That number has only grown in the days since. And in the face of that crisis, President Donald Trump has a message for the American people: It was China’s fault, and the only reason the US death toll isn’t worse is because of his quick action in banning travel from China.
In fact, there are many reasons the US death toll is so high, including a national response plagued by delays at the federal level, wishful thinking by President Trump, the sidelining of experts, a pointed White House campaign to place the blame for the Trump administration’s shortcomings on others, and time wasted chasing down false hopes based on poor science.
Often as not, though, rather than argue the merits of its response at home, the Trump administration has chosen to focus on its action against China as a benchmark for success — and that’s not accidental. In fact, Trump’s quick pivot to blaming China is a deliberate strategy, supposedly backed up by internal Trump campaign polling and designed to obfuscate the details of the truly inadequate US response. But in the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Trump himself took a very different line on everything from China to the severity of the virus itself and how bad things might get in the US.
Though White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted as early as March that the virus could kill 100,000 to 200,000 Americans, Trump has had his own ever-shifting goalposts for what counts as a successful response. On April 20, he predicted 50,000 to 60,000 dead from Covid-19. A week later, he revised his estimate to 70,000. On May 4, it was 80,000 to 100,000 people, and we now know it will continue to climb past that mark.
Throughout the pandemic, however, much of the Trump administration’s spin — regarding Trump’s own response, China’s role, and more — has been misleading, if not outright untrue. Here’s what Trump and the federal government have — and have not — done to respond to the virus.
In late 2019, the coronavirus wasn’t on much of the world’s radar. President Trump was becoming the third president in US history to be impeached. We now know, however, that the first cases of the virus were cropping up as early as November. Here’s where things stood late last year:
November 17: Although it was not diagnosed as such at the time, researchers have now identified the first confirmed Covid-19 case as having been seen on November 17 in China’s Hubei province.
December 27: A man in France, who is now the first known Covid-19 patient outside of China, goes to the emergency room with a fever and difficulty breathing. At the time, Covid-19 was still unheard of outside of China.
December 31: The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reports the first cluster of cases of a “pneumonia of unknown cause,” later identified as Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2.
Though new discoveries — such as the December case in France mentioned above — keep pushing the timeline of the virus back, much of the world began to take note of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness in China in January 2020, which at the time was mostly centered in the Hubei province. On January 5, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a preliminary news item about the then-unidentified disease; at the time, it was a relatively distant concern in the US, particularly given the country had yet to see any confirmed cases.
But the coronavirus’s threat was of concern to US national security officials, who, as the Washington Post reported in March, were warning Trump of the global danger posed by the virus in daily intelligence briefings as early as January.
Nonetheless, in public comments and tweets, the president consistently played down the fledgling pandemic even as the first US case was reported in Washington state. He also applauded China’s handling of the virus at several points in January, before taking action to protect the US in the form of a limited travel ban from China on January 31.
Here’s what things looked like in January.
January 11: The first death from a confirmed case of Covid-19 is reported in China.
January 16: A researcher in Germany develops the first coronavirus test.
January 19: Human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus is confirmed by the Chinese government.
January 21: The first confirmed Covid-19 case in the US is reported in Washington state.
To CNBC: We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.
To CBS: We do have a plan and we think it’s going to be handled very well. We’ve already handled it very well … We’re in very good shape and I think China’s in very good shape also.
January 24: Trump praises China’s “efforts and transparency” and thanks Chinese President Xi Jinping for his response to the virus.
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
January 29: Trump receives a briefing on the coronavirus, and asserts that the US is “on top of it 24/7.”
Just received a briefing on the Coronavirus in China from all of our GREAT agencies, who are also working closely with China. We will continue to monitor the ongoing developments. We have the best experts anywhere in the world, and they are on top of it 24/7! pic.twitter.com/rrtF1Stk78— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2020
January 30: The WHO declares the coronavirus a global health emergency.
January 30: Trump suggests that the coronavirus is under control in remarks at a manufacturing plant in Michigan:
We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five [cases]. And those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us.
TRUMP: "We're working very strongly w/ China on the coronavirus that's a new thing that a lot of people are talking about... we have very little problem in this country at this moment. 5, and those ppl are all recuperating... we think it's going to have a very good ending for us" pic.twitter.com/dEHD074042— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 30, 2020
January 31: Trump suspends entry to the US for many — but not all — categories of people traveling from China, a move which some epidemiologists warned at the time was “more of an emotional or political reaction” than a public health decision. The Department of Health and Human Services declares the coronavirus a public health emergency.
February started with a State of the Union address on February 4, and the first US Covid-19 death followed on February 6 in California’s Bay Area. The majority of the coronavirus messaging coming from the White House, however, continued to focus on downplaying the virus rather than bracing for the now-realized possibility that it could become a full-blown pandemic and a global public health crisis.
The Trump administration did take a few steps toward crafting a federal response, requesting emergency funding from Congress and setting up a task force with Vice President Mike Pence at its head. Meanwhile, Trump — and Fox News — leaned hard into portraying the coronavirus as under control, and even as a Democratic hoax.
As a result, February was by and large a lost month: Delays in developing a test kit were followed by testing shortages, and both issues meant the coronavirus was able to spread undetected and unabated in many parts of the country.
Here’s what things looked like in February.
February 4: Trump gives the annual State of the Union address and briefly mentions the US response to the coronavirus in his speech.
We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.
February 5: The Food and Drug Administration issues an emergency use authorization for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coronavirus test, clearing the way for it to be used in state labs.
February 6: The first death in the US from a confirmed case of Covid-19 is retroactively confirmed to have occurred in early February by the Santa Clara County medical examiner following an autopsy of the victim.
February 7: Trump again praises Xi’s response to the coronavirus.
....he will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 7, 2020
February 15: The first death in Europe from a confirmed case of Covid-19 is reported in France.
February 23: Trump again claims that the coronavirus is “under control” in an impromptu South Lawn press conference with Marine One waiting to depart to Andrews Air Force Base ahead of a trip to India.
We’re very much involved. We’re very — very cognizant of everything going on. We have it very much under control in this country.
February 24: In a tweet, Trump reiterates his claim that the virus is “very much under control in the USA.”
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2020
February 25: Trump requests $2.5 billion in coronavirus response funding from Congress for vaccine development, testing, PPE, and more.
February 26: The first instance of community spread in the US is confirmed by the CDC.
And again, 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.
“We’re going to be pretty soon at only 5 people, and we could be at just 1 or 2 people over the next short period of time” — Trump on US coronavirus cases on February 26 (there are now more than 10,000 cases in the country) pic.twitter.com/0O6IouQhJJ— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 19, 2020
February 27: Trump predicts that the coronavirus will disappear “like a miracle.”
It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.
February 28: Trump refers to the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax” at a rally in South Carolina.
The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus… 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. They tried the impeachment hoax that was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since you got in… And this is their new hoax.”
In March, the coronavirus for the first time began to intrude on daily life in a major way. The NBA shut down on March 11, the same night Trump addressed the nation in primetime from the Oval Office, announcing a European travel ban and promising economic relief efforts.
Not long after that speech, California became the first state to implement a general stay-at-home order on March 19.
By the end of the month, more than 30 states had done the same, and those shutdowns — a public health necessity, in the opinion of most experts — brought the US economy to a screeching halt. As a result, it’s maybe not surprising that Trump, who has previously tied his reelection pitch directly to the economy, spent much of the month broadcasting an unwarranted optimism about the trajectory of the virus and promoting potential treatments like hydroxychloroquine — which the FDA has since warned against using for Covid-19 treatment or prevention, noting it can cause heart problems.
The growing severity of the pandemic, however, also led to a mid-March social distancing push from the White House. Shortly after his primetime address, Trump announced a new slate of guidelines advising against discretionary travel and against congregating in groups of more than 10 people.
And toward the end of the month, the growing death toll from the coronavirus — centered on New York, Trump’s longtime home — appeared to have an impact on the president. In a press conference, he acknowledged that the first half of April was “going to be a rough two-week period” and walked back previous statements downplaying the coronavirus by comparing it to the seasonal flu.
Here’s what things looked like in March.
March 5: Trump suggests that closing the US to travel from China helped to keep the number of Covid-19 cases low.
With approximately 100,000 CoronaVirus cases worldwide, and 3,280 deaths, the United States, because of quick action on closing our borders, has, as of now, only 129 cases (40 Americans brought in) and 11 deaths. We are working very hard to keep these numbers as low as possible!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2020
March 6: At the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Trump says falsely that “anybody that wants a test can get a test”; he also comments that he would rather have infected people who were trapped on a cruise ship stay there to keep the number of confirmed US cases low.
Anybody that wants a test can get a test ... they’re making millions of more as we speak. But as of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test — that’s the important thing — and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.
I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.
"I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship" -- Trump explains that he doesn't want to let people off the Grand Princess cruise ship because he doesn't want the number of coronavirus cases in the country to go up pic.twitter.com/ELhZDjiZW9— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 6, 2020
March 9: Trump compares the coronavirus to the common flu, a comparison which at that time had already been debunked by experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
March 11: The WHO officially labels the coronavirus a pandemic.
Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly, day by day, we’re moving very quickly ... The vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low.
March 16: Trump announces “15 Days to Stop the Spread” CDC guidelines, encouraging social distancing.
March 18: Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mutually close the US-Canada border; Trump officially invokes the Defense Production Act (DPA) in order to push domestic manufacturing industries to produce badly needed medical supplies.
March 19: Trump incorrectly claims that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treating Covid-19.
The nice part is, it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody. When you go with a brand new drug, you don’t know that that’s going to happen. It’s shown very very encouraging early results.
Close up of President @realDonaldTrump notes is seen where he crossed out "Corona" and replaced it with "Chinese" Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force today at the White House. #trump #trumpnotes pic.twitter.com/kVw9yrPPeJ— Jabin Botsford (@jabinbotsford) March 19, 2020
March 20: Trump closes the US-Mexico border, saying:
[Unauthorized entries] threaten to create a perfect storm that would spread the infection to our border agents, migrants, and to the public at large. Left unchecked, this would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our healthcare system, and severely damage our national security. We’re not going to let that happen.
March 20: Trump touts hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug unproven as a Covid-19 treatment, at the White House Coronavirus Task Force daily briefing; in the same exchange, he attacks NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander as a “terrible reporter.”
Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows, I’ve been right a lot. Let’s see what happens.
PETER ALEXANDER: What do you say to Americans watching right now who are scared?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 20, 2020
TRUMP: I say that you are a terrible reporter. That is what I say. I think you had a nasty question. pic.twitter.com/yw1T2HTnT3
March 22: As the economic impact of coronavirus lockdowns becomes more apparent, Trump shies away from a prolonged shutdown following a historically bad day for the Dow Jones stock index the previous week.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
March 24: Trump floats Easter Sunday, April 12, as a potential reopening date.
I would love to have it open by Easter. I will — I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that — it’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’ll make it an important day for this too. I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.
Trump on ending social distancing: "I would love to have it opened by Easter." (That's April 12)— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 24, 2020
"That would be a great American resurrection," host Bill Hemmer replies. pic.twitter.com/G1AhP1biNI
March 26: The US hits 1,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.
March 27: Trump attacks General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Twitter over ventilator manufacturing amid a desperate shortage of the machines, and threatens to “invoke ‘P’” — the Defense Production Act — to compel the company to make more, the first of many such threats made against companies producing essential materials.
As usual with “this” General Motors, things just never seem to work out. They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, “very quickly”. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke “P”.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2020
March 27: Trump signs a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package that includes direct cash payments to Americans, additional funding for hospitals, and some $500 billion in loans for companies.
March 29: Trump extends CDC social distancing guidance through April 30; in the Rose Garden, he also says he believes his administration will have “done a very good job” if the US avoids the worst-case 2.2 million deaths predicted by London’s Imperial College.
March 31: Trump drops his comparison to the flu, saying the coronavirus is “vicious”:
It’s not the flu. It’s vicious. When you send a friend to the hospital, and you call up to find out how is he doing — it happened to me, where he goes to the hospital, he says goodbye. He’s sort of a tough guy. A little older, a little heavier than he’d like to be, frankly. And you call up the next day: “How’s he doing?” And he’s in a coma? This is not the flu.
For all that Trump spent January and February praising China’s response to the coronavirus, April saw his White House execute an about-face as the human and economic toll of the pandemic in the US mounted. The president began to blame China, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and the WHO for problems with America’s Covid-19 response. And Democratic governors, like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who maintained lockdown orders and criticized the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, became targets of his ire.
Here’s what things looked like in April.
April 2: Trump employs the DPA to direct 3M and other companies to manufacture masks and ventilators:
Moments ago, I directed Secretary Azar and Acting Secretary Wolf to use any and all available authority under the Defense Production Act to ensure that domestic manufacturers have the supplies they need to produce ventilators for patients with severe cases of C-O-V-I-D 19. You know what that is, right? Become a very famous term: C-O-V-I-D — COVID.
April 4: Trump again invokes the DPA to combat the hoarding of medical supplies by “wartime profiteers.”
April 6: The US hits 10,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.
April 9: The Trump campaign releases a misleading ad attacking Biden’s record on China.
April 13: Trump claims to have the legal right to overrule governors’ shelter-in-place orders, asserting at a press conference that the president’s “authority is total.”
TRUMP: "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's gotta be. It's total." pic.twitter.com/zIuiBn1Mhw— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
April 14: Trump announces plans to halt funding to the WHO, accusing the organization of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
April 15: The US hits 25,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.
April 16: The Trump administration releases its reopening guidelines:
Every state is very different. They’re all beautiful. We love them all. But they’re very, very different. If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that. And if they believe it is time to reopen, we will provide them the freedom and guidance to accomplish that task — and very, very quickly — depending on what they want to do.
April 17: As small groups of — sometimes armed — protesters demonstrating against shelter-in-place orders begin to receive media coverage, Trump calls on his supporters, including those who attended these protests, to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, all of which have Democratic governors.
LIBERATE MICHIGAN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
April 17: Trump attacks Biden and the Obama administration’s handling of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Biden/Obama were a disaster in handling the H1N1 Swine Flu. Polling at the time showed disastrous approval numbers. 17,000 people died unnecessarily and through incompetence! Also, don’t forget their 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare website that should have cost close to nothing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
April 22: Trump, who has spent the last few days promoting reopening, announces that he opposes Georgia reopening.
I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the phase one guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia ... I think it’s too soon.
And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.
April 24: The US hits 50,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.
April 28: The US hits 1 million confirmed Covid-19 cases.
April 30: The Trump administration allows federal “Stay at Home” guidelines to expire, ceding the field to state efforts.
If April was focused on shifting the blame, May was the month the president pivoted to denying there was anything to be blamed for. Although the US death toll passed 100,000 on May 27, Trump nonetheless insisted that the US response had “met the moment.” The US began to lead the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
And the president continued his efforts to reframe recent events to cast himself in a favorable light. For instance, in May, Trump attributed his decision to limit travel from China as the major factor in avoiding a death toll numbering in the millions, though most of the coronavirus cases at the epicenter of the US outbreak — New York City — have been shown to originate from Europe.
And as states began to reopen nonessential businesses — despite experts warning premature reopening could lead to a second wave of infections — Trump also looked to put the crisis behind him. The president made multiple trips to battleground states in May, and his campaign is reportedly examining plans to resume holding Trump’s signature rallies.
Here’s how things looked in May.
Look, we’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100 thousand people. That’s a horrible thing. We shouldn’t lose one person over this. This should have been stopped in China. It should have been stopped. But if we didn’t do it, the minimum we would have lost is a million-two, a million-four, a million-five. That’s the minimum. We would have lost probably higher than — it’s possible higher than 2.2.
May 8: Trump claims that the US is “the world leader” in responding to the coronavirus.
"All of them, not everyone would want to admit it, but they all view us as the world leader, and they're following us" -- Trump claims that the US coronavirus response is the toast of world leaders (the US has well over 2 times more deaths than the second hardest-hit country) pic.twitter.com/3bW3Olt8Qj— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 8, 2020
May 9: Although many states have yet to meet the minimum requirements for reopening based on the White House’s guidelines, Trump continues to push for the reopening of nonessential businesses, using the slogan “TRANSITION TO GREATNESS!”
TRANSITION TO GREATNESS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2020
May 10: Trump again goes after the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, falsely calling it a “disaster.” As the Washington Post has explained, “some flaws in the system were discovered” in the Obama administration’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic, “but overall the government was praised for its response.”
We are getting great marks for the handling of the CoronaVirus pandemic, especially the very early BAN of people from China, the infectious source, entering the USA. Compare that to the Obama/Sleepy Joe disaster known as H1N1 Swine Flu. Poor marks, bad polls - didn’t have a clue!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 10, 2020
May 11: Trump says that the US has “met the moment and we have prevailed” in responding to the coronavirus.
"We have met the moment and we have prevailed," Trump says at the White House, as COVID-19 deaths go over 80,000.— The American Independent (@AmerIndependent) May 11, 2020
Previously his son-in-law Jared Kushner said the administration's response was a "great success story." At that point deaths were at 58,000. pic.twitter.com/G52OwL3Nf2
May 21: Trump claims falsely that he was “so early. I was earlier than anybody thought” in response to a Columbia University study suggesting that 36,000 lives could have been saved in the US alone by implementing social distancing measures just a week earlier. As noted above, the president reportedly ignored security briefings on the coronavirus for weeks and did not roll out a social distancing campaign until mid-March.
REPORTER: A new Columbia study says 36,000 lives would've been saved if social distancing measures would've been recommended just one week earlier. Do you believe that?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 21, 2020
TRUMP: "I was so early. I was earlier than anybody thought... Columbia is an institution that is very liberal" pic.twitter.com/avLKBZLNGc
May 22: Trump at a press conference announces he is labeling churches as “essential” and calls for governors to allow their reopening, as well as threatening — without authority — to “override” any governors who fail to do so.
May 23: For the first time since March, Trump hits the links at his own golf course in Sterling, Virginia, as the US death toll edges toward 100,000.
May 24: Trump bans non-US citizens traveling from Brazil from entering the country.
May 26: Trump again favorably compares the death toll to an Imperial College projection that estimated the death toll had the US taken no steps to stop the spread of Covid-19, tweeting that “if I hadn’t done my job well, & early, we would have lost 1 1/2 to 2 Million People.”
For all of the political hacks out there, if I hadn’t done my job well, & early, we would have lost 1 1/2 to 2 Million People, as opposed to the 100,000 plus that looks like will be the number. That’s 15 to 20 times more than we will lose. I shut down entry from China very early!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
May 27: The US hits 100,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.