trump’s personnel choices had little or no government experience, and the Obama aides were presenting massive troves of information to them about how a raft of agencies had to work together to respond to various crises.

Multiple current and former Trump officials reached by POLITICO said they did not recall much about the briefing. But some Obama aides who attended said they were left with the impression that many of the Trump aides showed up to simply check off a box more than to learn. The impression was boosted in part because the transition overall was going so poorly. Several Trump nominees had barely even spoken to their Obama counterparts.

The State Department representative at the meeting, for instance, was Tom Shannon, a veteran career foreign service officer serving as undersecretary of State for political affairs. Shannon attended instead of Secretary of State John Kerry in part because he would be staying on under Trump and was essentially the “transition designee.” But that Jan. 13, 2017, session was the first time he’d seen the incoming secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in person since Trump picked him for the job a month earlier. (Before the inauguration, Kerry and Tillerson spoke once, by phone, for a few minutes, people familiar with the situation said.)

“The problem is that they came in very arrogant and convinced that they knew more than the outgoing administration — full swagger,” one former Obama administration official who attended said.

“There were people who were there who said, ‘This is really stupid and why do we need to be here,’” added another senior Obama administration official who attended, alleging that Ross and incoming Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were especially dismissive in conversations on the sidelines of the session. “But some Trump people, like Tom Bossert, were trying to take it seriously.”

Asked for comment, Liz Hill, a spokesperson for DeVos, told POLITICO: “This is nothing more than a hit piece with no basis in reality. This department, under the secretary’s leadership, has taken swift action to support students, parents, and education leaders during this pandemic and will continue to do so. This former Obama official’s wild claims don’t comport with reality.”

A Commerce Department spokesperson denied that Ross had dozed off. “Secretary Ross found the meeting quite interesting and informative, taking many notes during the exercise,” the spokesperson said. “He continues to rely upon that knowledge and experience as he assists the president in confronting the crisis at hand.”

Another participant noted that such exercises are primarily aimed at helping an incoming administration make it through the first several months of its tenure — “the idea being, of course, that during the transition period we’re uniquely vulnerable.”

“He was never interested in things that might happen. He’s totally focused on the stock market, the economy and always bashing his predecessor and giving him no credit.”

Presumably, by the third or fourth year in power, the administration would have its own processes and muscle memory, the participant said.

Asked whether information about the pandemic exercise reached the president-elect, a former senior Trump administration official who attended the meeting couldn’t say for sure but noted that it wasn’t “the kind of thing that really interested the president very much.”

“He was never interested in things that might happen. He’s totally focused on the stock market, the economy and always bashing his predecessor and giving him no credit,” the person said. “The possibility things were things he didn’t spend much time on or show much interest in.

“Even though we would put time on the schedule for things like that, if they happened at all, they would be very, very brief,” the former official continued. “To get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard.”

Anything associated with Obama or his administration was also a no-go zone for Trump aides. If you brought them up, “that would be an immediate rejection, like, ‘Why are they even here? Why the fuck did you ask them?’”

Ben Lefebvre contributed to this report.

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