In a tabletop exercise days before an untested new president took power, officials briefed the incoming administration on a scenario remarkably like the one he faces now.
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.
YAHOO NEWS 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.