By: Meridith McGraw and Caitlin Oprysko Published online: iNFOVi News
Date: March 29th 2020
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An eerie quiet crept over the White House.
Desks were empty. Office lights were turned off. Many staffers had been told to work from home. The bustling Navy Mess was closed, and the usual stream of visitors rushing in and out of the West Wing had slowed to a trickle. Left behind were President Donald Trump, his top aides, and a small group of staffers, hunkered down and making battle plans as the coronavirus marched across the country. Each person was acutely aware that their decisions in the coming days could define their legacy — not to mention whether they kept their jobs after 2020.
It was the beginning of the 15-day period during which the White House hoped it could slow the advancing virus and stem the economic bleeding left in its wake. For the next two weeks, the president’s coronavirus task force encouraged Americans to essentially self-isolate, while aides worked with anxious governors across the country and quarreling lawmakers negotiating over the largest economic recovery bill the country has ever seen.
Each day generated new challenges and controversies. The president oversold deals with companies to make medical equipment. He trumpeted potential cures that were still unproven. Aides fielded incessant questions about medical supply shortages. Everyone grappled with a rising death toll.
This account of the last two weeks inside the White House is based on over half a dozen interviews during that period with staffers and outside advisers, as well as prior POLITICO reporting. Collectively, staffers described a time of uncertainty and reassessment as the West Wing reoriented itself entirely around a singular mission. They witnessed historic moments from the center of power — the biggest one-day plunge ever in for the Dow Jones Industrial Average; followed by its biggest one-day gain since 1933. They wondered what it would all mean for the election — would there even be in-person voting in eight months? Is campaigning as we know it over?
Meanwhile, Americans everywhere grappled with their changing realities: Will the way we celebrate, congregate and pray change forever? Will we become a more isolated society, connected by video conferences rather than in-person gatherings?
“Should I even be here?” a White House official said squeamishly after multiple high-level staffers were exposed to the virus and forced to stay home.
On Tuesday, the White House’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative will come to an end. The country will look to Trump to tell people how much longer daily life will be paralyzed, how much longer they’ll be out of a job.
What he will say, though, is still unknown.
THE BEGINNING: JANUARY 2
U.S. cases: 0
U.S. deaths: 0
Stock Market: 28,868.80
As with many Americans, the magnitude of the situation didn’t initially set in at the White House.
As early as Jan. 2, the Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contacted the National Security Council to discuss a developing situation in China regarding a respiratory illness they had yet to confirm as a novel coronavirus, according to a White House timeline reviewed by POLITICO. Ten days later, China reported its first death from the virus.
Then, like a dry brush fire, it spread.
The first coronavirus case in the U.S. was confirmed on Jan. 21. Days later, the president developed a task force to address the potential spread. But publicly, the president and his advisers maintained that the situation was under control, as the president cut off most travel from China at the start of February.
Internally, some White House officials monitoring the situation abroad felt frustrated the virus was being shrugged off by senior officials, including the president. Reducing travel from China was not enough, they argued. They pressed for Trump to take more aggressive action, citing forecasts that indicated the United States could face a trajectory of cases mirroring places like Italy, which saw a sudden spike in mid-February.
Trump came around in late February during an 18-hour trip back from India, where he had spent two days amid cheering throngs, miles away from coronavirus concerns. On the flight, he saw the round-the-clock media coverage of the disease. According to his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Trump didn’t sleep on the entire ride back.
Minutes after landing on the morning of Feb. 26 in Washington, D.C., Trump tweeted that he would be holding a briefing to address the situation. He hastily tapped Vice President Mike Pence to oversee the coronavirus task force and predicted that the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. would soon be “close to zero.”
The opposite happened.
In early March, the president and his team recognized the writing on the wall, besieged by concerns from allies across the country. There were now over 1,000 cases in the U.S. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic. The stock market plummeted, even halting trading for 15 minutes on March 9 to avoid a market-crashing slide.
Trump and his team scrambled to address the nation’s concerns in an Oval Office address — only the second one Trump had ever made.
“If tonight isn’t Trump saying, ‘This is bad and could get very worse, you need to take every precaution necessary,’ then he can kiss a second term goodbye,” an administration official said at the time.
He didn’t say that. Instead, the president, in hastily arranged remarks, said he was barring all travel from Europe and promised that health insurers had agreed to cover all coronavirus treatments. Investors panicked — would necessary cargo still be allowed to come into the U.S.? Insurers were taken aback — they had only agreed to cover coronavirus tests, not all treatment.
The White House rushed to clarify. Stocks tumbled further.
Morale bottomed out in the White House.
One White House official said that was the week it all changed. In addition to the president’s prime-time remarks and the stock market pauses, the virus unexpectedly overturned America’s collective culture. In a span of several minutes that Wednesday night, Hollywood star Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the virus, the NCAA’s March Madness tournament was cancelled, the NBA suspended its season.
“That week made the Democrats’ b.s. impeachment seem trivial,” another White House official quipped.
Daily life was not going to be the same.
Within a week, most of the U.S. would be shut down.
A week later, Congress would pass the largest economic recovery bill ever assembled.
Here’s what those two weeks felt like inside the White House.
DAY 1: MARCH 16
U.S. cases: 6,400
U.S. deaths: 83
Stock market: 20,188.52
The president and his team decided dramatic action was needed to blunt the spread of the virus.
They had seen horrifying new projections from the Imperial College in London that showed millions dying if more extreme measures were not taken. Chastened by the new data, the president’s demeanor changed.
On March 16, a Monday, the president announced new recommendations that Americans should not gather in groups larger than 10 — five times more extreme than guidelines introduced by the CDC just the day before.
It was the start of the White House’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread.”
“With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly,” Trump said. “Our government is prepared to do whatever it takes.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, a global health specialist tasked with leading the coronavirus task force’s efforts, made a direct plea to the American people to heed the guidelines.
“We really want people to be separated at this time, to be able to address this virus comprehensively that we cannot see, for which we don’t have a vaccine or a therapeutic,” she warned.
The president dispatched Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to hammer out a stimulus bill with Congress to give a boost to the economy. Mnuchin gave a dire, but prescient, warning to Senate Republicans during a lunch on Capitol Hill: act now or the U.S. could see double-digit unemployment numbers.
DAY 3: MARCH 18
U.S. cases: 13,700
U.S. deaths: 150
Stock market: 19,898.92
On Wednesday, the streets in major cities like San Francisco and New York began to empty.
At the White House, the president cast had a new message: The country is at war.
“To this day, nobody has seen anything like what they were able to do during World War II,” Trump said at the press podium. “And now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together because we are all in this together and we’ll come through together.”
He invoked a wartime law — the Defense Production Act — granting him broad authority to direct manufacturers to make the equipment needed in a crisis. But he said it would only use the law in a “worst case scenario.”
America was facing an encroaching, lethal, “invisible enemy,” Trump said.
At the White House, the enemy was already within.
Members of the president’s inner circle kept getting exposed to people with coronavirus. Several top staffers, including Ivanka Trump and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, had to isolate themselves.
Members of Congress closest to the president — including his incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows — were forced to self-quarantine. And even as the president began to use the press briefing room day after day, his own press secretary Stephanie Grisham, was conspicuously missing. She, like others in the White House who were exposed, were following the very same advice being dished out at the podium: stay home.
The White House upped its defenses. Doctors took temperatures outside complex gates. Inside the West Wing, every sneeze and cough was seen as a potential threat. Stations with hand sanitizer were set up around the White House. Before anyone could come in contact with the president, temperatures were taken. The changes seemed both unique and ordinary for a staff accustomed to the fortress-like atmosphere of the Trump White House.
The White House briefing room, usually packed like sardines with correspondents and photographers, was whittled down to a small group of journalists. When a reporter came down with tell-tale flu-like symptoms, a colleague rubbed down the person’s seat with a Clorox wipe.
The country similarly upped its defenses. Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jointly announced that the U.S. and Canada would temporarily restrict all non-essential travel, the most dramatic measure at the border there since September 11, 2001.
Capitol Hill rushed to provide economic defenses for Americans. That same day, the Senate voted in favor of a massive relief package that enhanced unemployment benefits and guaranteed paid leave and free coronavirus testing.
DAY 4: MARCH 19
U.S. cases: 19,100
U.S. deaths: 206
Stock market: 20,087.19
On Thursday, the president stepped up to the podium determined to show progress.
With the Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Stephen Hahn, Trump announced that two drugs — the antimalarial drug chloroquine and an experimental antiviral remdesivir — had shown positive signs as potential coronavirus treatments.
Then the doctors offered a dose of unwelcome reality.
“We need to actually know about the safety and the effectiveness, and that’s done through the clinical trial process. So it’s those data that are going to inform the decisions that are ultimately made about safety and efficacy,” Hahn said. “This is an unprecedented situation.”
But just as the president was calling for unification in a moment of crisis, he pointed his finger at the media.
“It amazes me when I read the things that I read,” he said.
Trump was particularly incensed by a question about why he had started using “Chinese virus” instead of coronavirus. No other world leader used the term, and the World Health Organization has long advised that attaching a specific ethnicity or location to a disease can lead to discrimination.
Yet the president and senior officials in his administration were intent on bringing attention to the virus’s Chinese origins, as well as Beijing’s early obfuscation of the virus they argued cost the world weeks of prevention.
Trump batted aside questions about the choice, launching into a broader tirade about negative media coverage.
“Last week, it was all chaos,” Trump said, starting to wind up. “You see me. There’s no chaos. I have no chaos. I’m the one telling everybody to be calm. There’s no chaos at the White House.”
Maybe not, but one White House official said he had been thinking a lot about the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” a show about information, and what happens when a government lies to its people about the dangers they face.
DAY 9: MARCH 24
U.S. cases: 65,800
U.S. deaths: 780
Stock market: 20,704.91
The initial grimness inside the White House subsided as the bare-bones staff organized itself around a single mission — stall the coronavirus.
For the first time, multiple officials said, the entire White House felt like it was unified, even though it was hard at times to discern who was actually in charge.
“I feel like we are finally all hitting our stride,” one senior administration official said.
But just as people inside the White House felt like they were getting everyone on the same page, the news was only getting worse.
On March 24, a Tuesday, it appeared the governors and public health officials clamoring for Trump to trigger the Defense Production Act had finally gotten their wish. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Peter Gaynor announced that morning his team had gotten the go-ahead to use the law to procure medical supplies.
The declaration touched off a day of confusion about whether the administration had actually enforced the statute to speed production of test kits and protective masks, both things that were in short supply in some areas.
A FEMA spokesperson then reversed course that night, saying the agency had found what it needed on the private market. It was about-face that would reverberate for days, as Trump continued to waffle publicly about the DPA — citing vague fears about nationalizing industry — before finally triggering it Friday amid a spat with General Motors over manufacturing ventilators.
The ventilator shortage touched a nerve in states that feared they were on the precipice of having to make the gut-wrenching choice — if more coronavirus patients need a ventilator than there are available, who gets to live?
During a midday press conference in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s frustration with Trump boiled over.
“You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die,” Cuomo lashed out, after Trump had only agreed to send 4,000 ventilators to the state — well short of the 30,000 the state had requested.
Trump snapped back: Did Cuomo even need that many ventilators?
Then Trump caught everyone off-guard when he declared a goal to end the nation’s coronavirus lockdown by Easter Sunday, April 12. The ambitious deadline rattled health officials, who warned that resuming normal activity so soon would extend the coronavirus crisis by creating new clusters of disease just as some models showed the pandemic close to peaking.
Other states, including Ohio, South Dakota and Maryland, have also said they don’t expect peak infection rates to hit until May. Several states in the upper Midwest have even started forming pacts to keep strict social-distancing guidelines in place if the president lifts the national rules early.
Outside the U.S., other countries were similarly making plans for the long-haul that same day. The summer Olympic games, set to begin in Tokyo in July, were delayed until 2021. And in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the largest lockdown in the world — directing India’s 1.3 billion residents to stay home for 21 days.
DAY 11: MARCH 26
U.S. cases: 101,700
U.S. deaths: 1,295
Stock market: 22,552.17
America awoke on March 26, a Thursday, to a staggering figure: 3.3 million people had filed for unemployment over the last week.
Never before had the country seen such numbers.
The explosion of weekly claims was nearly five times the peak hit during the 2008 Great Recession. It shattered the previous high of 695,000 in October 1982. It was a 1,000 percent increase from the prior weeks’ unemployment claims. And it didn’t even reflect independent contractors, some part-time and lower-wage earners and gig-economy workers.
By the end of the day, the U.S. had received another sobering number: More than 1,000 residents had now died from the coronavirus.
As the number of cases worldwide soared past half a million, the U.S. also overtook China as the global leader in cases of the new pathogen. And the U.S. was still ramping up its testing capability. As of Thursday, the country had conducted roughly 552,000 tests, Pence told reporters. It was a dramatic increase, but states are still warning of shortages and rationing who gets a test. In the coming days, more commercial labs will come online and officials expect case numbers to continue to climb.
The headlines about all these figures annoyed the president. He fretted at the sliding stock market, a point of his pride during his presidency. But he found comfort in polls showing rising approval of his handling of the pandemic.
He tangled with members of the press, but reveled in having the spotlight on him during primetime briefings, even if it forced his experts to do damage control later.
Still, advisers were frustrated to watch the Trump administration’s calling card, the economy, evaporate while they faced criticisms about the lack of testing and equipment for first responders.
With Trump’s plans for spring like campaign rallies with fans and weekends at Mar-a-Lago disrupted, the president fixated on how to stabilize the economy.
Help was on the way, he said, in the form of a $2.2 trillion economic recovery package that had passed the Senate the night before. The legislation will “provide relief for American workers and families in this hour of need” via direct checks for most Americans, loans for small businesses and four months of expanded unemployment benefits.
That same afternoon, the president sent out a vague, yet optimistic letter to state governors saying the White House was looking to ease up guidelines as testing capabilities expanded.
DAY 15: MARCH 30
It’s the end of “15 Days to Slow The Spread.”
But what’s next remains a mystery.
On Monday or Tuesday, White House officials have said Trump will reveal his next plan.
Over the weekend, Pence and a small group of public health officials are meeting to discuss the latest testing data. They’ll brief the president about what they think is realistic.
Pence has called Trump’s Easter goal “aspirational,” but hinted they might offer differentiated advice based on how much the virus has infiltrated certain regions. Aides have hinted they might pivot to a county-by-county approach, recommending that certain communities resume some business activities, while others remain on lockdown. It’s a middle-ground solution that experts have cautioned could be difficult to apply, let alone enforce.
But White House officials — and Americans at large — are seeking any certainty they can find, a glimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Yet the unknowns about the coronavirus abound. Do those who recover from coronavirus become truly immune? How do underlying health conditions affect the severity of the virus? And, most important, how widely has it spread?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert who has become a trusted voice to the public from the White House podium, underscored the anxiety that has pervaded America — and the White House.
“You don’t make the timeline,” he said, speaking during one of his almost-daily appearances. “The virus makes the timeline.”
Brianna Ehly, Anita Kumar, Daniel Lippman and Blake Hounshell contributed to this report.