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
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.
“I think the 3.4 percent [fatality rate] is really a false number.”
Fox News interview, March 4
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.
“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.”
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News conference, March 16
“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.
“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
“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down.”
News conference, March 23
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.
“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.”
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“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.”
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“We’re going to have a great victory.”
News conference, March 30
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.
“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?’”
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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.”
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.