The White House took the unusual step of treating some coronanvirus meetings as classified, Reuters reported Wednesday, just one in a string of actions taken by the administration that may have slowed its response to the virus.
Dozens of meetings about the virus have taken place in a high-security meeting room at the department of Health and Human Services, Reuters reported, citing four unnamed Trump administration officials.
The room at HHS, in which neither cell phones nor computers are allowed, would typically be used for meetings on biowarfare response and other sensitive matters.
As a result, staffers and government experts without security clearances could not attend and often weren’t informed of developments.
The classification came at the direction of the White House National Security Council, Reuters’ sources said.
Trump has faced criticism in light of the pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, for eliminating the NSC’s global health security unit that dealt with infectious disease and other issues from a national security perspective.
“We worked very well with that office, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during congressional testimony Wednesday. “It would be nice if the office were still there.”
“From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency,” NSC spokesperson John Ullyot told Reuters.
The classified meetings add to a string of Trump administration moves that critics say may be blunting the federal, state and local response to COVID-19 by muddying communication between officials.
Early on in the administration’s response, reports indicated that Vice President Mike Pence’s press office was screening statements from government experts about the disease before they were made publicly.
Meanwhile, White House Coronavirus Task Force members like Larry Kudlow have mischaracterized health officials’ statements and presented overly cheery pictures of the reality on the ground.
Trump himself has routinely minimized the threat posed by the disease by comparing it to the flu. “It will go away,” he said of the virus Tuesday.
One unnamed source told Reuters the meetings were held in the secure room “because it had to do with China.” But another source suggested the room was used to keep information from the meetings from spreading.
“It seemed to be a tool for the White House — for the NSC — to keep participation in these meetings low,” the source told Reuters.