Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin became concerned about the novel coronavirus toward the end of January, while attending the annual World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. covid-19 was spreading rapidly in China, and authorities had closed off Wuhan, the city where the outbreak started. The theme at Davos was sustainability, but Mnuchin was surprised that no one was talking about the eleven million people under lockdown. “I was at a C.E.O. dinner, and I actually brought it up,” he recalled recently. “But, at the time I raised this as a risk, I did not see it travelling around the world.”
On January 31st, the Trump Administration announced that it would limit flights from China but did not implement either widespread contact tracing or testing for the coronavirus. (Many early cases of covid-19 were later shown to have come into the U.S. from Europe.) In the following weeks, as Iran and Italy were overwhelmed by outbreaks, President Donald Trump continued to hold campaign rallies and accused Democrats of “politicizing the coronavirus,” which he said could disappear “like a miracle.” In press briefings, he and Administration officials insisted that they were “totally prepared,” and assured the public that the risk of infection was low. Government health experts, led by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tried to persuade Trump to focus on covid-19. At the end of February, when Nancy Messonnier, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned the public of its seriousness, Trump sidelined her.
I spoke with Mnuchin several times, by phone from Washington, starting in late May. In early June, he told me that, before the coronavirus outbreak, the possibility of a global pandemic “was not a risk that was on my radar screen.” He did not criticize Trump’s handling of the crisis, and was quick to deflect any blame. “I don’t think it’s fair to say in any way that the Administration should have been better prepared. I mean, if anything, this issue is no different now than it was four years ago, or eight years ago, or twelve years ago,” he said. “This goes back to prior Administrations—I think the country should have had better stockpiles of critical items.”