When Trump did address public health issues that day, he alarmed officials by revealing that he had been taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic — despite his own administration’s warning that doing so could cause severe heart problems.
A day later, when Trump journeyed to the Capitol for the first time during the pandemic, he again allowed his personal concerns to eclipse the crisis engulfing the nation. Over lunch with Republican senators, Trump complained about “criminal” Democrats who had “unmasked my children.” He accused his political opponents of “treason.” He implored his party to “stick together” and “be tough.” And he turned the floor over to his new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to deliver a campaign polling presentation aimed at persuading the lawmakers that the president was more popular than public surveys had indicated.
To some of the senators, Trump seemed obsessed not with saving lives but with appearing politically strong. Several privately concluded he was incapable of meeting the moment. But resigned to their belief that his conduct could not be changed, they did not share their unease with Trump or with the public. The following week, the number of dead passed 100,000 and the number of Americans filing for jobless claims went past 40 million.
Those two days in May encapsulate how Trump spent the fifth month of the coronavirus crisis: increasingly shaken by a pandemic he could not control; offering no more than fleeting expressions of grief or empathy; quick to assign blame to others; enraged by grievances and feuds; dismissive of health guidelines; and concerned, above all, about his diminished reelection prospects.
Facing in the virus an enemy he could not tweet into submission, Trump was desperate to change the subject. He fomented distractions by advancing baseless charges, from his “Obamagate” claim of a conspiracy by former president Barack Obama and others to sabotage his presidency to unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud from mail-in ballots to reviving a debunked accusation about the death of a former staffer to then-congressman Joe Scarborough.
And by month’s end, Trump stoked racial tensions over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis by tweeting comments so incendiary that Twitter flagged them as violating the platform’s rule against glorifying violence.
“He’s been over coronavirus for a long time,” said one veteran Trump adviser who described the president as focused instead on his desire to have “a fistfight” with former vice president Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic opponent.
This story documenting Trump’s month of diversion is based on interviews with 57 administration officials, outside advisers and experts with detailed knowledge of the White House’s handling of the pandemic. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount internal discussions or share candid assessments without risk of retribution.
White House officials defended Trump’s leadership, pointing to the expansion of testing, progress in vaccine development, and procurement of ventilators, protective equipment and other needed supplies.
“This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “And while the Democrats, do-nothing pundits, and the media shamelessly try and destroy this President with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has focused in on the pandemic and risen to fight it head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health and well-being of the American people.”
Trump allies also noted that the average number of daily deaths from the coronavirus plateaued and began to fall during the month, providing further evidence that the administration’s mitigation efforts were effective.
But critics inside and outside the government see May as another lost month in the administration’s attempts to contain the coronavirus. Trump grew more adrift than ever from governors and health officials, and was defiant and flippant as he encouraged Americans to resume normal routines, even when doing so violated his own administration’s public safety guidelines. He stoked a still-simmering culture war by refusing to wear a face mask in front of cameras, and mocked those who did for being politically correct.
Meanwhile, officials at the state and federal level kept warning of more outbreaks in areas with relaxed guidelines and of a possible fall surge that could lead tens of thousands more Americans to die. Cash-strapped states have strained to build effective contact tracing and testing systems to keep pace with businesses reopening, and to prepare for a second wave. Trump’s claim of a vaccine coming at “warp speed” remains by all accounts an ambition rather than a reality.
Trump’s shifting approach in May had tangible consequences. The White House’s coronavirus task force, which Trump toyed with disbanding in early May, is now mostly idle and has scaled back meetings to once a week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became increasingly isolated from the rest of the government, trashed privately by the president and ostracized by the White House. The government’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, was largely kept out of the spotlight.
Despite leading other countries in total tests, the United States is still far short of the minimum of 1 million tests per day that experts say is needed to send people back to work safely. The administration submitted a legally required national testing plan to Congress on May 24, but placed the onus largely on states to secure supplies and resources needed to test its citizens on a large scale. Although officials had hoped to launch a national serology testing strategy by the end of May, the tests so far have proven too unreliable to be broadly used.
“What we have is a completely disjointed national response,” said retired rear admiral Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who led the National Security Council’s biodefense and health security office in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. “We have to open the economy, but there seems to be no central leadership on that.”
“I don’t understand how someone can take the responsibility of being leader of the most powerful nation in the world and then decide, ‘Nah, that’s not really my responsibility anymore, we’ll leave that to other people and I have other things I’d rather do,’ ” Bernard added.
Trump’s tolerance for bad news seemed to dissipate in May — and as the headlines worsened, he expanded his efforts to cast blame elsewhere, including to China, where the virus is believed to have originated. The president and some of his top administration officials also faulted the CDC for what they describe as an abdication of leadership and for not “getting their act together,” in the words of one of these officials.
“He’s never at fault for anything. It’s Fauci’s fault. It’s China’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault. It’s always someone else, somewhere else,” said David Lapan, a former Department of Homeland Security official in the Trump administration. “He doesn’t want to hear the bad news, he doesn’t take responsibility for the bad news and wants to gloss over it and change the subject. That does a disservice to the American public, who need the facts and the straight truth about what’s going on.”
For Trump, what occurred throughout May were not his customary cycles of rage. The president made a deliberate choice to try to divert the public’s attention from bleak headlines on health and the economy toward a series of unrelated controversies in hopes that scrutiny of the failures of his administration would fade into the background, according to people familiar with his approach.
Another cost of Trump’s distractions and volatility was cohesion inside the West Wing. Aides moved gingerly in and out of the Oval Office, wary of provoking their boss, who surrounded himself with loyalists who praised him and reminded him of his 2016 victory. When White House counsel Pat Cipollone resisted the president’s wish to sue CNN over its news coverage, Trump lashed out at the lawyer. McEnany’s fiery confrontations with reporters at White House press briefings — including one where she claimed reporters “desperately” want to see churches closed — appeared choreographed to win approval from the “audience of one,” but were knocked by some White House officials as unhelpful and even offensively provocative.
Aides felt powerless to do more than nudge the president from time to time. So Trump carried on, lighting political fires and barreling ahead without a clear plan to revive the economy or to keep more Americans from dying.
On Wednesday — the day the U.S. death toll surpassed 100,000 — Trump veered from disregarding a widower’s pleas to again unleash a barrage of dark innuendo about Scarborough to threatening to shut down Twitter. He flew with his family to Florida to witness a space shuttle launch, only for it to be scrubbed 17 minutes before liftoff because of stormy skies. Night fell without the president acknowledging the number of dead, other than a statement in the name of deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere saying that Trump was grieving.
“He didn’t want to talk about the number. He just didn’t want to hear the number,” said another longtime Trump confidant. “You know how presidents usually don’t go to space launches because there is such a risk of something going wrong? Well, he took the risk. Anything was better than talking about that number.”
Trump registered his grief the next morning with a tweet about the “very sad milestone.”
'Treated worse' than Lincoln
As many states started lifting restrictions allowing businesses to reopen on May 1, Trump decided to mark the occasion in signature fashion. He had defined his role during the pandemic as “a cheerleader for the country,” so he figured what better stage on which to perform his cheers than the Lincoln Memorial, and what better format than a prime-time Fox News Channel virtual town hall.
On the first Sunday evening in May, Trump climbed the memorial’s hallowed steps and took a seat at the base of the imposing marble statue of Lincoln, dramatically lit for the evening’s production. Under the watchful gaze of the country’s 16th president, who worked to preserve the union during civil war, Trump looked inward, casting himself as the true victim.
“Look, I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen,” Trump said. “The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln — nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”
The disorienting scene set the tone for the month to come. The president focused on the crisis through the prism of himself — his image, his popularity, his election prospects. He complained to advisers about particular journalists he believed were out to get him. One of these advisers posited that Trump struggled because a pandemic requires a leader to place his ego secondary to the crisis.
Trump calculated that reopening the economy was paramount, irrespective of the health consequences.
“The coronavirus conversation that had dominated the media for the couple months leading up to this was in large measure not favorable to him,” explained a former senior administration official briefed on internal discussions. “So continuing to have the same coronavirus conversations wasn’t good for him. . . . He made a decision that the most important thing for him, from a policy basis but also for his reelection, was to push to get the economy humming as quickly and as robustly as possible, and that he would be all-in on that.”
Health experts saw a jarring disconnect between Trump’s handling of covid-19 and the urgent calls, including from inside his own government, to stop the spread of the virus to prevent a second wave.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, we’re going back to how it used to be,’ ” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “If we do that, we’re going to have a surge in covid in no time.”
May also began with confusion over the discarding of the coronavirus task force in Trump’s day-to-day management of the pandemic, even as he insisted that it was not being disbanded. As he toured a Honeywell mask plant in Arizona on May 5, Trump — who wore goggles but no mask, despite signs on the factory floor urging any visitor to do so — told reporters that he was eager to see the task force wind down.
This caught Fauci by surprise. The longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wondered why he had not been briefed about the disbanding plan and privately asked several senior Trump officials variations of “What’s going on here?”
The aides reassured Fauci that Trump wasn’t unhappy with him personally, but wanted more command. “Welcome to Trump world,” one of the officials later said of how aides explained Trump’s behavior.
Fauci — who is known for citing the “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business” line from the “Godfather” film — went about his work. White House officials, however, knew Trump’s move was rooted in his aversion to sharing the spotlight, especially with a physician who was being lionized for his clear, factual explanations of the science and health risks.
“The killer for [Fauci] was when Brad Pitt played him on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” said another former administration official familiar with the president’s views. “Trump really can’t stand it when you get bigger and more popular than him. . . . Getting you off TV is the way he brings you down.”
Trump ribbed Fauci over his popularity in front of other aides, who said they did not see the president express jealousy or disapproval.
Governors on the front lines were startled. “People out there not only in Virginia but in this country, they need the truth,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said. “Dr. Fauci, he talks about the science, he talks about data, and he’s a straight shooter. And that’s what we need right now.”
Throughout March and April, a central part of Trump’s daily routine was the lengthy, often hour-plus briefings he led with Vice President Pence, Fauci, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and an evolving cast of officials.
Whatever helpful guidance was communicated to the public often was overshadowed by the president’s rambling, contentious and at times disjointed performances. White House officials came to regard the briefings as counterproductive — “like a truck stuck with its wheels spinning,” in the analogy used by yet another former official.
Trump’s advisers reimagined his communications strategy in May, orchestrating themed appearances — such as a Rose Garden announcement on testing or a State Dining Room meeting of restaurant industry leaders — to help him tailor a reopening message. And the task force faded away, with Fauci, Birx and other members making only irregular public appearances with the president.
Agency chiefs shifted their priorities from expanding testing and fortifying the supply chain to the development of therapeutics and a vaccine, including preparations for mass production and distribution of the vaccine once one is found.
Top officials, including at the Food and Drug Administration, began weighing serious ethical considerations on just how quickly to move on a vaccine. They are establishing protocols for mass distribution, even if there is not enough time to conduct standard safety studies. The stakes are high: If the government moves too quickly and people get sick or die taking the vaccine, it will be blamed for making a rash decision, and if it moves too slowly, it denies people access to a vaccine.
In addition, officials considered whether an eventual vaccine should go first to the most vulnerable citizens, such as older people with comorbidities or living in nursing homes. Similar discussions occurred about grouping the workforce by age and letting younger people return to work first because they are considered to have a lower risk of getting seriously ill from covid-19.
“Perhaps where we didn’t see that planning for test availability in February and March, there are promising signs for vaccine development,” said Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner in the George W. Bush administration. “People are starting to think about these issues now because there is absolutely no time to wait.”
These efforts were challenged by political pressures. Moncef Slaoui was appointed the vaccine czar, but a former senior administration official with knowledge of the inner workings of the operation speculated that he would have trouble succeeding because “he spends half the days fielding inquiries” from friends of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. “All these people are sending their business plans for the cure for coronavirus,” the former official said.
'Cheerleaders and wingers'
By early May, more than 30 million Americans were out of work, but most remained hopeful. According to a nationwide Washington Post-Ipsos poll at the time, nearly 6 in 10 said it was “very likely” they would get their old jobs back. Businesses, however, remained far less certain, with little direction from Trump about what he would do next.
Clarity was difficult to find inside the West Wing as well. Business executives who were frequent presences around Trump early on during the pandemic lost influence as a cadre of economic conservatives on staff accumulated power — economist Kevin Hassett, Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, known by some in Trump’s orbit as “cheerleaders and wingers,” a reference to their boosterism of the stock market and right-wing ideologies.
Some business executives named in April with great fanfare by Trump as members of advisory groups were no longer consulted. One prominent Washington lobbyist said the “business councils are dead” and that it was near impossible to get Trump’s attention unless “you have a personal relationship with Jared.”
Spencer Zwick, a Republican financier who is close to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), added, “People I know who are involved feel like they’re being underutilized. It’s like a lot of blue-ribbon panel-type groups that get put together and business leaders get asked for advice, but it isn’t sustained.”
Aides to governors in both parties said their bosses felt stymied and politely ignored by conservative players in the administration in terms of securing federal financial support. The Trump team, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), emphasized additional tax breaks and resisted pleas from states for billions of dollars in federal aid to support their budgets, which had been battered by collapsing revenue because of the economic shutdown.
Trump had also grown weary of some Democratic governors, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who had rapped him over his leadership in the pandemic and his encouragement of protesters in their states. Several White House aides said Trump’s umbrage over those comments made him more inclined to “let them twist in the wind” about additional funds, as one official described his view.
Even New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), a former Goldman Sachs executive and one of the rare Democratic governors Trump personally liked, received no guarantees from the president when they met on April 30 — not even after Murphy outlined his state’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Trump told Murphy any new funding would be “tough” and left it at that, according to officials close to Trump and Murphy familiar with the exchange.
A jolt came on May 19, when Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell testified before Congress that much more stimulus may be needed to revive the economy, and the White House vaguely signaled it could be open to supporting additional aid for states. But the moment did little to spark negotiations. Trump, who had farmed out past talks to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pelosi, continued to all but ignore Congress as an available economic tool and turned his attention elsewhere.
While the conservatives at Trump’s side were effective in delaying any additional spending, they found themselves delicately navigating the president’s private rages over his bitterness that the economy he thought would secure him a second term had cratered so suddenly, as well as his public bravado that did not correspond to economic data. Trump predicted a “V-shaped” economic recovery, in which the economy quickly bounces back to its prior state, even though most economists forecast a far more gradual recovery.
In an Oval Office meeting in early May, Trump chastised Hassett for using the phrase the “biggest shock since the Great Depression” in a television interview and told him to stop using such dire and dramatic terms, according to two people familiar with the exchange. Hassett has since adopted a more positive tone.
Kudlow said in an interview that he agreed with Trump’s prediction of a V-shaped recovery, but also hedged his forecast by saying the “V” could come in different forms. “You can have your own V’s. There’s V’s. There are lesser V’s,” Kudlow said. “There are combos of U’s and V’s.”
Several Trump associates pointed to a May 19 exchange with CBS News correspondent Paula Reid as revealing of Trump’s mind-set throughout the month. The president snapped at Reid after she asked, “Mr. President, why haven’t you announced a plan to get 36 million unemployed Americans back to work?”
“Oh, I think we’ve announced a plan. We’re opening up our country. Just a rude person you are,” Trump said. “We’re opening it up very fast.”
The next day, the Labor Department reported that 3 million Americans had filed for unemployment insurance over the past week. And on May 27, another 2.1 million were reported to have filed jobless claims, bringing the total during the pandemic to more than 40 million.
'Kind of AWOL'
As Trump fixated on his domestic troubles, he retreated from the global stage. A meeting of the World Health Organization in mid-May that in any other pandemic under any other presidency probably would have served as a venue for global cooperation in defeating a common enemy instead was a testament to America’s isolation under Trump.
Trump had made a punching bag out of the WHO, accusing the organization of favoritism to the Chinese and of not taking adequate actions early on to stop the spread of the virus to other continents. In a fit of pique, Trump cut off U.S. funding to the organization.
Anthony Scaramucci, a former senior administration official who is now an outspoken Trump critic, said, “What are his political instincts here? I want to distract you from what’s going on. I want to deflect away from the reality. And oh, by the way, I want to remind you that the pandemic is not my fault, and it’s us against them.”
For nearly a century, the United States played a leading role internationally at moments of crisis by lending its considerable resources and knowledge in shared efforts to save lives. But Trump saw little use for international collaboration, leaving a void for China to fill.
Chinese President Xi Jinping piped into the WHO meeting by satellite and committed $2 billion to the organization to combat the coronavirus, a move that exacerbated U.S.-China tensions and established China at the forefront of the world’s pandemic response.
“The United States has been kind of AWOL,” said William J. Burns, a career diplomat and former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. “It’s not to say that we have all the answers and all the influence, but there is not a disciplined American leadership role like you saw after the global financial crisis and after previous global health challenges.”
Trump’s blaming of China paired neatly with his campaign strategy to go after Biden over the former vice president’s outreach to China as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.”
Trump was influenced on May 15 by two Fox broadcasters, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who mused about reports that the Trump administration was on the verge of restoring its funding to the WHO. “Top WH Advisors are working for whom exactly?” Dobbs tweeted. “Surely not for our historic President or this great nation.”
The next day, during a gathering at Camp David, a group of Republican lawmakers urged Trump to take a hard-line stance against the WHO and keep funds frozen, or cut off entirely, and Trump listened intently.
On May 18, Trump issued a scathing four-page letter to the WHO continuing the freeze and threatening to permanently withdraw U.S. membership if the organization’s leadership did not agree to unspecified terms. The move revealed the power of Fox hosts and House Republicans to persuade the president to choose the more adversarial approach.
On Friday, Trump followed through on that threat, announcing from the Rose Garden that he was “terminating” the U.S. membership in the WHO.
Galvanizing his base
In the early months of the pandemic, the coronavirus felt to Trump like a distant threat. The president said he was healthy and that everyone around him was healthy. Surely, he must have figured, the virus could not penetrate the secure presidential bubble.
In the tightly configured and cramped West Wing, where the president and his staffers had flouted health safety standards such as social distancing and mask-wearing — sometimes flagrantly so — the twin infections set off a frenzy.
In this moment, Trump’s isolation was intensified. Aides took the rare step of closing the door to the outer area of the Oval Office to stop people from lingering. Common areas were cleaned five times a day. Masks were required for anyone other than the president. Meetings with Trump became smaller, and only attended by people who had been tested for the virus that day. And aboard Air Force One, the president told visitors to stay a bit back from his private cabin.
Trump took another precaution as well, one that the public and most of his staff did not learn about until he revealed it about two weeks later. The president said he started taking hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that Fox News host Laura Ingraham had talked up with him in a private White House meeting back in April.
The president knew that the FDA as well as Fauci and other physicians and public health officials had publicly warned of the heart problems it causes in covid-19 patients, but said he decided to take the drug because “I get a lot of positive calls about it.”
“I have taken it for about a week and a half now, and I’m still here,” Trump quipped to reporters.
Trump did not give a heads-up to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn about his personal use of the drug, though officials at the agency figured the president was acting out of concern of potential exposure from his valet.
Another way Trump sought to galvanize his political base was by stirring conspiratorial allegations under an umbrella he called “Obamagate,” which advisers and friends said was as much an exercise in personal and political release for the president as it was a serious pursuit of justice.
Trump found comfort in vengeful discussions with allies about the Justice Department’s move to dismiss criminal charges against his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. And Trump sought without evidence to cast Biden, whom nearly every poll in May showed beating Trump in swing states and nationally, as a villain and criminal conspirator seeking along with Obama to sabotage his presidency.
When Trump visited the Senate luncheon on May 19, one Republican senator said the president talked “nonstop” about Flynn-related matters and the rest of the room was “pretty much silent” or nodding along.
Silence among many Republican lawmakers also greeted Trump’s efforts in late May to malign Scarborough — whose critical commentary on his MSNBC show, “Morning Joe,” has long infuriated the president — by spreading a baseless conspiracy theory implicating Scarborough in the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a 28-year-old aide in Scarborough’s office when he was a Republican member of Congress from Florida.
A senior White House official said of Trump’s fixation on Scarborough, “The president always decides on what he wants to focus on and when he wants to focus on it, but it’s not at the exclusion of getting his objectives accomplished.”
Trump’s objective throughout was to position himself for the November election. His reelection campaign, led by Brad Parscale and guided by Kushner, was a near-constant interest of Trump, who saw himself not only as the candidate but the chief strategist — the conductor of tweets and the sole person who grasped exactly what to do, aides said.
Trump closely tracked polls daily and tested attacks on Biden with friends, while telling advisers that you can “always add 10 points to my polls.” He toyed with changing the site of the Republican National Convention from North Carolina, where a Democratic governor determined pandemic restrictions, to a state with a Republican governor who was loyal to him.
But angst and exasperation remained. From time to time, officials said, Trump wondered aloud to aides, “Why am I not beating Joe Biden?”
By late May, in quiet talks with senior aides, Trump asked about whether Parscale was being effective in getting his message across. Lewandowski and Bossie in their meeting with Trump were frank: The campaign is struggling and your presidency is at risk. They told him to get back to rallies as soon as he can — and Trump agreed with July as his goal for when he can start having major events again.
“The president wants to get out and do what he does best, these rallies,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally.
But Graham said arena shows can only go so far in drawing attention away from the collision of crises facing Trump.
“I think the president knows you’re not going to change the subject when you have a virus that has affected our lives in such a dramatic way,” he said.