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Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubbles

From ‘It’s going to disappear’ to ‘WE WILL WIN THIS WAR’

How the president’s response to the coronavirus has changed since January

As the coronavirus began to spread across the United States, President Trump repeatedly insisted that it was nothing to worry about. Two months later, the United States became the first country in the world with more than 100,000 cases, the economy has ground to a near standstill, and the virus has killed more than 1,000 people in New York state alone.

As cases increased and stocks tumbled, the president’s attitude toward the threat of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has evolved from casual dismissal to reluctant acknowledgment to bellicose mobilization. Below, we trace the winding path of the president’s response to the virus, in his own words.

“It’s going to disappear.”

News conference, Feb. 27

Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubble saying, 'It’s going to disappear.'

January through early March

Dismissing the threat

In the early days of the virus’s spread in the United States, Trump repeatedly emphasized that everything was “under control” and that the virus would just “disappear” in warmer months. Meanwhile, the coronavirus was steadily spreading in Singapore, where average temperatures are similar to summer in the United States.


Jan. 22

“We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

CNBC interview

In the news: The day before, the first U.S. case was announced in Washington state. The WHO says the global risk is high. Read more

Feb. 10

“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

New Hampshire rally

In the news: In Singapore, where average temperatures are similar to summer in the U.S., the number of cases reaches 45. Read more

Feb. 24

“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”


In the news: Global markets fall sharply amid fears that the coronavirus was spreading. Read more

Feb. 27

“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

News conference

In the news: Washington, California and Oregon report the start of community transmission. Read more

“I think the 3.4 percent [fatality rate] is really a false number.”

Fox News interview, March 4

Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubble saying, 'I think the 3.4 percent [fatality rate] is really a false number.'

Early to mid-March

Recognizing the spread, downplaying the risk

The World Health Organization warned early on that the global risk was high. Multiple states soon started reporting cases of community transmission, suggesting that containment was becoming more and more unlikely. Schools in Seattle began to close as one of the earliest serious outbreaks started to erupt in Washington state.

As February turned to March, the first deaths were announced and cases continued to climb. Trump began to acknowledge the virus’s spread in the United States but dismissed the potential danger to the public at large.


March 4

“Some people will have this at a very light level and won’t even go to a doctor or hospital, and they’ll get better. There are many people like that.”

Briefing with airline CEOs

In the news: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declares a state of emergency after the state’s first coronavirus-related death. Read more

March 9

“The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power ... to inflame the CoronaVirus situation.”


In the news: Stock markets continue to rapidly decline. Read more

March 10

“We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

Meeting with Republican senators

In the news: The next day, the WHO declares a pandemic of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Read more

News conference, March 16

“We have an invisible enemy.”

Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubble saying, 'We have an invisible enemy.'


Acknowledging the severity of the pandemic

The same week the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic, the situation in the United States became more fraught. Stock markets continued to rapidly decline, and the U.S. death count began to double every few days. Businesses from the National Basketball Association to Disney canceled or postponed events. Cities worldwide asked their residents to quarantine at home and practice social distancing.

Amid this backdrop, Trump shifted his tone and tried to paint himself as having taken the virus seriously from the start. By March 14, he had declared a national emergency and backtracked on many of his earlier remarks.


March 14

“We’re using the full power of the federal government to defeat the virus, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

News conference

In the news: The Dow jumps nearly 2,000 points after Trump declared a national emergency the previous day. Read more

March 15

“This is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

News conference

In the news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges a stop to gatherings of over 50 people. Read more

March 17

“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

News conference

In the news: The U.S. death toll surpasses 100. Read more

March 18

“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.”


In the news: Stock markets close at their lowest point since Trump’s second week in the White House. Read more

Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubble saying, 'Our country wasn’t built to be shut down.'

“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down.”

News conference, March 23

Late March

Pivoting to focus on the economy

Even with new guidelines from the White House and more federal efforts to combat the pandemic, both confirmed cases and deaths continued to rise exponentially.

However, after stock markets closed at their lowest point since Trump’s second week in office, he once again changed the focus of his efforts. As health experts continued to urge the public to limit face-to-face interactions, the president lamented how these restrictions prevented economic growth.

By late March, a record 3.3 million Americans would file for unemployment. The unemployment rate would rise to 5.5 percent, a level not seen since 2015.


March 19

“We took the best economy we’ve ever had and we said ‘Stop. You can’t work. You have to stay home.’ ... Here’s a case we’re paying a lot of money to stop things because we don’t want people to be together so that this virus doesn’t continue onward.”

News conference

In the news: CDC data shows young people are a large percentage of coronavirus hospitalizations. Read more

March 23

“America will again, and soon, be open for business — very soon — a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. ... We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

News conference

In the news: The Federal Reserve announces unlimited bond purchases in an attempt to stave off a depression. Read more

March 24

“I’d love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”

Fox News interview

In the news: The Dow and the S&P 500 surge upward in anticipation of an enormous stimulus relief package. Read more

“We’re going to have a great victory.”

News conference, March 30

Photo illustration of Trump with speech bubble saying, 'We’re going to have a great victory.'

End of March, heading into April

Adopting the rhetoric of war

Trump’s statements indicating that he hoped to scale back coronavirus restrictions to revive the economy alarmed public health experts and many elected leaders. Experts warned that these restrictions would need to stay in place much longer to avoid more deaths. Medical workers also expressed alarm at the prospect of overwhelmed emergency rooms.

As cases continued to increase, Trump expressed doubt about New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plea for 30,000 more ventilators to care for the influx of patients expected to flood hospitals. Yet by Sunday, Trump seemed to acknowledge the improbability of quickly reopening the economy, declaring that the Easter deadline was “just an aspiration” and announcing that he would extend federal guidance on social distancing through April.

As March came to a close, Trump began to embrace the image of himself as the leader of a country at war. He first referred to himself as a “wartime president” on March 19. In recent days, Trump has increasingly adopted wartime rhetoric to describe his attitude toward the pandemic.


March 26

“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals sometimes they’ll have two ventilators, and now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

Fox News interview

In the news: The government reports that a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits the previous week. Read more

March 28

“WE WILL WIN THIS WAR. When we achieve this victory, we will emerge stronger and more united than ever before!”


In the news: The previous day, the president signs a $2 trillion emergency spending bill to shore up the economy. Read more

March 29

“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.”

News conference

In the news: The U.S. has more cases than any other country in the world. Read more

Over the weekend, Anthony S. Fauci, one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, warned that between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans could die and that millions would be infected. The president said on Sunday that the country would be doing well if it “can hold” the number of deaths “down to 100,000.”

Deborah Birx, another member of the task force, offered her own grim assessment: “No state, no metro area, will be spared.”

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Shelly Tan

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.

Harry Stevens

Harry Stevens joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in 2019.

About this story

Original photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post. Images of Trump shown are not from the same date as his quotes and are used only for illustrative purposes.

The daily count of U.S. cases and deaths was collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering and is available for download on GitHub. Dow Jones chart data from Bloomberg.