At the daily White House coronavirus press briefing on Monday, Trump took advantage of the assembled reporters to present his rebuttal. He began with a spoken timeline of his administration’s actions, then ceded the podium to show a video — one suspiciously like a video promoted by his reelection campaign — detailing, among other things, what the White House had done. Trump stood to the side as it aired, pointing at it approvingly.
Between Trump’s articulation of what had been done and what was shown on-screen, here are the benchmarks the White House wanted to share.
- Jan. 6: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues a travel notice for Wuhan, China.
- Jan. 7: (from video) The CDC establishes a response system to track cases in the United States.
- Jan. 11: The CDC issues a level one travel notice “for health,” according to Trump.
- Jan. 17: The CDC implements screenings at three airports. Trump pointedly added, “at my instructions.”
- Jan. 21: The CDC activates an emergency operations center. The first case in the United States is confirmed.
- Jan. 31: The United States announces a restriction on travel from China. A review by the Times found that 40,000 people traveled from China to the country after those restrictions were implemented.
- Feb. 6: (from video) The CDC ships its first testing kits to detect the virus. By Feb. 26, only about 3,000 tests had been completed.
- March 2: (from video) Pharmaceutical companies begin developing a vaccine.
- March 11: (from video) Trump announces travel restrictions from Europe during a prime-time address to the nation.
- March 13: (from video) Trump declares a national emergency.
- March 17: (from video) Trump orders free telehealth screenings.
- March 18: (from video) The Department of Defense sends 1 million masks to hospitals.
You may notice that the month of February is not well represented on that list. That’s important for a variety of reasons. It was in February that the first coronavirus-related death was recorded in the United States and, perhaps more importantly, that officials confirmed the virus was no longer being contained among groups that had traveled overseas.
CBS’s Paula Reid noticed that the White House wasn’t identifying specific steps it had taken that month and asked Trump about it.
“What did you do with the time you bought?” Reid asked after Trump touted his administration’s efforts to curtail travel from China. “The month of February. That video has a gap, the entire month of February.”
“What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?” Reid asked after Trump touted his administration’s efforts to curtail travel from China.
“A lot,” Trump replied.
“What?” Reid pressed.
“A lot,” Trump reiterated. “And, in fact, we’ll give you a list of what we did. And, in fact, part of it was up there. We did a lot.”
“It wasn’t in the video,” Reid said. “The video had a gap.”
“Look. Look. You know you’re a fake,” Trump replied. “You know that? Your whole network, the way you cover it is fake.”
That’s a false assertion on the merits, but it also served exactly the opposite purpose of what Trump hoped: highlighting that his only answer to a pointed, important question was to attack the questioner.
What isn’t made clear in that exchange, though, is what Trump was doing in February. The president spent much of the month denying that the emergence of the virus in the United States was problematic.
He repeatedly claimed that the virus was contained and that the low number of confirmed cases would remain low — and go down. He insisted the warmer weather of spring would likely mean the virus would go away, as the seasonal flu does each year. On Feb. 23, he said that the virus was “very much under control.” On Feb. 24, he said it was “very much under control.” Speaking to reporters in India on Feb. 25, he claimed that the virus was “very well under control in our country.”
The next day, Trump held his first public briefing on the virus. He noted that there were only 15 cases in the United States, a number that “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” The same day — during the briefing, in fact — the first case of the virus spreading in the wild was reported.
Trump’s reelection campaign has been trying to rebut criticism of Trump’s actions on the virus for some time now. (At a Feb. 28 campaign rally, Trump insisted that such criticism from Democrats was the new “hoax” being perpetrated on his presidency.) It has taken to publishing lengthy lists of various actions, hoping to substitute breadth for depth.
Even then, though, February stands out as problematic. Trump War Room, the campaign’s fiery social media presence, has a thread of hundreds of tweets, delineating the “decisive action” Trump took to address the virus. Twelve of the tweets identify actions taken in February.
Most of those were included in a list a campaign spokesman sent out in response to Reid’s question.
As with the timeline presented during the briefing on Monday, most of the actions listed were taken by the administration and not Trump himself. This is a familiar tactic by Trump’s team, one he’s deployed repeatedly in defense of his interactions with Russia. Trump will take credit for what the broader administration does when it helps reframe his own public actions in a more positive light. He’s been the toughest president on Russia, he’ll say, because of sanctions mandated by Congress. He took robust action on the coronavirus, he says, as demonstrated by the CDC’s nuanced activity. (Hence his addition of “at my instructions” in the timeline offered Monday.)
Even the CDC, though, wasn’t operating flawlessly. From our report:
Later in February, U.S. officials discovered indications that the CDC laboratory was failing to meet basic quality-control standards. On a Feb. 27 conference call with a range of health officials, a senior FDA official lashed out at the CDC for its repeated lapses.Jeffrey Shuren, the FDA’s director for devices and radiological health, told the CDC that if it were subjected to the same scrutiny as a privately run lab, “I would shut you down.”
This and the Times report that prompted Trump’s self-defense make clear in other ways how the administration wasted the month of February.
“In late January and early February,” The Post reported earlier this month, “leaders at [Health and Human Services] sent two letters to the White House Office of Management and Budget asking to use its transfer authority to shift $136 million of department funds into pools that could be tapped for combating the coronavirus. … White House budget hawks argued that appropriating too much money at once when there were only a few U.S. cases would be viewed as alarmist.”
This was clearly a central part of Trump’s focus in February: trying not to spook the markets.
On Feb. 25, Nancy Messonnier of the CDC gave public remarks suggesting that the spread of the virus would mean broad changes to our way of life, including closing schools and businesses — a preview of the social distancing we’ve since seen. Trump was reportedly furious, in part because of the predictable effects on the markets.
The Times report included other details from the administration’s fumbles that month. The secretary of health and human services announcing a surveillance system to track the spread of the virus — which took weeks to implement. Advocacy from experts that month that the sorts of steps previewed by Messonnier should be implemented, something that didn’t happen until well into March.
Others inside the administration were sounding the alarm, including adviser Peter Navarro who, in late February, recommended a massive appropriations request aimed at purchasing supplies to prepare health officials for a pandemic. The funding wasn’t requested. According to the Associated Press, the first major federal order for N95 protective masks wasn’t made until March 12.
Reid’s question was a fundamental one for Trump’s defense of his actions. Over and over, we’ve heard Trump insist that he took the necessary and sufficient step of barring travel from China in late January (which, of course, he didn’t). Over the next several weeks, what America heard from Trump was that the virus wasn’t a real problem, not something that would last. He’s defended that rhetoric as reflecting his need to project optimism to the public, but reporting suggests that he wasn’t behaving with any more urgency behind the scenes.
Whatever the administration did in February, experts say it wasn’t enough.