Instead, enabled by top administration officials, Trump largely attempted to pretend the virus did not exist — spending much of his time distracted by impeachment and exacting vengeance on his political enemies. He also carried on as usual with showy political gatherings and crowded White House events.
The period would presage Trump’s disjointed and often dismissive approach to the virus in the months to come, as the president and his aides repeatedly sought to diminish the danger of a pandemic that has now claimed nearly 200,000 American lives while leaving millions more infected or out of work. Trump and White House officials disagree, arguing that the president took definitive steps in the early days of the virus that showed his resolve and helped limit the death toll.
Joe Grogan, former head of the Domestic Policy Council, said that the analyses now, more than half a year later, are “all ex post facto about where this was going to go.” Grogan said Trump was “focused on the issue but getting frustrated with others internally who were panicking about it because they were raising their voices and being hyperbolic.”
“The president didn’t want to panic people,” Grogan said. “Taking a step back, messaging was a challenge. Could we have done better as an administration? Yes. Could the president have done better? Perhaps.”
On that final Tuesday in January, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien had warned Trump during a top-secret Oval Office briefing that the virus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
In the hours to come on Jan. 28, Trump appeared at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before heading to a campaign rally in Wildwood, N.J., where he did not mention the virus. The next day, Trump tweeted that his team was “on top of it 24/7!”
He flew later that week on Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago, where he spent the weekend golfing and hosted a Super Bowl bash at his private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Later, back in Washington, the president focused first on his State of the Union address and then on vanquishing his perceived rivals following the Senate’s vote to acquit him of impeachment charges.
His allies, too, publicly downplayed the coronavirus. Three days after O’Brien’s foreboding assessment, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar appeared in the White House briefing room and said “the risk of infection for Americans remains low.” O’Brien, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Sunday, offered a starkly different public analysis than the one he had shared privately with the president just days earlier.
“Right now, there’s no reason for Americans to panic,” O’Brien said. “This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the U.S.”
Ten days after O’Brien’s initial warning, Trump called Woodward and privately acknowledged the virus’s threat, including that it was airborne and thus highly contagious: “You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told the journalist, according to Woodward’s new book, “Rage.” “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. . . . This is deadly stuff.”
There are some public signs of action during the 10-day period. On Wednesday, Jan. 29, the administration announced the formation of a coronavirus task force, initially led by Azar. Briefed on the group, Trump offered an optimistic assessment over Twitter, saying he had just been updated by “all of our GREAT agencies.”
“We have the best experts anywhere in the world, and they are on top of it 24/7!” he wrote.
But behind the scenes that same day, Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro wrote a memo offering a much grimmer assessment, warning that the virus could evolve “into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” It is unclear whether Trump ever saw that memo and others, and several White House aides dismissed the warnings from Navarro because of his broader antipathy toward China, where the virus originated.
That Thursday, Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, and the first human-to-human transmission of the virus was documented in the United States — a couple in their 60s, living in Chicago. But speaking at a trade event in Warren, Mich., Trump devoted scant attention to the issue.
“Hopefully it won’t be as bad as some people think it could be,” Trump said, adding, “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it.”
In this early period, Trump was receiving mixed messages from public health officials, including those at HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters. Initially, the task force focused almost entirely on trying to keep the virus out of the country, rather than preparing for an all-but-certain outbreak in the United States, these people said.
At first, the White House did not have an empowered person to help organize the virus response and regulate who briefed the president, a former senior administration official said. The National Security Council in this early period also struggled, without someone with a clinical epidemiology or global health security background empowered to run the response or challenge health officials — a huge failing, this official added. Because of the glut of conflicting information, Trump simply picked what he wanted to be the truth, the official said.
On Friday, Jan. 31, the administration announced a temporary travel ban into the United States for foreign nationals who were in China 14 days prior. But Trump, concerned about spooking markets, had to be talked into the ban, which included exemptions for U.S. citizens and others that still allowed tens of thousands of travelers to enter the country from China.
That same day, in a news conference that Trump did not attend, Azar announced that the coronavirus was “a public health emergency” while simultaneously minimizing the threat. “I want to stress: The risk of infection for Americans remains low,” he said. “And with these and our previous actions, we are working to keep the risk low.”
About a half-hour after Azar concluded, Trump boarded Marine One to head to Mar-a-Lago with plans for golf. On Saturday, Feb. 1, the president tweeted a photo of himself on the greens — white polo, red “Keep America Great” hat — enthusing, “Getting a little exercise this morning!” He also sat for a two-part interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, although the coronavirus barely came up.
“Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump told Hannity, when the host asked him how concerned he was about the virus — eight cases of which had so far been reported in the country.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, as O’Brien appeared on “Face The Nation,” the president visited Trump International Golf Club for another day on the links.
That evening, before returning to Washington, Trump hosted a Super Bowl party at his club, complete with cheerleaders shaking pompoms, the Florida Atlantic University marching band and an oversize likeness of Trump dressed as a football player, wearing a red jersey emblazoned with the number “45.”
Behind the scenes, however, some in Trump’s orbit were showing signs of concern. The day before the O’Brien briefing, staffers gathered in then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s office for a meeting to begin discussing the administration’s response to the virus, spurred by “a realization that we weren’t doing enough,” a senior official present at the meeting explained. And first lady Melania Trump in early February began privately raising concerns about her husband’s planned trip to India at the end of the month, worried about the spreading virus, two officials said.
The White House defended Trump’s early approach to the coronavirus.
“President Trump took the virus seriously from the beginning as evidenced by his administration taking early steps in January to protect the American people, including issuing travel advisories for Wuhan, China, on Jan. 6, implementing screenings at airports on Jan. 17, forming the Coronavirus Task Force on Jan. 29, declaring a public health emergency on Jan. 31, and taking the unprecedented step of halting travel from China on Jan. 31,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said in an email statement, adding: “All the while, Democrats and the media were obsessing over the partisan and futile impeachment trial while falsely accusing the President of being a racist or a fearmonger.”
A senior White House official added that especially in the pandemic’s early days, the administration was grappling with “an unprecedented moment on the global stage,” including misinformation and supply hoarding by China and incorrect projections from the WHO.
A second White House official sent along a list of two dozen actions the administration took in January and February to fight the virus, including the CDC repeatedly offering help to China, various travel advisories and beginning work on a vaccine.
Trump’s public schedule on Monday, Feb. 3, consisted of one item — his private weekly lunch with Vice President Pence. That Tuesday, the president delivered his State of the Union address before Congress, devoting two subdued lines to the coronavirus.
“We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China,” Trump said in his address. “My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said Trump’s response to the virus — and specifically his decision to deliberately downplay the threat — “is an example of everything you should not do if you are the president of the United States and a pandemic of an emerging virus occurs.”
Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
“It’s not good to sit on information like that, and it’s even worse when somebody does what President Trump did,” Rasmussen said. “He didn’t only maintain calm; he completely dismissed the threat and actively encouraged the opposite of what people should be doing.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 5, administration officials — including Azar and Mulvaney — traveled to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the virus. But some found the briefing deeply unsatisfactory, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who later tweeted that the administration “wasn’t taking this seriously enough.”
“Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake,” Murphy wrote.
The president, meanwhile, was focused on another event that day: the Senate vote to acquit him of impeachment charges that he abused the powers of the presidency and obstructed Congress as it investigated his attempts to pressure Ukraine into political investigations to damage Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Trump celebrated his acquittal at the White House with his lawyers, while a coterie of his top advisers — then-counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; staff secretary and counselor to the president Derek Lyons; Mark Meadows, Trump’s current chief of staff; and O’Brien — headed several blocks east to the Trump International Hotel. There, in a private room, the coronavirus was hardly the central focus as they clinked glasses and shared reminiscences, a former senior administration official said.
On Thursday, Feb. 6, the first U.S. coronavirus death occurred in Santa Clara County, Calif., although the cause of death was announced only retroactively. The CDC also began shipping the virus test kits it had developed across the country — but because of substandard practices, the kits were contaminated and unusable.
Trump was in a vengeful mood that week, looking to remove aides and so-called “Deep Staters” who he said had crossed him during impeachment. One adviser who spoke to Trump that Thursday said the president was “clamoring to get rid of the people in the government who were against him,” making moves against two of them.
That Friday, Feb. 7, Trump tapped out a pair of tweets about a conversation he had the previous night with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying he believed Xi would be successful in combating the virus, “especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.”
Trump also phoned Woodward that day, saying what he had withheld from the American people for more than a week, at least twice calling the virus “deadly.”
Former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said the president should have communicated to the American public in real time what was happening with the virus and helped the nation understand how to ameliorate the threat.
“Anyone who is still defending how President Trump messaged this virus is delusional,” Bossert said. “Was he right to think that a leader should downplay this and say don’t panic? He’s wrong.”