President Trump twice received intelligence briefings on the coronavirus in January, according to a White House official. The official tells NPR the briefings occurred on Jan. 23 and Jan. 28.
“The president was told that the coronavirus was potentially going to ‘spread globally,’ ” the official said of the first briefing, which came two days after the first case of the virus was reported in the United States. “But the ‘good news’ was that it was not deadly for most people,” the official said the president was told.
Five days after that initial briefing, the president was briefed again, according to the official. This time, he was told the virus “was spreading outside of China, but that deaths from the disease were happening only in China,” the official said. “He was also told that China was withholding data.”
The question of what Trump knew about the coronavirus, when he was aware of it and the tenor of those conversations have come under heavy scrutiny, as the administration faces criticism that it was slow to respond to early warnings about the virus. In the time since the president’s January briefings, the U.S. has reported more than 1.1 million cases of the coronavirus — more than any other nation. In all, more than 66,000 Americans have died.
The president has defended his handling of the crisis — pointing to steps like his decision at the end of January to restrict travel into the U.S. from China. But for much of the following month, the president and some of his top surrogates downplayed the threat of the virus.
“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” the president said in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News early in February. By the end of the month, with the virus reported in several dozen countries at that point, he continued to tell reporters that the risk “remains very low.”
During his State of the Union address, roughly a week after being told that China was withholding data, Trump said his administration was “coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak.”
To this point, the White House has offered little clarity publicly about the exact dates when Trump was briefed about the virus. Asked about this on Thursday, Trump told reporters that he spoke with intelligence officials about the coronavirus “in January, later January,” adding that intelligence officials had confirmed that this was the case.
On Monday, when The Washington Post reported that Trump received more than a dozen classified briefings in January and February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded, “The detail of this is not true,” and declined to elaborate.