It wouldn’t be until mid-March that Trump would truly acknowledge the gravity of the situation. He would repeatedly say the situation was “under control,” downplay the threat and compare it to the flu. For about two months before that, though, people around him were offering cautions about the pandemic that the coronavirus would become.
Below is a timeline of all the reported warning signs, with some of Trump’s public actions and comments interspersed. Much of it is based upon two investigative pieces published by The Washington Post on March 20 and April 4.
Dec. 31: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learn of a cluster of cases in China.
Jan. 1: The CDC begins developing reports for the Department of Health and Human Services about the situation.
Jan. 3: A Chinese official officially informs CDC Director Robert Redfield of the outbreak of a respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan. Redfield later relays the information to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Azar informs the White House National Security Council.
Early January: Intelligence officials begin offering ominous, classified warnings about the virus to Trump in the President’s Daily Brief. The warnings will persist into February.
Early January: In a report to the director of National Intelligence, a State Department epidemiologist warns that the virus is likely to spread across the globe and could result in a pandemic, and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence comes to the same conclusion, per the New York Times.
Jan. 8: The CDC issues its first public warning about the outbreak in China, saying that it is monitoring the situation and that people should take precautions when traveling to Wuhan.
Mid-January: Assistant HHS Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec instructs subordinates to make contingency plans for using the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to compel the production of certain materials in a crisis.
Jan. 17: The CDC begins monitoring major airports for passengers arriving from China.
Jan. 18: Azar, who had been trying to speak to Trump about the virus, is finally able to meet with him. Before Azar can begin talking about the virus, though, Trump interjects to ask him about a federal crackdown on vaping.
Jan. 21: The first case of the coronavirus is confirmed in the United States, in Seattle.
Jan. 22: Trump makes his first comments about the coronavirus, saying he is not concerned about a pandemic: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. … It’s going to be just fine.”
Jan. 23: Chinese officials take the drastic step of shutting down Wuhan. “That was like, whoa,” a senior U.S. official involved in White House meetings later told The Post. “That was when the Richter scale hit 8.”
Jan. 24: A study published by the Lancet suggests the virus may be carried by people without symptoms.
Jan. 26: Chinese health officials say the virus is infectious before symptoms show. “From observations, the virus is capable of transmission even during incubation period,” China Health Minister Ma Xiaowei says. “There are hidden carriers.”
Jan. 27: Concerned White House aides meet with then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to get senior officials to pay more attention to the issue. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argues it could cost Trump his reelection and says the virus is likely to dominate life in the United States for many months.
Jan. 28: Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, writes to colleagues in the administration: “I’m seeing comments from people asking why WHO [World Health Organization] and CDC seem to be downplaying this.” He adds that “no matter how I look at this, it looks [to] be bad. If we assume the same case ascertainment rate as the spring wave of 2009 H1N1 [swine flu], this looks nearly as transmissible as flu (but with a longer incubation period and greater Ro). The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe, but when I think of the actions being taken across China that are reminiscent of 1918 Philadelphia [during the influenza epidemic], perhaps those numbers are correct. And if we accept that level of transmissibility, the [case fatality rate] is approaching the range of a severe flu pandemic.”
Jan. 29: A Navarro memo warns of 500,000 or more American deaths and says it is “unlikely the introduction of the coronavirus into the U.S. population in significant numbers will mimic a ‘seasonal flu’ event with relatively low contagion and mortality rates.”
Jan. 29: The White House announces the formation of a coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Pence.
Jan. 30: China expands the lockdown beyond Wuhan to the entire province of Hubei, as the WHO declares a global health emergency.
Jan. 30: Azar warns Trump about the possibility of a pandemic and that China isn’t being transparent, according to the Times. But Trump dismisses Azar as an alarmist.
Jan. 30: A German study published in the New England Journal of Medicine says the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals.
Jan. 30: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says, “I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,” but he suggests it might give companies pause about sending their production overseas. “So I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.”
Jan. 30: Trump says of the threat: “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.”
Jan. 31: Trump announces travel restrictions from China after three major airlines announced they had halted flights. The restrictions take effect Feb. 2.
Some time in January: The National Security Council’s biodefense experts begin urging officials to look at what it would take to quarantine a city the size of Chicago, per the Times.
Early February: Other White House officials, including deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, join Grogan in calling for a more forceful response. Grogan expresses worry that there aren’t enough tests. Pottinger pushes for expanding the travel ban to countries such as Italy and earns the support of Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. but the plan is resisted by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who cites economic concerns.
Feb. 5: Trump’s impeachment trial ends with his acquittal by the Senate.
Feb. 5: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) says that a briefing shows the administration isn’t taking the virus seriously enough and says it isn’t heeding calls for emergency funding.
Feb. 7: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States has donated nearly 18 tons of medical supplies to China.
Feb. 10: Trump says, “I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.”
Feb. 14: A memo is drafted by health officials and the National Security Council about the potential need for “quarantine and isolation measures to combat the virus,” per the Times, but a scheduled meeting to brief Trump on the plan is later canceled.
Feb. 19: 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.”
Feb. 21: The White House coronavirus task force conducts a mock response to a pandemic and concludes that mass social distancing will be needed, per the Times.
Feb. 23: Another Navarro memo warns of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”
Feb. 23: Italy begins to see evidence of a major outbreak in the Lombardy region.
Feb. 24: As Iran becomes a hot spot, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns of a possible pandemic. “There is a lot of speculation about whether this increase means that this epidemic has now become a pandemic,” he says.
Feb. 24: Trump says: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Feb. 25: The Army’s National Center for Medical Intelligence raises its warning that the coronavirus would become a pandemic within 30 days from WATCHCON 2 — a probable crisis — to WATCHCON 1 — an imminent one, according to Newsweek. The news is reportedly shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff two days later.
Feb. 25: Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warns publicly about the inevitable spread of the virus and says “we need to be preparing for significant disruption in our lives.” Trump complains to Azar that Messonnier’s comments are spooking the stock market.
Feb. 26: Trump says, “When you have 15 people — and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero — that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
Feb. 27: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who had received briefings on the threat, tells a private luncheon that the coronavirus is “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history” and “is probably more akin to the 1918 [influenza] pandemic,” in which 50 million or more people died worldwide.
Feb. 27: Azar tells the House Ways and Means Committee, “The immediate risk to the public remains low.” He adds: “It will look and feel to the American people more like a severe flu season in terms of the interventions and approaches you will see.”
Feb. 28: Mecher emails again, saying, "[W]e have a relatively narrow window” to respond with non-drug interventions, referring to data from the 1918 flu outbreak. He adds: “And we are flying blind.”
Feb. 28: Trump says: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Feb. 29: The United States records its first coronavirus death and announces new travel restrictions for Iran, Italy and South Korea.
Feb. 29: Fauci tells the “Today” show, “There’s no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis. Right now the risk is still low, but this could change.”
March 1: Mecher writes that the United States “should have pulled all the triggers for NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] by now.”
March 2: Trump presses pharmaceutical executives on the timeline for a vaccine, suggesting it could come earlier than anticipated. They repeatedly correct him, saying, testing will require a year or more — as Fauci had previously told Trump.
March 3: The CDC lifts restrictions on coronavirus testing.
March 6: Trump wrongly claims during a tour of the CDC that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
March 10: Trump says: “Just stay calm. It will go away.”
March 11: The White House suspends travel from most European countries, as the WHO declares a global pandemic.
March 11: Trump says, “I think we’re going to get through it very well.”
March 13: Trump declares a national emergency.
March 16: Trump for the first time publicly reflects on the gravity of he situation. Asked about his repeated comments saying the situation was “under control,” he says: “If you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world. … I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, but I’m not talking about the virus.”