On January 22, two days after the first case of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed, President Donald Trump was asked if his administration was worried about an impending pandemic. “No, we’re not at all,” he replied. “And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.” The dismissiveness and overconfidence of his answer would set the tone for his administration’s response in the coming weeks, as the coronavirus metastasized into a public health emergency and the greatest crisis of his presidency.
In the weeks since, more than 1 million Americans have fallen ill and more than 57,000 have died. More than 26 million people have lost their jobs and Congress has approved $2.7 trillion in relief aid. Some states are preparing to reopen their economies, even as front-line workers still lack protective equipment and testing is nowhere near the levels experts say it should be. The severity of the moment has often escaped the president, who seems intent on solving the crisis with spin and bluster—along with a healthy dose of magical thinking and buck-passing.
What the next few months will bring is unclear, but a look back at the first 100 days of America’s coronavirus crisis clearly shows the consequences of the president’s lack of preparation, seriousness, and empathy.
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“It will all work out well”
The Centers for Disease Control confirms the first COVID-19 case in the United States, a Washington man who returned from Wuhan, China, five days earlier. • Two days earlier, President Donald Trump received his first major briefing on the virus from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. According to the Washington Post, the president asked Azar when a ban on flavored vaping products would be lifted.
Asked if his administration was worried about a coronavirus pandemic, Trump says, “No, we’re not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”
China locks down Wuhan.
Trump tweets: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” • The CDC says it has developed a test for the novel coronavirus.
Joe Biden publishes an op-ed in USA Today: “The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president.…To be blunt, I am concerned that the Trump administration’s shortsighted policies have left us unprepared for a dangerous epidemic that will come sooner or later.”
Trump holds a rally in New Jersey. He does not mention the coronavirus.
Trump announces a coronavirus task force, headed by Azar.
“It’s going to have a very good ending”
The World Health Organization declares the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern.” • At an event in Michigan, Trump says, “We’re working very strongly with China on the coronavirus—that’s a new thing that a lot of people are talking about….We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “There’s no doubt…that asymptomatic transmission is occurring.”
Trump golfs at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Asked if he thinks China is covering up the coronavirus, Trump says, “No. China is working very hard….They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job. They’re in touch with the World [Health] Organization. CDC also. We’re working together.”
One day after CDC testing kits reach state and local public-health labs, most report that they do not work properly.
“We’re in very good shape”
At a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump says, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
Trump holds a rally in El Paso. He does not mention the coronavirus.
Trump tells Geraldo Rivera, “It’s a problem in China. Has not been spreading very much. In our country, we only have, basically, 12 cases and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So it’s actually less.”
Trump says, “We have a very small number of people in the country, right now, with it. It’s like around 12. Many of them are getting better. Some are fully recovered already. So we’re in very good shape.” He continues, “And I spoke with President Xi of China, and he’s working very hard on this. It’s a tremendous problem. But they’re very capable and they’ll—they’ll get to it.”
Trump golfs at Trump International.
“This is their new hoax”
In an interview, Trump says, “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine.” • Trump holds a rally in Phoenix. He does not mention the coronavirus.
Trump holds a rally in Colorado Springs. He does not mention the coronavirus.
Trump holds a rally in Las Vegas. He does not mention the coronavirus.
Trump tells reporters, “We have it very much under control in this country.”
The White House asks Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funds. • The Association of Public Health Laboratories writes the FDA, “We are now many weeks into the response with still no diagnostic or surveillance test available outside of the CDC for the vast majority of our member laboratories” • Trump tweets, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health [Organization] have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Trump puts Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the White House’s coronavirus response. • At a press briefing, Trump says, “We’re testing everybody that we need to test. And we’re finding very little problem.…It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” He says the number of cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” • The CDC confirms the first instance of community spread of the virus in the United States.
At a rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump notes that there have been no reported deaths in the United States yet. “You wonder if the press is in hysteria mode,” he says. “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he continues. “You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it….And this is their new hoax.”
“Anybody that needs a test gets a test”
At a White House meeting, Trump presses pharmaceutical CEOs to say a vaccine will be ready in a matter of months. Dr. Anthony Fauci corrects him: “a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.” • At a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, that evening, Trump says drug companies are “going to have vaccines I think relatively soon. And they’re going to have something that makes you better, and that’s going to actually take place we think even sooner.” And: “The United States is, right now, ranked by far number one in the world for preparedness.”
Trump tells Sean Hannity, “a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They will get better very rapidly.” He continues, “So, if we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work—some of them go to work, but they get better….It’s not that severe.”
During a visit to the CDC, Trump says, “Anybody that needs a test gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.” • Trump also says he would like to keep infected people on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the California coast so the official case count does not rise: “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Trump golfs at Trump International.
Trump tweets, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” • Pence says, “Before the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed.”
“I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Asked about the economic impact of the coronavirus, Trump says, “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
The WHO declares the coronavirus a pandemic. • In an Oval Office address, Trump announces he will suspend all travel and trade with Europe, except the United Kingdom, for 30 days. (He corrects himself with a tweet saying that the ban applies to “people not goods.”) The ban does not apply to US citizens.
Trump claims that travelers to the United States are being systematically tested. (They’re not.) “We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested and if they are positive and if they’re able to get through because frankly if they are not, we are not putting them on planes if it shows positive….Frankly, the testing has been going very smooth. If you go to the right agency, if you go to the right area, you get the test.”
Trump declares a national emergency—“Two very big words.” • At a press conference in the Rose Garden, he is asked if he takes responsibility for testing delays. “Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all,” he responds. When a reporter asks why he disbanded the White House pandemic office in 2018, he replies, “I just think it’s a nasty question….And when you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it.”
At a daily briefing, Trump says, “This is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.” • He tweets, “The individual Governors of States, and local officials, must step up their efforts on drive up testing and testing sights [sic], working in conjunction with @CDCgov and the Federal Government!”
Trump says, “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic….I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”
Trump tweets, “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China – against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!” • He says his use of the phrase “Chinese virus” is “not racist at all.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issues the first statewide stay-at-home order. • In a press briefing, Trump suggests the FDA has approved the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. (It hadn’t.) He says, “It’s shown very encouraging—very, very encouraging early results. And we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” Also: “If things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.”
“President Trump is a ratings hit”
Italy’s official death toll tops China’s.
Trump tweets, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”
The United States has more reported coronavirus cases than any other country. • Trump tells Hannity, “We’ve now established great testing….We’ve tested now more than anybody.” • At a press briefing, Trump says, “This was something that nobody has ever thought could happen to this country….Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened.”
Trump signs $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. • Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to get General Motors to make ventilators. At his daily briefing, Trump promises, “In the next 100 days, we will either make or get in some form over 100,000 additional units.” (HHS later says only about one-third of that number will be ready by June.) • Trump says governors “should be appreciative” of his administration and that he’s advised Pence not to call those who “don’t treat you right.”
At press briefing, Trump notes predictions that the coronavirus, left unchecked, could kill as many as 2.2 million Americans: “And so if we could hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000—it’s a horrible number, maybe even less—but to 100,000. So we have between 100 and 200,000, and we altogether have done a very good job.” • Selectively quoting the New York Times, Trump tweets, “‘President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…”
“I haven’t heard about testing being a problem”
Coronavirus deaths in New York and New Jersey double in three days. • At a daily briefing, Trump warns of “a very, very painful two weeks” ahead. • Trump says, “I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached, okay? And I think that’s a great tribute to something, maybe it’s a tribute to me, but I don’t think I would have acted any differently, or I don’t think I would have acted any faster.”
Pence tells CNN, “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.”
The Navy fires Capt. Brett Crozier after his letter is leaked asking for assistance with a COVID-19 outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. • White House adviser Jared Kusher says that the federal Strategic National Stockpile of ventilators and other equipment is “supposed to be our stockpile; it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” • The US death toll passes 5,000.
Trump offers rapid coronavirus tests to oil executives meeting with him at the White House. Afterward, he says, “Listen: They gave us millions of jobs. If anybody wants to be tested, we’ll test them.” • HHS changes an online description of the Strategic National Stockpile that had contradicted Kusher’s comments a day earlier.
At his daily briefing, Trump says the federal government has stockpiled 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine. “What do you have to lose?” he says. “I’ve seen things that I sort of like. So what do I know? I’m not a doctor.”
Trump removes Glenn Fine, the independent watchdog overseeing $2 trillion in coronavirus spending. • Governors complain that the White House is intercepting their orders for protective equipment and ventilators. Trump is “basically playing political games around life-or-death issues and leaving states to fend for themselves,” a Democratic consultant tells the New York Times. • The US death toll passes 10,000.
“The authority is total”
At his daily press briefing, Trump says, “We have a great testing system…the best testing system in the world.” He dismisses the need for nationwide testing: “Do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. We’re talking 325 million people. That’s not going to happen, as you can imagine.”
The Treasury Department orders that Trump’s name go on every stimulus check. • A demonstration against shutdown measures outside the Ohio state capitol sets off a wave of protests organized by conservative groups with close ties to the White House. • Trump blames delays in testing on the Obama administration: “What we inherited from the previous administration was totally broken, which somebody should eventually say. Not only were the cupboards bare, as I say, but we inherited broken testing. Now we have great testing.” • Asked about his conflicts with governors over when to reopen their states, Trump says, “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
Trump announces he will withhold funding to the WHO, accusing it of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the spread of the coronavirus in China.
Trump says his administration could take action against governors who do not follow its guidelines on reopening: “We have the right to do whatever we want. But we wouldn’t do that.”
“The hardest working President in history”
At his daily briefing, Trump says, “You must remember that the governors wanted to have total control over the opening of their states, but now they want to have us, the federal government, do the testing. And again, testing is local. You can’t have it both ways.” • Asked by CNN about Trump’s claims that there is adequate testing for states to begin reopening, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam replies, “That’s just delusional, to be making statements like that.”
Trump tweets, “States, not the Federal Government, should be doing the Testing.” • At the daily briefing, a reporter asks the president if he thinks he downplayed the coronavirus by holding rallies in February and March. “Oh, I don’t know about rallies. I really don’t know about rallies,” he says. “I haven’t left the White House in months.”
Trump signs an executive order temporarily restricting some immigration to the United States. • Dr. Rick Bright says he was removed as the head of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after questioning efforts to push hydroxychloroquine. • Trump tweets, “States are safely coming back. Our Country is starting to OPEN FOR BUSINESS again.” Yet at his daily press briefing, Trump says he disagrees “strongly” with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to allow certain businesses to reopen. • Trump claims Redfield was “totally misquoted” by the Post; Redfield says he was “accurately quoted.”
At his daily briefing, Trump wonders if disinfectant can be used internally to kill the coronavirus: “Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”
Trump says he “was asking a question sarcastically” about injecting disinfectant. (The maker of Lysol issues a statement “that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body.”) • The FDA issues a safety alert about serious heart rhythm problems in people with COVID-19 treated with hydroxychloroquine. • The WHO announces an $8 billion international effort to speed coronavirus testing and vaccine development. The US government says it is not participating.
The US death toll passes 50,000. • At his daily briefing, Trump says, “We have enough testing to begin reopening….And the testing is not going to be a problem at all.” Also: “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up even if it’s for a very short period of time. I think it would be a good thing.” • Pressed by a reporter, Pence says that his March 9 comments about the distribution of 4 million tests did not refer to those tests being completed.
As the cumulative number of US cases surpasses 1 million, the death toll exceeds the number of American deaths in the Vietnam War. • Pence visits the Mayo Clinic and ignores its mask requirement so he can look health care workers “in the eye.” • Nine states have started the process of lifting their stay at home restrictions. None has met the federal recommendation that they wait for 14 consecutive days of declines before reopening. • Asked about his earlier assurances that coronavirus cases would disappear, Trump says: “Well, it will go down to zero, ultimately.” When asked what will happen if states reopen before there’s a coronavirus vaccine, he says, “I think what happens is it’s going to go away.”