NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I s Donald Trump a hard-liner on securing the border? Is he more likely than the typical American politician to restrict travel and immigration into the United States? Most anyone you ask would say “yes,” regardless of whether they personally favor or oppose such policies. Trump’s brand identification with that view is strong. In political terms, that means that people who care about border restrictions probably already went into 2020 either liking Trump for that stance, or disliking him for it.
One of the longstanding rules of politics: If you are going to take the heat for wanting a particular policy, do it. The worst place to be is to get pilloried for having specific policies without getting the benefit of actually enacting those policies. That’s a recipe for keeping your adversaries more motivated than your supporters. If Trump had taken a harder line between January and mid-March on restricting entry into the United States, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he would have lost the support of a bunch of people already opposed to him. But he would have a stronger political argument for having done something proactive to contain the virus that his political opponents would have been loath to do. And — more important — he might have made a real difference in where we are now.
Of course, we have no way of knowing what steps would actually have worked. We do not actually know when and where the virus entered the United States or how much of its spread can be attributed to multiple infected travelers. What we do know for certain is four things.
One, the outbreak originated in Wuhan, China, and its early spread was strongly correlated with direct flights from Wuhan:
The first cases to emerge outside China occurred in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea — all in people who had recently traveled from Wuhan. . . . In the days before China locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23, an estimated 5 million people left the city — far more than usual.
Just three days before the January 23 lockdown of Wuhan, the World Health Organization, following China’s lead, was still insisting that the virus could not be transmitted from human to human. Crucial time containing the spread had already been lost.
Two, it took time for the virus to appear in the United States, and the early cases and outbreaks here were either traced to foreign travel or in areas with a lot of travel from the earliest-affected countries. As the New England Journal of Medicine summarized the original outbreak: “As of January 30, 2020, a total of 9976 cases had been reported in at least 21 countries, including the first confirmed case . . . in the United States, reported on January 20, 2020.” That case was a man in Snohomish, Wash., who “disclosed that he had returned to Washington State on January 15 after traveling to visit family in Wuhan, China.” The first death in the United States from the virus was not confirmed until February 29, also in the Seattle area, by which time there were 70 known cases in the United States. Five of the 11 known cases through early February were in Washington or California, the others being in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
New York’s first known case, on March 1, involved a health-care worker who had traveled in Iran. A week later, there were over 100. Again, it is not possible to reconstruct the entire path. The rapid explosion of the disease in New York City and its suburbs is likely attributable to a variety of factors: urban density, packed mass transit, and heavy incoming foreign traffic through the airports, immigrant population, and the tourist trade. Mayor de Blasio repeatedly told New Yorkers not to worry about casual contact, crowds, or riding the subway.
Three, Trump’s most significant act of presidential leadership against the virus between January and mid-March was a China-related travel ban. Imposed on January 31 and going into effect February 2, the order banned the entry of foreign nationals who had been to China in the previous 14 days. It exempted immediate family members of American citizens and permanent residents and did not ban direct flights from Hong Kong or Macau. Thousands of Americans had been in Wuhan when the lockdown took effect. On February 29, Trump ordered a ban on all travel to Iran and barred entry to any foreign citizen who had visited Iran in the past 14 days, as well as ordering screenings of travelers coming from Italy and South Korea. In his Oval Office address March 11, Trump banned travel from most European countries but exempted Britain.
Four, Trump’s travel restrictions, while undoubtedly helpful in slowing entries to the United States, now look overly late and limited. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, some 430,000 people have entered the United States on direct flights from China since New Year’s Eve. Most entered through airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York/Newark, Chicago, Seattle, and Detroit. Travelers from China were not even being screened until mid-January, and then only in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. “By that time, about 4,000 people had already entered the United States directly from Wuhan, according to VariFlight, an aviation data company based in China.” Much of the delay in January can be laid at the feet of China and the WHO, and the volume of travel since then (some 40,000 people in February and March, according to the Times, compared with hundreds of thousands in January) testifies that the restrictions had an effect. But that is still far from a complete lockdown.
By the first week of March, according to the Wall Street Journal, “at least 55 countries . . . moved to restrict travel to and from China. Some airlines cancelled flights; some governments instructed travelers to self-quarantine; and some countries refused entry to Chinese passport holders.” India on March 12 suspended virtually all foreign visas. According to unnamed sources claimed by the Washington Post, the ban on European entrants was one “that his deputy national security adviser had been advocating for weeks.” Trump would undoubtedly have faced a firestorm of criticism and charges of overreacting, xenophobia, and racism had he issued broader travel bans earlier in February. He faced quite a few such charges from his January 31 order. There probably would have been lawsuits, too. But politically speaking, those are criticisms that already are baked in the cake with Trump. He has that reputation already. He may as well have had the policy to go with it.
Joe Biden, for example, said at the time: “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia and fear mongering to lead the way instead of science.” He repeatedly bashed Trump for labeling it a “foreign” virus. But on Friday, he admitted that Trump’s January 31 order was the right call. Looking strong in retrospect is better than dodging criticism at the time.
Some aspects of the Trump administration’s response were clearly the president’s fault, in particular his public statements repeatedly downplaying the risks between late January and the end of February. Others were clearly not the result of presidential decisions or policies. For example, the FDA has been a source of bureaucratic red tape forever, and nothing in Trump’s decisions or policies made it that way. Trump could not control what China or the WHO did, or what Mayor de Blasio did. But being the guy who is willing to err on the side of sealing the borders is a big part of what got Trump elected, and what his enemies already hate him for. He might be in a better position today if he had used his broad emergency authority over foreign travel more assertively than he did.