- Trump advisers privately said the government made “critical mistakes” in its COVID-19 response.
- White House adviser Steven Hatfill said the administration needed to be honest and action-oriented.
- Peter Navarro told Trump the government response was “NOT fast enough” on March 1, 2020.
Some of former President Donald Trump’s top advisers privately conceded that the federal government had made “critical mistakes” in its coronavirus response in early 2020, even as Trump publicly praised his administration’s efforts, according to emails obtained by House investigators and reported on by The Washington Post.
Steven Hatfill, a virologist brought in to advise the White House in February 2020, told Trump’s trade director, Peter Navarro, that experts didn’t understand the scope of infections in the US and urged the administration to employ “frank honesty” to counter criticism in the media and from Democrats. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had made “a series of critical mistakes” when it rolled out “ineffective” COVID-19 tests.
“In truth we do not have a clue how many are infected in the USA. We are expecting the first wave to spread in the U.S. within the next 7 days,” Hatfill wrote in an email to Navarro on February 29, 2020.
“This will be accompanied by a massive loss of credibility and the Democratic accusations are just now beginning. This must be countered with frank honesty about the situation and decisive direct actions that are being taken and can be seen in the broadcast news,” Hatfill continued.
“What is your cell number?” Navarro said in response to Hatfill’s email.
The two men communicated using private email accounts. Navarro used an encrypted ProtonMail email account. White House officials are required to use their government email accounts to communicate about work-related issues. If government officials do use private accounts, they must forward their messages to their government accounts in order to preserve the communications and comply with the Presidential Records Act.
The Trump administration has a spotty record when it comes to abiding by that rule. While Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016 on a demand to “lock up” Hillary Clinton for her private email use as a government official, several of his top advisers used private email accounts to conduct government business after he took office. Trump’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump used a private email account and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, used WhatsApp to conduct official business.
On March 1, Navarro told Trump in a private memo that the government’s pandemic response was “NOT fast enough” and that the country faced a “very serious public health emergency.”
On that same day, Trump bragged that the US government response to COVID-19 had been “pretty amazing” and claimed the US only had 15 cases. Trump and his top White House officials also spent months aggressively downplaying the dangers of the virus and the severity of the pandemic. The former president repeatedly falsely claimed COVID-19 would “disappear … like a miracle” and vastly understated the health risks posed by the virus. He largely refused to wear face masks or maintain social distance and undermined health officials’ efforts to promote pandemic mitigation measures.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also consistently downplayed the pandemic. In June 2020, he wrote an op-ed claiming there was “no second wave” of the virus and calling the government’s pandemic response “a success.” In sharp contrast to Pence’s rosy claims, COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths surged in the late summer and fall of 2020, spiked over the winter, and have surged again over the last few months as the Delta variant has swept the country.
These Trump administration emails were released by the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
In a letter to Navarro, Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the chair of the subcommittee, requested all documents that Navarro has that are related to the government’s pandemic response and more information about Navarro’s use of his private email account. Clyburn wrote that the emails offered new evidence “that the Trump Administration knew the significant risk posed by the coronavirus but failed to execute an effective strategy to reduce the loss of American lives.”
Hatfill and Navarro did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.