Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – IV

This is the fourth in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

IV – The Administration

This post is based on information that reporters – primarily from the New York Times and Washington Post – recently obtained in an effort to uncover what happened during the weeks immediately preceding the president’s publicly confirming and finally responding to the dangers posed to the American people by the coronavirus. These are the key questions: 1) who knew what? 2) who knew what when? 3) who did what? and 4) who did what when?

The purpose of this post is not to reiterate yet again what Trump missed or, rather, chose to avoid. Or to point yet again to the sluggishness of his response to the threat posed by the virus. Rather it is to ask whether those who saw the crisis coming should have done any differently. The individuals and groups here named are ultimately free agents. None was forced to do what they did. So, the question that arises is, given their status as followers – they were the president’s subordinates – were they courageous or were they timorous? This is not about finger-pointing. Who knows how any of us would respond if we saw something bad happening but felt we were caught in a workplace trap? Rather it is about raising age-old questions such as: Should we adhere to hierarchies? Should we follow orders? Or should we instead follow the dictates of our conscience?      

Here just a few examples of organizations, groups, and individuals caught early this year on the horns of such dilemmas.

  • Some Pentagon officials first heard about the new coronavirus as early as last December.
  • Warnings about the virus began to appear in intelligence reports in early January.  
  • At about the same time similar warnings made their way to the National Security Council.
  • On January 3rd, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, received a call from his Chinese counterpart delivering an official warning about the new coronavirus.   
  • Also in early January, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was alerted to a potential virus crisis.
  • And, so was Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • And, so was Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor. Almost immediately Pottinger, well known as a China hawk, urged more aggressive action against the virus, including calling out China.  
  • Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney served on the initial coronavirus task force throughout the month of January.
  • On January 18 Azar called President Trump to alert him to the coronavirus. Evidence is Trump, distracted by his impeachment, paid Azar scant heed. Evidence also is that Azar did not press the issue.    
  • By late January it was well known within the White House that Americans were being threatened by a new, dangerous virus. Nevertheless there was considerable infighting – including about who would pay for protective equipment – and considerable reluctance directly to confront the president.
  • The president, in turn, continued to stick his head in the sand. In other words, during the early months of 2020 there is no evidence that despite the increasing level of alarm among members of the administration, the president was paying much attention. Nor is there any evidence that members of the administration forced the issue. Evidence in fact is to the contrary – that none among those closest to the president were willing to take the risk of confronting him on the matter of the virus.
  • A memo dated January 29 , that was sent to among others the president, written by senior White House aide Peter Navarro, clearly and accurately predicted the dangers posed by the coronavirus.
  • At a meeting on that same day, January 29, Azar assured the president that the coronavirus was under control. According to an April 22nd article in the Wall Street Journal. Azar went on to claim that the “U.S. government had never mounted a better interagency response to a crisis.”  
  • On January 30th. the World Health Organization declared the virus a global health emergency.

In my next post I address the how the experts handled themselves during the first several months of this year, specifically the medical experts. Here I confine my further comments to three players: Pottinger, Navarro, and Azar. All three of these men understood relatively early on that a health crisis was looming – and that it was highly likely to be very costly. Costly to the national health and welfare – and costly to the financial markets. But none of these men blew the whistle. While they tried in various ways to be heard internally, not one of the three was ultimately willing to invoke the ire of the president. Moreover, none of the three was willing to do what it would have taken to be heard externally. They did not go beyond the confines of the White House to, for example, alert the press to the dangers posed by COVID–19.

Pottinger was relatively proactive internally. Beginning in mid-January he convened daily meetings about the coronavirus, and he alerted his boss, Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor, to the growing danger. But for various reasons Pottinger’s warnings were sidelined. And for various reasons he was willing to go along without strongly dissenting.   

Navarro was similarly alert early on to the possibility or even the probability that the coronavirus could put millions of Americans at risk of illness or death, and cost the U.S. trillions of dollars. On January 29th he sent what the New York Times called “the highest-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing.” In other words, Navarro saw the problem not only early but clearly. In his late January memo, he wrote, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus crisis on U. S. soil. This lack of protection elevates the risks of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions.” One month later Navarro wrote another, similar memorandum, warning of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infest as many as 100 million Americans with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.” It is not clear who exactly saw both memos or, more to the point, who exactly read them carefully. What is clear is that, again, Navarro did not challenge the president on this issue. Nor did he ring the alarm outside the corridors of White House power.         

Azar’s actions during this same period, during the early weeks and months of this year, are more ambiguous. On the one hand he also understood early on the level of threat posed by the virus. Moreover, he tried on several occasions to get others, including the president, to pay attention, to heed the warnings. But on the other hand, Azar has been called to task for backing down in the face of a president who was reluctant or even refusing to hear what he had to say. Azar was, after all, during this entire time Secretary of Health and Human Services. The virus was, therefore, in his bailiwick, in what was supposed to be his wheelhouse. Which is precisely why Azar could be charged with being too cautious by half. By trying to straddle a fine line between pleasing his boss and telling the whole truth and nothing but, he ended in limbo. He never did ingratiate himself with the president. And he never did level with the American people or for that matter members of Congress. By April Azar was effectively marginalized, if not, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, long for this world.

Whatever subordinates such as Pottinger, Navarro, and Azar knew, and whenever they knew it, at every turn they had a choice. The choice they made was to continue to play by the president’s rules – because they wanted to continue working in the White House. At no point did they directly confront Trump. And, at no point did they blow the whistle. For all practical purposes then, at a critical time in the virus crisis they remained silent witnesses. Whatever their private reservations or personal misgivings, during the initial critical period, the first few months of this year, they followed where the president led.

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