He left all discussion of combating naturally-occurring viruses to the health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, who would run a cabinet-level “steering committee” on managing such threats. It turned out to be a classic Washington solution — a bureaucratic structure that had all the right buzz words and none of the resources or authority to fill the gaping holes in the system that one government report after another, across three administrations, had warned about.
“What happened is what often happens,” Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, said on Tuesday in a briefing sponsored by the Hoover Institution. “There’s a curve where we get mobilized and then we forget.” She added, “After this is over, we need to look at whether we need some more permanent structure on the pandemic side,” akin to the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center after Sept. 11, which built partnerships and networks across the government and around the globe.
It is easy to understand why: For three decades, there has been a well-funded defense lobbying establishment for spending billions setting up a land- and space-based sensor system to detect adversary missile launches, and comparatively little push to build a global surveillance system for emerging viruses. Even if there was, countries around the world often have an interest in denying the facts — the essential problem Mr. Trump and his aides complain about when they, accurately, blame China for sharing far too little data about what was happening in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.
The resulting chaos is evident in reading the email exchanges of the “Red Dawn” group of elite infectious disease experts and government health officials, who from January to March were grappling in the dark to understand what kind of threat was headed to American shores, and where it would land.
Their warnings read a bit like the private messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Joseph C. Grew, the American ambassador to Japan, in the years leading to Pearl Harbor. Both sensed what was coming but failed to figure out how to stop it. Such warnings became part of the congressional inquiry into Pearl Harbor — which contributed to the National Security Act in 1947 that created the Defense Department and, over time, the C.I.A.
In recent weeks, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who served as the manager for impeachment, has talked about a similar investigation run by the House Intelligence Committee, which he oversees. Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of how he despises Mr. Schiff, immediately dismissed the idea. But some kind of investigation seems inevitable, and when it happens, the big question may be whether America First accelerated this crisis, making it harder to manage — and in coming months, harder to introduce treatments and vaccines.