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.”
Sean Spicer, President Donald Trump’s first White House press secretary
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.
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.” | Win McNamee/Getty Images
“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.