Trump said he 'always' took the coronavirus seriously. Here's what he was actually doing.

Lucas Jackson/ReutersPresident Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 2.

Throughout January and February, President Donald Trump carried on as he normally does: He golfed, held rallies, and tweeted. Meanwhile, a novel virus was spreading across the world and to the United States.

But now, as the US’s confirmed cases far surpass those of all other countries, Trump claims he always took the virus seriously, even though he downplayed it for weeks while focusing on other things.

“I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China – against the wishes of almost all,” Trump tweeted on March 18. “Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”

Trump has since said he downplayed the virus to give Americans “hope,” but public-health experts have said he robbed the US of vital time to prepare for the pandemic and may have encouraged people to be complacent by saying it would disappear.

The novel coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, emerged in Wuhan, China, in late December. It was not identified as a new virus until January 7.

The first coronavirus case in the US was reported on January 20, and the first death from COVID-19 on American soil was confirmed roughly a month later, on February 29. The World Health Organisation classified the outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, and Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.

Before and after that, the president repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and misled the public on the government’s response.

What Trump was doing as the virus spread in China and eventually across the world

Pushing the US to the brink of war with Iran:

  • On January 3, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general. The same day, the Trump administration received its first formal notification about the coronavirus outbreak in China.

    • Iran retaliated with a strike on US forces in Iraq. None were killed, but dozens came away with traumatic brain injuries.
    • The US and Iran ultimately backed away from a broader conflict, but tensions remain high.
    • The Trump administration has continued to hammer Iran with economic sanctions during the pandemic and conducted a strike on Iranian proxy forces in early March. The risk of conflict also remains high.

Golfing and holding rallies during his impeachment trial and as the intelligence community started to issue warnings about a pandemic:

  • Trump’s Senate impeachment trial formally began on January 16. Though the president was the focus of the trial, he did not participate directly. It ended on February 5.

    • Republicans have blamed impeachment on Trump’s bungled response to the coronavirus outbreak, saying he was distracted by the trial as the virus began to spread. But Trump was golfing and holding rallies throughout.
  • During the impeachment trial, Trump golfed (or was at one of his golf properties) on January 18, January 19, February 1, and February 2.

    • Trump received his first substantial briefing on the coronavirus outbreak on January 18, a weekend he was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, according to The Washington Post.
    • Trump also held a Super Bowl party at Mar-a-Lago in early February while his trial was ongoing and the virus was spreading.
  • US intelligence officials warned Trump about a pandemic as early as January, The Post reported, as more information emerged on the respiratory virus spreading in China. The president was receiving the briefings at the same time as he publicly downplayed the risk of the virus – similar to how he’s dismissed his intelligence reports before.

    • By the beginning of February, a majority of the intelligence contained in Trump’s daily briefings was about the coronavirus outbreak, the report said.
    • “The system was blinking red,” one US official with access to the intelligence told The Post, adding, “Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were – they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it.”
  • Trump held multiple campaign events and rallies in January:

  • Trump did take some steps in late January and February to quell the spread of the coronavirus, including imposing travel restrictions on China. He also continued to travel extensively for golf trips and rallies.

    • Trump held half a dozen campaign rallies across February and into early March.
    • On February 28, at a campaign event in South Carolina, he referred to the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax.”
    • And at his last campaign event on March 2, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Trump compared the impact of the coronavirus to the flu, describing it as “a problem” but saying that “we closed our borders very early.” Thousands of people attended the rally, held at the Bojangles’ Coliseum. The same day, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US hit 100 and the death toll rose to six.
Anthony fauci donald trumpAssociated Press/Patrick SemanskyDr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing on, Saturday.

Trump downplayed the virus until he took a serious tone in late March

  • Throughout January, February, and March, Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus. He repeatedly and misleadingly told Americans that everything was under control while erroneously comparing the virus to the flu:

    • January 22: “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.”
    • January 24: “It will all work out well.”
    • February 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
    • February 19: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine.”
    • February 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
    • February 26: “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low … 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.”
    • February 28: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
    • March 7: “It came out of China, and we heard about it. And made a good move: We closed it down; we stopped it. Otherwise – the head of CDC said last night that you would have thousands of more problems if we didn’t shut it down very early. That was a very early shutdown, which is something we got right.”
    • March 9: “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!”
    • March 10: “It hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
    • March 12: “It’s going to go away … The United States, because of what I did and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths at this point … When you look at the kind of numbers that you’re seeing coming out of other countries, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it.”
    • March 23: “America will again and soon be open for business … Parts of our country are very lightly affected.”
    • March 26: “They have to go back to work; our country has to go back. Our country is based on that, and I think it’s going to happen pretty quickly.”
    • March 29: “So you’re talking about 2.2. million deaths – 2.2 million people from this. And so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 – that’s a horrible number – maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100,000 and 200,000. We all, together, have done a very good job. But 2.2 – up to 2.2 million deaths, and maybe even beyond that. I’m feeling very good about what we did last week.”
    • March 30: “New York is really in trouble, but I think it’s going to end up being fine. We’re loading it up, we’re stocking it up … And then by a little short of June, maybe June 1, we think the – you know, it’s a terrible thing to say, but we think the deaths will be at a very low number. It will be brought down to a very low number from right now, from where it’s getting to reach its peak.”

Refusing to take responsibility for early stumbles in the US government’s coronavirus response while looking for scapegoats

  • As the coronavirus spread in the US, Trump has refused to take any responsibility for failures while scapegoating others.

    • As he announced travel restrictions on Europe in a March 11 Oval Office address, Trump referred to the coronavirus as a “foreign virus.”
    • The US has faced a shortage of coronavirus testing kits because of early stumbles by the federal government. On March 13, Trump declined to take responsibility for this. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said.
    • In January, Trump was praising China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. But by March, he was blaming China for the spread of the virus and referring to it as the “Chinese virus,” despite top US health officials urging against that language.
    • Trump has also said, without evidence, that the media exaggerated the threat of the coronavirus to hurt him politically.

      • On March 25, Trump tweeted: “The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!”

Trump is taking a serious tone, but it’s unclear how long that will last

  • Trump has taken a more serious tone on the coronavirus in late March and early April:

    • The president on March 31 said the next two weeks for the US would be “very painful,” calling on “every American to be prepared for the days that lie ahead.”
    • “It’s a matter of life and death, frankly,” Trump said of the guidelines in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
    • A week before that, however, Trump was calling for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted and for the US economy to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” in mid-April. He has since backed off that idea.

As of Monday, there were more than 352,000 coronavirus cases in the US and more than 10,300 deaths.

Sonam Sheth contributed reporting.

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