Trump said, ‘yeah, okay’ and hung up the phone when his health secretary warned him about the coronavirus in January 2020, a new book says

Then-President Donald Trump speaks on the phone in the Oval Office.
Then-President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in 2017.

  • Trump dismissed warnings about the coronavirus in January 2020, according to a new book.
  • Then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar tried to tell Trump about the threat of COVID-19 in a phone call.
  • “Yeah, okay,” Trump responded, then hung up.
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Then-President Donald Trump cut the conversation short when his health secretary, Alex Azar, warned him of the coronavirus in January 2020, according to a new book, “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History,” by The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Yasmeen Abutaleb.

The president was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida at the time, while health staffers in his administration were growing increasingly concerned over COVID-19, according to the book.

“Mr. President, I’ve got to tell you something,” Azar told Trump during a mid-January 2020 phone call, before COVID-19 broke out across the country and forced officials to impose lockdowns. “There’s this new virus out of China that could be extremely dangerous. It could be the kind of thing we have been preparing for and worried about.”

Azar then relayed to Trump that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had started to screen travelers from China to the US but that additional safety measures probably needed to be taken to mitigate potential spread of the virus, per the book.

“Yeah, okay,” Trump replied, seemingly unconvinced of the threat. Then he hung up the phone.

Azar, then the head of the Health and Human Services Department, failed to get through to the president. He had been on shaky ground with Trump, who was still upset over a recent health policy that banned most flavored electronic cigarettes. The move had angered Trump’s base, and the president thought it would cost him his reelection, according to the book.

The Post journalists reported that Azar “could barely get a word in before Trump started shouting” at him over e-cigarettes during that January phone call.

That same month, Trump dismissed Azar’s advice on another occasion, according to the book. Trump wanted to send a tweet praising Chinese President Xi Jinping on the pandemic, though Azar begged him not to.

“For the love of God, don’t do that,” he told the president, per the book. But Trump went ahead and tweeted.

In the following months, as COVID-19 infections and deaths surged across the US, Trump continued to dismiss advice from his own administration. Trump and his close allies would also often downplay the severity of the outbreak and flout guidelines like mask wearing and social distancing. More than 400,000 Americans died of COVID-19 during his administration.

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Former Trump health officials say they clashed with Alex Azar over COVID-19 testing and interference with the CDC’s weekly reports

Robert Redfield
Former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield testifies about coronavirus preparedness and response to the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on March 12, 2020.

  • Former Trump health officials recall clashing with Alex Azar over COVID-19 testing and CDC data.
  • The former CDC director told CNN that Azar pressured him to alter a key CDC mortality dataset.
  • Ex-officials have coordinated to present a united front against Azar, Politico reported.
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Health officials who worked on the COVID-19 response under former President Donald Trump clashed with Alex Azar, then-secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on everything from COVID-19 testing to modifications of key CDC data.

A group of six officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, former White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, former FDA chief Dr. Stephen Hahn, former assistant HHS Secretary Dr. Robert Kadlec, and Adm. Brett Giroir, sat down for a tell-all TV special with CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta that aired on Sunday.

Read more: Insider found 20 governors haven’t gotten their COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s who – and why.

In it, Hahn said that he and Azar got into a skirmish over the jurisdiction of COVID-19 testing.

“It was reported in the press that we had a shouting match,” Hahn said in the CNN special. “I can 100% assure you that I did not shout and scream at the secretary of Health and Human Services.

When asked if Azar had shouted at him, Hahn replied: “You should ask him that.”

In a statement provided to Insider, Azar said “Dr. Hahn’s recitation of this call is incorrect.”

“On this call, Dr. Hahn abruptly walked away from 6 weeks of collaboration with HHS staff to fix FDA’s illegal assertion of jurisdiction over common lab developed tests, an assertion that slowed the development of U.S. COVID testing in the early days,” he said.

“I was further shocked at Dr. Hahn’s escalation on the topic, and to my recollection, the only intemperate conduct was Dr. Hahn’s threat to resign,” he added. “I was confused at his reaction and offered that if it would help Dr. Hahn, HHS would announce the legal conclusion to allow Dr. Hahn to retain credibility with the career staff at FDA, which seemed to be Dr. Hahn’s concern. This call was witnessed by the HHS Chief of Staff and HHS General Counsel.”

Hahn denied that he threatened to resign during that conversation with Azar.

Redfield, for his part, told Gupta that the major conflicts he had were not with the White House, but with Azar and HHS. He even claimed that Azar pressed him to change the data in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, one of the agency’s most important datasets.

“I didn’t have really very difficult challenges with the White House. The challenges I had were with the office of the Secretary,” Redfield told Gupta. “I think some of the ones that were the most notable, that I was the most offended by, was the calls that wanted me to pressure and change the MMWR.”

The CDC says that the MMWR “is the agency’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective, and useful public health information and recommendations.”

Azar categorically denied Redfield’s claim that he was pressured to change the MMWR data on multiple occasions.

“From the beginning of this pandemic, I insisted on giving the public and media access to both critical information and data as soon as we had it, as well as to our scientists,” Azar said in a statement provided to Insider.

“I have always stood for and defended the scientific independence of the MMWR and other evidence and science-based publications and disclosures from HHS and its agencies, and Dr. Redfield knows this. Any suggestion that I pressured or otherwise asked Dr. Redfield to change the content of a single scientific, peer-reviewed MMWR article is false,” he added.”

With an increasing number journalists writing books and appearing on live TV to shed light on the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, Politico reported that former officials, including the doctors who appeared in the CNN special, coordinated ahead of time to present a united front against Azar in everything they say publicly.

The outlet reported that the group, which sometimes jokingly calls itself “Alex Azar Anonymous,” had “swapped notes, compared recollections and sent updates on media requests and interview opportunities” in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Azar also found himself at odds with the White House, struggling to stay relevant and in Trump’s good graces.

While Azar was initially put in charge of the administration’s COVID-19 response, Trump sidelined him in favor of former Vice President Mike Pence after a top CDC official raised alarms in February 2020 that the coronavirus would inevitably become a pandemic, the Wall Street Journal reported in April 2020.

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China has imposed sanctions on Mike Pompeo, Alex Azar, and Steve Bannon, along with more than 2 dozen other former Trump officials

chinesesanctions bannon pompeo azar
Former Trump administration members Steve Bannon, Alex Azar, and Mike Pompeo are among more than two dozen former officials who have been sanctioned by China following the end of Trump’s term.

  • China announced it would be imposing sanctions on nearly 30 former members of the Trump administration.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump operative Steve Bannon, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar are among those who made the list.
  • In a statement, the foreign ministry chastened the Trump campaign for promoting and executing “a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs” and damaged US-China relations.
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WASHINGTON (AP) – China imposed sanctions on nearly 30 former Trump administration officials moments after they left office on Wednesday.

In a statement released just minutes after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, Beijing slapped travel bans and business restrictions on Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and UN Ambassador Kelly Craft.

Read more: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s departing message to the US is that ‘multiculturalism’ is ‘not who America is’

Others covered by the sanctions include Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro; his top diplomat for Asia, David Stilwell; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; along with former national security adviser John Bolton and strategist Stephen Bannon. The sanctions are largely symbolic but underscore Beijing’s antipathy toward a US administration it regarded as hostile.

“Over the past few years, some anti-China politicians in the United States, out of their selfish political interests and prejudice and hatred against China and showing no regard for the interests of the Chinese and American people, have planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-US relations,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Read more: ‘Floppy and weak’: Iran has joined China and Russia in ridiculing the US on social media over the Capitol riots

On Tuesday, Pompeo announced that he had declared China’s repression of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority a “genocide,” possibly opening the door to new US sanctions against Chinese officials.

The Trump administration had steadily ramped up pressure on China since last year, and especially in the past several months. During its last weeks in office, the administration had hit numerous officials with sanctions for their actions on Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.

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The US ‘could have every nursing home patient vaccinated’ by Christmas, Azar says

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks during a news briefing on the administration's response to the coronavirus at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Alex Azar speaks during a news briefing on the administration’s response to the coronavirus in Washington

  • Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said during an interview Sunday that the Trump administration “could have every nursing home patient vaccinated in the United States by Christmas.”
  • The first batches of the vaccine, approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on Friday, left a Pfizer facility in Magician earlier Sunday.
  • FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn on Sunday said he was “hopeful” the first Americans could receive the vaccine on Monday.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on Sunday said that the Trump administration is aiming to vaccinate residents in nursing homes by Christmas. 

“It can start really any day,” Azar said of the nursing home vaccinations during an appearance on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “This is according to the governors telling us to ship to them, we could have every nursing home patient vaccinated in the United States by Christmas.”

While the vaccine is likely to begin rolling out to people in the US this week, experts have said it will be months before it is available to all Americans due to a limited supply. The specifics of how to distribute the vaccine is left up to state governments, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released recommendations that prioritize nursing home residents and frontline healthcare workers. 

“It’s a really remarkable, remarkable prospect for all of us who have loved ones in nursing homes that we may approach Christmas with that level of comfort,” he said, adding that “almost 100%” of all nursing homes in the US have signed on to the US government’s plan to distribute the vaccines.


Also Sunday, Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said people in the US could be vaccinated as soon as tomorrow following the FDA’s Friday approval emergency use authorization approval for Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine. Earlier Sunday, trucks carrying the vaccine were seen leaving a Pfizer facility in Michigan, headed to a UPS facility in Kentucky before they are shipped across the US.

Last week, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, warned that the vaccine would not end the current surge of COVID-19 cases and said that other measures, like mask-wearing and proper personal hygiene, needed to be maintained. 

Nursing homes, which house some of the people most vulnerable to the most serious cases of COVID-19, have been some of the hardest-hit institutions in the US. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 100,000 nursing home residents and staff have died from the virus in the US –  roughly a third of the total fatalities from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus in the US.

Also last week, HHS announced it would distribute incentive payments totaling $523 million among more than 9,000 nursing homes across the US, marking the first time the federal government provided funds to institutions that maintained precautions to stem the spread of COVID-19

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