Seated at his desk in the Oval Office for a prime-time address on Wednesday, President Donald Trump faced a pivotal moment. The global coronavirus pandemic had claimed thousands of lives and reached U.S. shores as global markets took historic plunges. In a normal world, Trump would look presidential, stick to the teleprompter, and assure Americans that his administration understood the threat facing the country and would take dramatic action to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
That didn’t happen. Trump bungled key facts about the administration’s response — three assertions had to be immediately walked back by White House staff — congratulated himself on his supposedly excellent work so far, and blamed other countries for letting the disease spread.
As Trump spoke, global stocks and U.S. futures tumbled further. At almost the same moment, police were shutting down a basketball arena in Oklahoma City after a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus — which immediately sparked a suspension of the entire NBA season. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had contracted the virus. By Thursday morning, major sports leagues had suspended operations, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Broadway theaters shut down, and the Democratic presidential debate was relocated from Arizona to a studio in Washington, D.C.
By the morning after Trump’s speech, administration officials were grumbling anonymously to reporters about having to clean up the president’s mess. It was emblematic of his administration’s entire bumbling, self-serving approach to the pandemic. Trump has shown that his ultimate priority is to evade blame. The president has shown he has no qualms about peddling false information to make himself look good, even when downplaying the threat discourages Americans from taking steps to contain the virus. And when the threat could no longer be ignored, Trump fell back on a familiar strategy: exploit the country’s legitimate fears to justify a racist, nativist response. Meanwhile, his administration’s failures to effectively test for the coronavirus and contain its spread was costing lives.
Don’t worry, everything is fine
The U.S. confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Jan. 21. Trump, who was in Davos, Switzerland, said there was nothing to worry about. “We have it totally under control,” he told CNBC the next day. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.”
Messaging from the White House over the next week was wildly inconsistent. “We’re in great shape … and I think China’s in good shape too, by the way,” he said Jan. 22, only to reverse himself eight days later as the death toll rose. “China is not in great shape right now,” he told Fox News on Jan. 30.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency and the White House announced travel restrictions to and from China in late January — but the administration provided little information about how to halt the spread of the virus in the U.S.
Several of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s initial test kits, disbursed in early February, provided false positives. The lack of a reliable test made it impossible for people experiencing symptoms to know whether they needed to self-quarantine or just wait out a regular cold or flu. Throughout February, Trump continued to describe the outbreak as a foreign problem — primarily China’s — and one that would simply disappear one day.
“And by the way, the virus, they’re working hard,” Trump said of China at a New Hampshire campaign rally on Feb. 10. “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” Trump said, a claim that is not supported by experts and that Trump would repeat multiple times over the following days. “But we’re doing great in our country. … We only have 11 cases, and they’re all getting better,” he continued, the same day the 13th American tested positive for the disease.
After weeks of requests from lawmakers, the Trump administration asked Congress on Feb. 24 to allocate $1.25 billion in emergency funding for the country’s coronavirus response. By the time the request came in, it was “too little, too late,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
At the time, only 12 out of more than 100 state or local labs in the U.S. could perform their own coronavirus testing. Still, Trump insisted everything was fine. The virus is “very much under control in the USA,” Trump tweeted the same day the CDC confirmed 19 new cases.
As CDC officials warned the disease would spread through the U.S. and cause “severe” disruption to daily life, Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, claimed the disease was “contained” in the U.S. “I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight,” Kudlow said. With the market cratering, Kudlow urged Americans to invest in stocks, insisting the financial downturn was nothing like the 2008 crash.
Soon, the president started complaining that he wasn’t receiving enough praise for his management of the crisis. “The press won’t give us credit for it,” he said during rambling remarks at a Feb. 27 photo op with Black leaders at the White House, including popular Fox News personalities Diamond and Silk. Trump continued on a lengthy tirade against mostly imagined criticisms from Democrats about his travel restrictions on China.
“But, anyway ― but we’ve done an incredible job because we closed early. And actually, the Democrats said I was a racist. Not from Black-people standpoint, but from Asian-people standpoint, from Chinese-people standpoint,” Trump said. “They said I was a racist because I closed our country to people coming in from certain areas. They called me a racist.”
Testing failures lead to mounting deaths
On the same day as Trump’s rant alongside Black leaders at the White House, New York City Department of Health spokeswoman Stephanie Buhle told ProPublica that the city was still unable to test for the coronavirus. “The kits that were sent to us have demonstrated performance issues and cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate result.”
Widespread testing is perhaps the most critical element of containing the spread of coronavirus. Without tests, sick people won’t get treatment and asymptomatic patients won’t know to self-quarantine to avoid spreading the infection. South Korea is now testing 20,000 people a day and the country’s infection rates are not rapidly increasing. On Monday, The Atlantic reported that the U.S. — a much larger country — had only tested 4,384 people.
Instead of providing information about testing, treatment and best practices, the White House has become a key source of misinformation about the coronavirus. “So a number that nobody heard of that I heard of recently, and I was shocked to hear, 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu,” Trump told his supporters at a campaign rally in South Carolina. “Did anyone know that?”
The next day, a state health official announced that a man in his 50s in Washington state became the first person in the U.S. to die from the disease. There was no evidence he contracted the virus through travel or from close contact with someone who was infected, CDC Director Robert Redfield said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has since refuted the idea that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is on par with influenza. “People always say, ‘Well, the flu does this, the flu does that,’” he said during a congressional hearing this week. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1%. This has a mortality of 10 times that.”
After meeting with pharmaceutical companies, Trump falsely claimed that a vaccine breakthrough was imminent. According to Fauci, testing could begin later this month, but a vaccine won’t be publicly available for at least a year.
Meanwhile, Trump continued to treat the coronavirus as a foreign invader rather than a domestic health crisis. On Feb. 29, he expanded travel restrictions to and from Iran and boasted about his efforts to “control our borders and protect Americans from the coronavirus” during a speech at CPAC. At the very same convention center, several of the president’s closest allies in Congress were exposed to an individual who tested positive for the virus.
By the time the CDC expanded the group of people who could be tested for the coronavirus in early March, there were more than 90,000 cases globally and 3,000 deaths. But testing continued to lag and the virus seemed to pop up in new states every day. During the first week of March, Rhode Island, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Colorado, Maryland and Hawaii all reported their first coronavirus cases.
The New York Times revealed earlier this week how federal agencies ordered Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert in Seattle, to stop repurposing flu tests to screen for the coronavirus after she’d discovered an outbreak of COVID-19 in Washington state. It was what the Times described as “just one in a series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak.”
By last Friday, the Trump administration was practically declaring victory. “We stopped it,” Trump boasted. Kudlow declared the disease was contained (again) and urged Americans to “stay at work.” At the time, the CDC was urging people to work remotely if possible and to stay home with even mild symptoms of illness. More than 2,770 people were under quarantine for possible coronavirus infection in New York City alone.
Frustrated Americans who were turned away from hospitals after reporting symptoms or exposure to the virus started tweeting about their inability to get tested. But the Trump administration refused to acknowledge the lack of available test kits. Anyone who “wants a test can get a test,” Trump claimed. There “is no testing kit shortage, nor has there ever been,” Azar, the HHS secretary insisted.
On Saturday, Trump held a press conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. A reporter asked him if he was worried “that the virus is getting closer to the White House and D.C.?” Trump brushed the reporter off. “No, I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. No, we’ve done a great job. Thank you very much.” Four days later, Bolsonaro’s press aide, who posed for a photo next to Trump, tested positive for the coronavirus.
The crisis explodes
As the number of U.S. cases spiked and people from coast to coast panic purchased toilet paper, food and disinfectants, Trump again called for calm. “It will go away,” Trump said after a Tuesday meeting with Republican lawmakers. “It’s really working out.”
The following day, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, a designation reserved for epidemics that have spread across several continents. And Fauci warned that “many, many millions” of Americans could ultimately be infected if the nation fails to respond appropriately.
Then came Trump’s bizarre Oval Office speech, by which point there were approximately 1,200 confirmed cases in the U.S. Facing a nation desperate for a plan, the president’s response centered on closing the U.S. to visitors from most of Europe. He criticized the European Union for failing to contain the outbreak and offered little information about how his administration would stop the same thing from happening in the U.S. He claimed he had convinced insurance companies to waive copayments for coronavirus treatment — only to be quickly corrected by an insurance lobby spokesman. He promised to provide financial relief to Americans who stay home sick — even though his own party had blocked an effort in the Senate earlier that day to guarantee workers paid sick leave. And he again emphasized that for “the vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low” and boasted that the virus “will not have a chance against us.”
He only briefly mentioned the need for social distancing and increased access to testing, two things that the nation’s top experts say will be key to combating the virus’s spread.
“Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly,” Trump said. “Day by day, we’re moving very quickly.”
This is perhaps Trump’s most dangerous falsehood. The lack of available tests is an ongoing failure, Fauci testified during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
“It is a failing. I mean, let’s admit it,” he said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it? We’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”
As Fauci testified on Capitol Hill, Trump continued to tell a different story, one divorced from reality. Fielding questions during an Oval Office briefing with Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, the president said testing is going “smoothly” and claimed that anyone entering the U.S. from overseas gets screened for the virus.
“If an American is coming back or anybody coming back, we are testing,” Trump said. “We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested.”
That assertion was immediately upended by travelers entering the U.S. Mike McIntire, a reporter for The New York Times, reported “zero screening, testing or even questions related to coronavirus” upon arriving in New York City from Paris on Thursday. And stories continue to mount of people being denied coronavirus tests after showing signs of possible infection.
“We have no local testing available,” Dr. Walter Mills, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians, which represents 11,000 doctors, told the Vallejo Times-Herald this week. “No one has been trained to do the test, as it is not available in the community.”
The consensus among public health experts is that the U.S. response has been sorely inadequate. In an interview with NPR, Ashish Jha, who leads the Harvard Global Health Institute, called it “stunning” and a “fiasco.”
“Our response is much, much worse than almost any other country that’s been affected,” he said.
George Zornick contributed reporting.
Keep up with the latest updates on the coronavirus at our live blog.