This column contains a correction.
After the White House was warned of the coronavirus threat on January 2, President Donald Trump wasted more than four weeks before taking any action and then enacted an ineffective policy full of holes. Trump missed his chance to stop the virus and only implemented travel restrictions from China and Europe after the virus had already come to the United States.
Delayed travel restrictions from China failed to contain the coronavirus
By the time President Trump started implementing U.S. travel restrictions from China on February 2, nearly 40 countries had already enforced travel restrictions. The Marshall Islands was the first country to implement restrictions on all travelers coming from or traveling through China, on January 24. Anyone wishing to enter was required to “spend at least fourteen days in a country not affected by the coronavirus prior to arriving in the Marshall Islands.” Thirty-eight countries “banned travel, barred noncitizens or canceled all flights from China” before or on the same date as the United States, and 12 additional countries enforced a travel policy but with less restrictive policies, such as suspending visas.*
Because of Trump’s late response, more than 430,000 people came to the United States from China after Chinese officials notified the U.S. administration of the seriousness of the Wuhan outbreak—nearly 40,000 of whom arrived after Trump’s restrictions went into effect.
Trump delayed U.S. travel restrictions from China despite warnings from his own administration and other U.S. officials. On January 2—four weeks before Trump took action—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield warned the National Security Council about the early cases of coronavirus in China and its potential spread to the United States. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar relayed this message to Trump administration officials on January 3, telling his own chief-of-staff, “This is a very big deal.”
Moreover, throughout January, the U.S. intelligence community warned about the threat of a global pandemic in the president’s daily briefings. One official said of the situation, “Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it. … The system was blinking red.” Instead, Trump seemed to be taking his cues from China and President Xi Jinping. The president appeared to dismiss intelligence reports because of “his relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, whom Trump believed was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China.” It was also recently reported that American officials were embedded in the World Health Organization in January who “transmitted real-time information” about the coronavirus spread in China.
Early warnings from U.S. officials in January were also dismissed by Trump’s economic advisers in fear of angering Beijing; they “worried a tough approach toward China could scuttle a trade deal that was a pillar of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.” Early on, President Trump bowed to Chinese President Xi Jinping instead of taking action to protect his own country. Three weeks after the White House was warned of the coronavirus’s threat to the United States, President Trump praised China’s efforts in a tweet: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” As The New York Times reported, “The virus at first took a back seat to a desire not to upset Beijing during trade talks, but later the impulse to score points against Beijing left the world’s two leading powers further divided as they confronted one of the first truly global threats of the 21st century.” Trump has now shifted his strategy, going all in on a “blame China” campaign, which many advisers see as a key approach to his reelection odds.
In another example of the administration’s careless response, Trump played seven rounds of golf and held four political rallies during the time between the CDC’s first warning and the day U.S. travel restrictions went into effect. The month between January 2, when the CDC warned the White House, and February 2, when the U.S. government started enforcing the travel ban, was a critical period for making preparations to mitigate a potential outbreak in the United States. On 11 of those days, Trump either played golf or traveled to a political rally.
Travel restrictions from Europe were too little, too late
Trump waited 40 days—until March 11—after he announced the China travel ban to implement travel restrictions from Europe. At that point, New York already had 216 cases.
Research now shows that travelers from Europe—not China—were the primary cause of the COVID-19 spread in the New York region. New York state alone currently has more cases than every other country outside the United States. Researchers found that the coronavirus was already spreading throughout the region by mid-February and that “[t]he majority is clearly European.”
According to a recently unearthed email thread with public health experts and administration officials, the European travel ban was far too late to have any impact. A former Trump homeland security adviser summed it up in an email: “There’s little value to European travel restrictions. Poor use of time & energy. Earlier, yes. … We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe. We MUST focus on layered community mitigation measures-Now!”
The only substantive early action the Trump administration took to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the United States was a massive failure. The president regularly points to the travel restrictions on China as a successful move in the face of largely nonexistent criticism of the restrictions, but the policy was late, ineffective, and missed the mark.
Will Ragland is the research director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
* Correction, May 13, 2020: This column was updated to clarify that these 38 states acted either before or on the same date as the United States.