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The Trump Administration Fumbled Its Initial Response to Coronavirus. Is There Enough Time to Fix It?

14 minute read

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, an ominous question has hung in the air: How would he handle a truly serious crisis? Now we know. The novel corona-virus pandemic has infected more than 200,000 people around the world to date and is spreading rapidly in the U.S. Experts project that COVID-19, the respiratory disease that corona-virus causes, could afflict millions worldwide and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. Faced with the most dangerous threat to American life since at least the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 45th President made matters worse.

A few weeks after the outbreak began in China’s Hubei province in December, U.S. health officials warned Trump of the seriousness of the threat. But in his first public comments about the virus, on Jan. 22, Trump told the public he wasn’t worried. “Not at all,” he said. “We have it totally under control.” Throughout February, Trump dismissed Democrats’ alarm about the virus as their new “hoax,” blamed “the Democrat policy of open borders” for the pathogen’s spread and insisted that his Jan. 31 decision to restrict travel from China had contained the outbreak. By Feb. 29, officials reported the first coronavirus–related death of an American on U.S. soil.

As epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts begged Americans to self-quarantine and cancel social events, many of the President’s supporters in the media and Congress echoed his cavalier tone. The disease, meanwhile, continued to spread throughout the country, largely undetected. As other nations tracked and prevented new infections by testing tens of thousands of people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had administered fewer than 500 tests in the entire month of February.

The government’s top infectious-disease -expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called the feds’ testing program “a failing,” but it was hardly the only one. Trump’s team ignored an alarming shortfall of basic medical supplies, like masks, hospital beds and -ventilators—necessary to handle an expected surge of patients requiring -hospitalization—and tussled with governors, who were begging the White House to release federal funds to aid in preparation efforts. Trump brushed aside the mess. Asked on March 13 if he accepted -responsibility for the testing debacle, he uttered seven words that could come to define his presidency. “No,” he said, “I don’t take -responsibility at all.”

State and local leaders stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum. Governors moved quickly to declare states of emergency and close schools, mayors imposed mandatory lockdowns, and community leaders canceled public events. Mayors of some of the nation’s largest cities set up a Slack channel to swap tips and find a unified response. Ohio Governor Mike -DeWine, a Republican, assembled his own ad hoc group of local doctors to offer him advice. “My instinct was ‘We’ve gotta move, and we’ve gotta move fast,’” he tells TIME. The private sector also stepped into the breach. Within days, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball all suspended or postponed their seasons. Broadway canceled shows, Disneyland closed through the end of the month, and scores of businesses shuttered.

With stocks down 12% and the pandemic fueling a full-blown economic panic, Trump appeared to awaken at last to the severity of the crisis. On March 16, Trump admitted that the virus was -indeed “very bad.” He urged Americans to stay away from bars and restaurants and avoid groups of more than 10 people. “Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in stopping the spread and transmission of the virus,” Trump said. “With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.” Over the next couple of days, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin backed a $1.3 trillion stimulus package, including $500 billion in direct payments to Americans.

If the past two months were a calamity, the next two weeks are a critical opportunity to turn things around. The coronavirus cannot be stopped, but the number of new infections can still be slowed. We may be able to reduce the number of new cases, prevent hospitals from being overrun, humanely treat those who fall ill and reduce the total number of deaths that sweep the nation. The President may yet play a central role in a successful U.S. response to this pandemic. If he does, it will be thanks to the experts and scientists, economists and governors, community leaders and everyday Americans who led the way.

Trump’s first Major error in the crisis came a year and a half before the novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China. In May 2018, he authorized his then National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to eliminate the National Security Council’s global health security unit and demote its pandemic experts.

It was a tiny office, but it had huge responsibilities. Its main job was to serve as an early-warning system for impending pandemics. “We definitely would have been sending up flares,” the unit’s former senior director, Beth Cameron, tells TIME. In the case of a global health emergency, its experts were in charge of helping coordinate the dozens of institutions—health agencies, hospitals, and state and local -governments—that must respond in a crisis. Bolton, long gone from the Administration, defended his reorganization of the NSC on Twitter as COVID-19 spread. But those on the front lines of the crisis felt its absence. “We worked very well with that office,” Fauci told Congress on March 11. “It would be nice if the office was still there.” Asked on March 13 about the decision to shut down the unit, Trump again sidestepped responsibility. “I didn’t do it,” he said, adding, “I don’t know anything about it.”

In truth, America’s reservoir of health experts has long been starved of support. From 2001 to 2017, the CDC’s funding for state and local preparedness has been cut by a third, and the Hospital Preparedness Program within Health and Human Services has been halved. Between 2008 and 2019, local and state health departments hemorrhaged more than 50,000 jobs—a quarter of their workforce, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. And the Trump Administration made the problem worse. The President has yet to even nominate people for 165 of roughly 750 key Senate-confirmed federal government positions—including several high-level global health roles that would have been crucial in coordinating an all-government response.

With in-house experts sidelined, Trump’s White House became an echo chamber for yes-men. His late-January restrictions on travel from China ought to have bought time for a sustained, monthslong -effort to mitigate the spread of the pathogen. Instead, Trump and his aides frittered away weeks on a self-congratulatory victory tour. “We have contained this,” White House economic adviser Larry -Kudlow said on Feb. 25. “I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.”

For weeks, current and former -public-health officials tried in vain to get the President’s attention, pushing him both publicly and privately to -prepare for an inevitable outbreak. Luciana Borio, who served as director of Medical and Biodefense Preparedness on the NSC from 2017 through 2019, and Trump’s own former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, published a flurry of op-eds. They warned that more cases were coming, that the CDC couldn’t keep up with them and that hospitals needed to prepare for an influx of patients.

Trump was unmoved. One possible reason: fear of spooking markets. “The President hates to admit to anything that could affect the economic success negatively,” says a former Administration official, who requested anonymity to describe discussions with the President. Instead, the Trump Administration’s response was “ad hoc,” says Kenneth Bernard, a retired rear admiral and physician who served both Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations.

At first, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was in charge of coordinating interagency response. Then on Feb. 26, Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to take over. Pence attempted to fix the disastrous shortfall of diagnostic tests and began trying to educate the public to the dangers the disease could pose. He brought in a well-connected global disease expert, Dr. Deborah Birx, to coordinate with other countries and U.S. agencies. As the crisis grew, Pence reached out to Democratic governors in Washington and California and met with top Democrats on the Hill.

As his Vice President scrambled to embrace the experts, Trump’s extended family got involved. On the night of March 11, Dr. Kurt Kloss—whose daughter is married to the brother of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser-—posted to a doctors’ Facebook group, asking for suggestions on how the White House should address the outbreak, according to the Spectator. The next morning, after hundreds of doctors had replied, Kloss sent Kushner a list of ideas.

Trump’s more public efforts weren’t faring much better. The same day Kushner was working his kin, Trump and his top advisers huddled in the Oval Office to discuss how to respond to days of losses in the stock market. Azar, Birx and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, among others, presented data on the escalating infection rates inside the U.S. and urged him to restrict travel from Europe. They told Trump that clusters of COVID-19 in New York’s Westchester County and in Florida had originated with people traveling from the Continent, according to a senior Administration official with knowledge of the decision. Without consulting his European allies, the President agreed to the plan and his aides hustled to write a speech.

A few hours later, Trump was seated in the Oval Office, delivering his sternest address about the corona-virus outbreak so far. When it was over, he walked with Azar to his private study, but it was already clear the speech had not gone well. European allies were furious, U.S. stock futures plunged more than 5%, and even Trump’s former Homeland Security Adviser, Thomas Bossert, seemed flummoxed by the news. “There’s little value to European travel restrictions,” he tweeted. “Poor use of time & energy.” The next day, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 Index tanked 9.5%: Wall Street’s worst day since 1987.

As Trump struggled to find his footing in the crisis, other American leaders were taking action. On March 13, around the time that the President was holding a press conference to declare a national emergency—and yet again telling reporters that he bore no responsibility for his Administration’s -response—more than 100 mayors of America’s largest cities were gathering on a conference call. In the absence of clear federal guidance, they compared notes on how to fight the virus, traded ideas about ending utility cutoffs and discussed who was banning large gatherings and what to do about schools. One mayor on the call told TIME that the leaders whose cities had already been affected by the outbreak had an urgent message for their peers: “You must act now.”

The result has been a patchwork of significant but disjointed state and local efforts to combat COVID-19. Washington State, which was hit particularly hard and early, was among the first to declare a state of emergency—two weeks before Trump did so on the national level. “It was more than frustrating that for what seemed like an enormous length of time, we weren’t getting information shared right from the White House,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee tells TIME. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued sweeping guidelines allowing the state to commandeer hotels to treat coronavirus patients, while Colorado Governor Jared Polis used executive authority to screen visitors to nursing homes.

Ohio Governor DeWine has been among the most proactive. “The advice that we got was: If you wait two more weeks, it’s too late,” he says. On March 12, he announced that Ohio would be the first state in the nation to close schools statewide for at least three weeks. Two days later, he held separate calls with Ohio veterinarians and dentists, asking them to delay appointments. “They use some of the same personal protection gear that doctors use,” DeWine says. “Save the equipment. If you’ve got extra masks and other things, make those available. We’re going to need them before this thing is over.”

Over the course of a week, Trump slowly got with the program. A White House official tells TIME that one reason Trump was slow to react was that he was influenced by “economic-focused guys,” like Kudlow and Mnuchin. “They are so worried about markets, understandably, they are worried about depressing economic activity,” the official said. (Spokespeople for Mnuchin and Kudlow denied either of them stood in the way of a robust White House response.)

On March 16, Trump at last appeared to understand the enormity of the danger facing the American people. He embraced aggressive CDC restrictions on public gatherings, urged national sacrifice and struck a somber tone. Congress, which only five weeks earlier had split along nearly partisan lines to acquit Trump after his impeachment, began sprinting to pass a handful of stimulus packages. On March 18, it overwhelmingly passed a bill that included paid sick leave, unemployment benefits and free coronavirus testing for anyone who needs it.

These actions are positive steps, but even White House officials privately admit they’re weeks late. The virus has been rapidly spreading through American communities since January. If we can’t slow the infection rate now, our hospitals will be overrun. Health care professionals will be forced to triage patients and ration protective gear, and doctors will have to make heartrending decisions, as they have in Italy, on which patients receive ventilators and which are left without adequate care.

Beyond the health crisis is an economic one. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin warned GOP Senators that unemployment in the U.S. could hit 20% without the Administration’s massive stimulus proposal. Even with it, few doubt that thousands of businesses will close, millions of people will be laid off, and millions more will go hungry. “One thing is for sure,” says former CDC director Tom Frieden. “It is going to get worse before it gets better.”

If Trump seems finally willing to take aggressive measures to limit damage to the country, he remains, as always, focused on his own image as well. At a press conference on March 17, he claimed he had foreseen the potential dangers of coronavirus weeks ago. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” the President said.

At some point down the road, there will be time to calculate the cost in U.S. lives and money of Trump’s delayed response to the coronavirus. For now, as the country braces itself for what lies ahead, the American people can find solace in the fact that even in the absence of national leadership, they are rising to an extraordinary challenge of confronting this disease together.

With reporting by Alana Abramson, Charlotte Alter, Brian Bennett, Tessa Berenson, Vera Bergengruen, Kimberly Dozier, Philip Elliott, W.J. Hennigan, Lissandra Villa and Justin Worland/Washington

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com