The virus, Trump said, was “deadly stuff.”
That call was Feb. 7, more than two weeks after the United States had confirmed its first infection in someone who had traveled to China. Three days later, Trump held a rally at an indoor arena in New Hampshire.
It has been obvious since April that the month of February represented a lost opportunity for addressing the threat of the virus. What wasn’t known, though, was that even as he repeatedly played down the threat, Trump privately understood the risk. Even as he tried to maintain a business-as-usual presidency, he knew that the virus was transmissible by air and often deadly.
“I always wanted to play it down,” Trump told Woodward in March.
In light of the revelation that Trump was well aware of the risk posed by the virus as early as Jan. 28, it’s worth revisiting how he and his administration approached the virus in that crucial first month. (Much of this timeline appeared in an article published April 20.)
On Jan. 31, 10 days after the first reported case in the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during a briefing at the White House that the coronavirus presented a public health emergency, announcing new limits on travel from China to the United States. Among the stipulations was a ban on the entry of noncitizens who had traveled in China in the preceding two weeks. Tens of thousands of people traveled to the United States from China after the restrictions were put in place.
Trump didn’t attend the briefing. Half an hour after it ended, he boarded Marine One on his way to Mar-a-Lago, his private resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
A timeline of the administration’s actions produced by Trump’s reelection campaign indicates that on Feb. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “expanded enhanced entry screening to eight major airports across the nation.”
Trump, meanwhile, was playing golf at his private club in Florida. After his round, he sat for an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
Hannity asked how concerned Trump was about the virus.
“Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump said. (The travel restrictions hadn’t yet taken effect when Trump and Hannity spoke.)
Trump boasted about his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said that the United States was offering China help — including sending large amounts of protective equipment there.
“We have the best in the world for that,” Trump said. “We’ve done a tremendous job in many other instances also on that even recently.”
That evening, Trump attended a Super Bowl watch party at Mar-a-Lago before heading back to the White House.
The campaign’s timeline indicates that on Feb. 3, “the CDC had a team ready to travel to China to obtain critical information on the novel coronavirus, but were in the U.S. awaiting permission to enter by the Chinese government.”
During his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, Trump mentioned the outbreak.
“We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China,” he said. “My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”
It was part of a long section focused on health care, beginning with a promise to protect preexisting conditions (despite the administration supporting a lawsuit that would end that protection) and ending with his awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh would go on to repeatedly play down the threat posed by the virus on his radio program and to spread misinformation about it.
On Feb. 5, the administration briefed Capitol Hill on its response to the coronavirus.
Here was the reaction of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to that briefing:
In a meeting at the White House, Azar asked that $2 billion be allocated to buy protective equipment aimed at refilling a federal stockpile. A dispute about Azar’s approach led to a shouting match, and his request wasn’t granted.
The Trump campaign’s timeline indicates that on Feb. 6, the CDC began shipping coronavirus test kits to labs in the United States. Those tests, though, were flawed, delaying the ability to track the virus.
That same morning, Trump attended a National Prayer Breakfast, attacking the “very dishonest and corrupt people” who had supported his impeachment. (The Senate had acquitted him the prior day.) Later in the day, he held a lengthy event in which he similarly criticized his political opponents. He didn’t mention the virus.
That afternoon, he had a scheduled meeting with his coronavirus task force in the Oval Office. It was the only such meeting on his public schedule in February.
That evening, he spoke with Xi by phone and, on the morning of Feb. 7, summarized the call in a tweet:
On his way to North Carolina for an event, Trump told reporters about the conversation.
“We talked about — mostly about the coronavirus. They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job,” he said. “They’re in touch with World — the World Organization. CDC also. We’re working together.”
He reiterated that he thought China was “doing a very good job.”
Asked about the potential effect on the global economy, Trump replied, “I think that China will do a very good job.”
At the event in North Carolina, Trump again described his call with Xi.
“I just spoke to President Xi last night, and, you know, we’re working on the — the problem, the virus,” he said. “It’s a — it’s a very tough situation. But I think he’s going to handle it. I think he’s handled it really well. We’re helping wherever we can.”
This was the day on which he told Woodward that the virus was deadly and transmissible through the air. It was also the day on which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo celebrated the sending of protective equipment to China.
On Feb. 10, Trump hosted a number of governors at the White House. (The governors had been briefed by the coronavirus task force the previous day.) Gov. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) asked him what was next on his trade agenda.
“We’ve done great on the trade. It’s going to have a tremendous impact,” Trump said as part of his response. “Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape, though. We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.”
In response to a later question, Trump revealed the source of the April assertion: Xi.
The Chinese leader “feels very confident,” Trump said. “And he feels that, again, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus. So that would be a good thing."
He added: “But we’re in great shape in our country. We have 11 [cases], and the 11 are getting better.”
That evening, Trump traveled to New Hampshire for a campaign rally — timed to step on the Democratic primary the following day.
“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” he said to the audience of thousands of people. “I hope that’s true. But we’re doing great in our country. China, I spoke with President Xi, and they’re working very, very hard. And I think it’s going to all work out fine. Rough stuff, I tell you, rough, rough stuff. But I think it’s going to work out good. We only have 11 cases, and they’re all getting better.”
While in New Hampshire, Trump spoke with Trish Regan, then a host on Fox Business.
“I really believe they are going to have it under control fairly soon,” he said of China. “You know in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather. And that’s a beautiful date to look forward to. But China, I can tell you, is working very hard.”
“We’re working with them. You know, we just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organization and a lot of them are composed of our people. They’re fantastic,” he added. “And they’re now in China, and we’re helping them out. We’re in very good shape. We have 11 cases, and most of them are getting better very rapidly.”
He offered an assurance to viewers.
“I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine,” he added later. “They’re working very hard, and we are in communication with them.”
The campaign’s timeline indicates that on Feb. 11, “the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expanded a partnership with Janssen Research & Development to ‘expedite the development’ of a coronavirus vaccine.”
The next day, the timeline says that the United States “shipped test kits for the 2019 novel coronavirus to approximately 30 countries who lacked the necessary reagents and other materials.” It also reiterated the item from Feb. 2 that CDC officials were awaiting approval to travel to China — something Trump apparently didn’t resolve in his conversation with Xi.
Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera interviewed Trump on Feb. 13 for a radio program.
“Mr. President, are you worried that the stock market and the big economic boom are in peril because of this coronavirus spreading epidemic?” Rivera asked, pointing to the lockdown then underway in China.
“Well, we’re working on it very closely. I spoke to President Xi two days ago. They’re working on it very professionally. It’s a problem, we think and we hope, based on all signs that the problem goes away in April because — which is not too far down the road, because heat kills this virus,” Trump said. He added that the United States was “sending a lot of people and CDC has been great, but it is — it’s a problem in China. Has not been spreading very much. In our country, we only have, basically, 12 cases, and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So it’s actually less.”
At an event with the Border Patrol Council on Feb. 14, Trump touted what he described as his successes — including on the virus.
“Sixty-one percent of the voters approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus,” Trump said, pointing to a poll from the Morning Consult. (His approval is now at 39 percent.) “And, you know, we did a very early move on that. We did a — I was criticized by a lot of people at the beginning because we were the first. We’d never done it before. We closed our borders through certain areas. It’s never happened before where we did that. We never closed our borders. But we did it, and we actually did it early, and we took some criticism. Now everyone is saying we did a good job.”
He again said that only 12 people in the country had been infected, praised Xi and suggested that the virus would fade in April.
Later that day, he left for Mar-a-Lago again. That weekend, he played golf and attended the Daytona 500 before heading back to his D.C. hotel for the wedding of his adviser Stephen Miller — another large indoor event.
Trump traveled to the West Coast that week, including attending a briefing on the 2020 Olympics (which would be canceled a month later). He attended several events in California while staying at his hotel in Las Vegas.
It’s likely that there were at least 2,000 cases in the United States by this point, including big clusters in California and New York — many of the latter of which arrived from Europe.
On Feb. 18, “HHS announced it would engage with Sanofi Pasteur in an effort to quickly develop a coronavirus vaccine and to develop treatment for coronavirus infections,” the campaign’s timeline reads.
The next night, Trump held a rally in Phoenix. He participated in an interview with a local television station while there.
“How confident are you that China is being 100 percent honest with us when it comes to this scary virus?” a reporter asked.
“I’m confident that they’re trying very hard,” Trump replied. “I mean, I know President Xi — I get along with him very well. We’ve just made a great trade deal, which is going to be a lot of business for Arizona and every other place. But, they are trying very, very hard, and I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.”
He reiterated his assumption that the virus would recede in April.
On Feb. 20 and 21, he held additional rallies in Colorado and Las Vegas. He didn’t mention the virus at either. Two days later, after returning to D.C., Trump departed for a multiday trip to India.
While he was away, stock markets began to stumble over concern about the pandemic’s spread. Trump tried to calm investors with a tweet:
The campaign’s timeline indicates that the administration on Feb. 24 “sent a letter to Congress requesting at least $2.5 billion to help combat the spread of the coronavirus.” That included $500 million dedicated to protective equipment, a quarter of the $2 billion Azar had sought more than two weeks previously. The next day, Trump disparaged Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for suggesting that the amount of requested aid was too low.
Speaking to reporters from India on Feb. 25, Trump offered comments about the virus.
“You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country,” Trump said. “We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are — in all cases, I have not heard anything other. Maybe there's something new, because for two days, I haven't been seeing too much of that news, of very much news, because [the India trip] has been very all-encompassing.”
He was later asked whether his decision to allow a number of Americans infected with the virus to return to the United States conflicted with his 2014 criticism of President Barack Obama for allowing Ebola patients into the United States. Trump said that it wasn’t contradictory, given the comparative mortality rates from the two viruses.
He returned to the subject a bit later.
Xi “is working very hard. He is very capable. The country is very capable. And it snuck up on him, but I think he’s going to do well,” Trump said. “Now you see it’s going to South Korea, it’s going to Italy and it’s going to other places. But I spoke to all of them. They’re all working very, very hard on it.”
The known cases were “fully quarantined,” Trump insisted. “So, you know, we did the right thing.”
While en route back to the United States later that day, Trump tweeted:
After beginning by praising his limits on travel from China, Trump and his team articulated that the risk posed by the virus was small. He claimed that the government was screening people from affected areas such as South Korea and Italy but that no additional travel restrictions were being imposed. He held up a graph identifying the United States as one of the best-prepared countries for an epidemic.
At several points, he compared the threat to the seasonal flu, which, he had been told, kills tens of thousands of people a year. (“That was shocking to me,” Trump said.)
“It is a little bit different, but in some ways it's easier and in some ways it's a little bit tougher,” he said of the coronavirus relative to the flu. “But we have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.”
This, of course, should be contrasted with what he told Woodward: that the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
During this briefing, Trump offered one of the defining lines of his administration’s handling of the outbreak.
“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,” Trump said.
As of writing, 6.3 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States and at least 187,000 people have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The president was asked to respond to an assertion by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he “didn’t know what he was talking about” in regard to the virus. Trump called Pelosi incompetent.
Trump didn’t mention that the government was already aware that the virus was uncontained and that there were confirmed cases of new infections not related to international travel. The Post broke that story as Trump’s briefing was underway.
The Post reported that the first case of “community spread” of the virus had been confirmed — that is, the first case of an infection that was not immediately attributable to contact with someone who had traveled overseas.
On Feb. 27, he participated in an African American History Month event. complained about criticism about the administration’s handling of the virus.
“We have a situation with the virus. We’ve done a great job,” he said. “The press won’t give us credit for it. We have — in a world that has some big problems — you look at China and you look at industry between the two countries. And I did something that had never been done before — because it had never been done before: I closed our borders to certain areas of the world.”
He again touted his efforts a bit later.
“We have done an incredible job. We’re going to continue,” he said. “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”
At the second event, Trump said that the virus was unexpected.
“I will say that things happen in life that are — if they would have said, ‘What are — give me 10 bad things that you think could happen,’ that wouldn’t have been on the list, right?” Trump said. “But you never know. But it’s working out very professionally. We’re doing a tremendous job and our people are doing a tremendous job.”
The next day, Feb. 28, Trump held another rally in Charleston, S.C.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he told the audience. “You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs.”
“One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.' That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it,” he added a bit later. “They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. … And this is their new hoax.”
“But you know we did something that’s been pretty amazing,” he continued. “We have 15 people in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.
“We're doing great,” he added. “Our country is doing so great.”
At a coronavirus news briefing Feb. 29, Trump was asked about his “hoax” comments. He insisted that he was “referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job.”
He acknowledged that the number of cases was likely to increase.
“Additional cases in the United States are likely, but healthy individuals should be able to fully recover,” Trump said. “And we think that will be a statement that we can make with great surety now that we’ve gotten familiar with this problem. They should be able to recover should they contract the virus. So, healthy people, if you’re healthy, you will probably go through a process and you’ll be fine.”
He then returned to his administration’s response.
“Since the early stages of the foreign outbreak, my administration has taken the most aggressive action in modern history to confront the spread of this disease,” he said. As evidence, he pointed to the previous month’s travel restrictions.
“Whatever the circumstance is, we’re prepared,” he said later.