Politics & Policy

The Senator Who Saw the Coronavirus Coming

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks with reporters in Washington, D.C. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Tom Cotton was both the first and the loudest voice in Congress to sound the alarm about the looming pandemic.

While others slept, Tom Cotton was warning anyone who would listen that the coronavirus was coming for America.

On January 22, one day before the Chinese government began a quarantine of Wuhan to contain the spread of the virus, the Arkansas senator sent a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar encouraging the Trump administration to consider banning travel between China and the United States and warning that the Communist regime could be covering up how dangerous the disease really was. That same day, he amplified his warnings on Twitter and in an appearance on the radio program of Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade.

At the time, the Senate impeachment trial was dominating the news cycle. The trial, which lasted from January 16 to February 5, had even blotted out coverage of the Democratic presidential primary in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. When the first classified briefing on the virus was held in the Senate on January 24, only 14 senators reportedly showed up.

Cotton’s public and private warnings became more urgent that last week of January. In a January 28 letter to the secretaries of state, health and human services, and homeland security, he noted that “no amount of screening [at airports] will identify a contagious-but-asymptomatic person afflicted with the coronavirus” and called for an immediate evacuation of Americans in China and a ban on all commercial flights between China and the United States.

Cotton first spoke to President Trump about the virus the next day. The Arkansas Gazette reported that he missed nearly three hours of the impeachment trial while he was discussing the matter with Trump-administration officials. The outbreak was “the biggest and the most important story in the world,” he said in a Senate hearing that week.

What tipped the senator off to the true nature of the threat? Why was he the first and the loudest voice in Congress to sound the alarm about the looming pandemic?

In an interview with National Review, Cotton is quick to point out that he doesn’t have a background in science or public health, but he does have two eyes. As a long-time China hawk, he found his interest piqued early on by reports “primarily from East Asian news sources.”

“Two things struck me about China’s response,” he says. “First their deceit and their dishonesty going back to early December. And second, the extreme draconian measures they had taken. By the third week of January, they had more than 75 million people on lockdown. They were confined to their homes and apartments, otherwise they were arrested. In some cases, the front doors of those buildings were welded shut. All schools had shut down. Hong Kong had banned flights from the mainland. [These are] the kind of extreme, draconian measures that you would only take in a position of power in China if you were greatly worried about the spread of this virus.”

On January 31, the president announced a ban on entry to foreign travelers who had been in China in the previous two weeks, while allowing Americans and permanent residents to continue to travel back and forth between the two countries. The measure was not as stringent as Cotton’s call for a ban on all commercial flights, but Cotton points out that the president “did not have many advisers encouraging him to shut down travel.” Advisers who were supportive tended to be national-security aides, he adds, while “most of his economic and public-health advisers were ambivalent at best about the travel ban.”

“I commend the president greatly for ultimately making the right decision contrary to what the so-called experts were telling him,” he says.

Of course, while the travel restriction may have bought the United States time, that time was largely squandered by the catastrophic failure of the CDC and FDA to ramp up testing for the coronavirus in the United States.

In phone calls and meetings in early February, Cotton says, he encouraged the administration “to be very aggressive and very flexible when it came to testing and diagnostic protocols. One consistent thing I had seen in the literature from past outbreaks is that the FDA and especially the CDC is unfortunately somewhat slow to act in these circumstances.”

“I did discuss that with the president,” Cotton adds. “I discussed it with Jared Kushner. I discussed it a lot with Robert O’Brien, the national-security adviser,” and O’Brien’s deputy, Matthew Pottinger.

“The CDC should not have acted like know-it-all bureaucrats who had the only medical and scientific expertise to develop tests. We have lots and lots of very capable labs all around the country,” Cotton says. “The FDA should not put all of its eggs in the CDC basket. . . . They were slow to use their emergency-use authorization.” In a January 26 appearance on Face the Nation, Cotton called on the FDA to expedite approval for testing to state and local governments.

“The bureaucracy just didn’t move as fast as it could have,” he says. “Dr. Fauci said it’s not the president’s fault. It would have happened to any other president. But it was a lost opportunity, given the time the president bought everyone with the travel [restriction].”

Does the president ultimately bear responsibility for the failures at the CDC and FDA? “He is the president, and it’s always the president’s job to push the bureaucracy when they’re moving too slowly,” Cotton says. “But sometimes you have to push very, very hard.”

Where are we now and where do we go from here in the fight against the coronavirus? “You can’t have a virus rampaging through society and expect the economy to open up, but you can’t have economic collapse and expect our health-care system to continue to work,” Cotton says. “You have to get the virus under control before you gradually start reopening things like white-collar work and manufacturing capacity and low-density retail and ultimately high-density retail.”

The things the country must focus on over the next few weeks, he says, are building up production capacity for “rapid testing, respirator masks, [and] thermometer guns,” getting “personnel trained on contact tracing,” and developing “procedures and even laws at the local level for individual mandatory quarantines” for those infected with the virus.

Cotton notes that there is still a lot that’s unclear about the virus: It could be far more infectious with a lower fatality rate than has been reported for instance. But then again, “They don’t turn the Javits Center into a field hospital for the flu. They don’t bring in ice trucks to back up the morgue for the flu.”

“Using your own two eyes to see what’s happening in our hospitals,” Cotton says, is “the real acid-test for how serious this virus is.”

This article has been emended since its initial publication.

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