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.