From complacency to emergency: How Trump changed course on coronavirus

By Gabby Orr and Nancy Cook

President Donald Trump assured Americans on Wednesday the novel coronavirus was on the brink of disappearing. Two days later, he admitted it wasn’t.

In the span of 48 hours this week, from the moment markets plunged after a confusing and stiff Oval Office address to his national emergency declaration from the Rose Garden, Trump watched his own assessment of the viral outbreak transform in extraordinary fashion, forcing him into a course correction.

The unprecedented shutdown of the world’s largest economy — a nation of 330 million people — will mark the most consequential stretch of Trump’s presidency and transform how Americans think about their government. For Trump himself, the journey appeared to represent a recognition that his earlier path threatened to engulf a nation he oversees with a spreading pandemic and diminish hope for reelection this fall.

Trump’s do-over approach — he unlocked $50 billion in government funding on Friday to address the growing crisis and threw his support behind House Democrats’ aid package hours later — came after weeks of the president shrugging off the coronavirus threat and making statements about the availability of tests, the severity of the virus and the development of a COVID-19 vaccine that his own officials had to correct, sometimes within minutes.

During a visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Trump said the virus “will go away” and said his response was “really working out.”

Instead, the forecast grew worse. State and local leaders, business executives and tens of millions of ordinary Americans leapfrogged their president — without waiting for White House guidance — to shut down public spaces, schools, offices and other gathering spaces and encourage millions of Americans to hunker down for a fast-spreading, invisible threat.

Even as the stock market rebounded Friday in response to Trump’s release of emergency funding, the week ended with a mystery about whether America’s 73-year-old commander in chief, who has downplayed concerns about a virus that disproportionately affects the elderly, could be the world’s highest-ranking vector.

During a rare appearance in the White House briefing room on Saturday, donning a “USA” ball cap, Trump said he was tested Friday night for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and has started receiving temperature checks. The news came hours after a top Brazilian official at Mar-a-Lago last weekend — who dined with the president and many of his top aides — tested positive for the virus. The White House physician said late Saturday that Trump’s test was negative.

The White House began administering temperature checks this weekend to “any individuals who are in close contact” with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, a spokesman said. This includes members of the press corps who were stopped by a staff physician at the entrance to the James S. Brady briefing room Saturday afternoon.

“SOCIAL DISTANCING!” Trump tweeted prior to the news conference and one day after he was seen shaking hands with corporate CEOs and health officials during his televised remarks from the Rose Garden.

Rebuffing the precautionary isolation measures his own aides were taking, Trump will spend the weekend sifting through options with White House staff — some of whom are fresh off self-quarantines — about the mechanics of a bailout for industries devastated financially by the virus outbreak. White House aides headed into the complex early Saturday morning for the next round of urgent discussions, a recognition of the tight timeline they’re facing to rescue key sectors of the economy such as transportation and tourism.

Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are assembling a list of options for Trump to consider as he looks to rescue crumbling industries and protect their workforces, according to two senior administration officials.

At Saturday’s briefing, Mnuchin cited airlines, cruise ships and hotels as industries that have faced significant challenges from the abrupt crash in global travel and tourism.

Trump’s desire to leap to the assistance of certain industries stems in part from witnessing an upward swing in U.S. markets after he designated the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency on Friday. The declaration had been in the works already but was pushed up amid historic volatility in financial markets — much of which stemmed from an Oval Office address Wednesday night in which Trump stated he was banning all travel and imports from Europe, which the administration had to later clarify did not block all products and included only the 26-member countries of the unrestricted travel Schengen zone. The ban will be extended to the U.K. and Ireland, which aren’t members of the Schengen Area. Trump also claimed insurers would cover the full cost of testing and treatment — generating alarm from health plans that never agreed to waive all patient costs.

Outside the White House, many of the president’s political allies viewed Wednesday’s Oval Office address as a speech that quickly needed a do-over. Staring directly into a camera while seated with his hands crossed was not the best format for the president, Trump’s aides later said.

The crushing response on Thursday prompted the White House to schedule Friday’s news conference in the Rose Garden, a favorite venue of the president thanks to its natural lighting and the more free-wheeling format of a back-and-forth news conference, according to two White House officials familiar with the matter.

The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — among the few aides to maintain the president’s trust throughout his term — became much more deeply involved in the coronavirus response efforts later in the week as it became clear the White House needed a more forceful response, a senior administration official said.

Internally, aides started to blame officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for flawed testing kits and the amount of time it took to get results back. The administration’s internal criticism of the CDC has made the agency the latest scapegoat as Trump’s team sought to deflect blame and cushion the president from what could become devastating political blowback against the president and his party in the coming months.

Morale inside the White House bottomed out on Friday, said a third senior administration official, but turned a corner once the Food and Drug Administration approved a new COVID-19 detection test from the pharmaceutical company Roche as part of an emergency authorization.

“They reached the conclusion this week that they had to communicate a sense of seriousness about what was going on and had to reassure the country that they were taking it very seriously,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who remains a close ally of Trump. “Having major companies like Walmart, CVS, etc. involved means suddenly you begin to see how you can move to scale for a country for our size.”

The Friday Rose Garden speech, at which Trump announced a public-private partnership on testing and the immediate opening of emergency operation centers across the U.S., helped propel a stock market surge in the final hour of trading. One official later bragged the speech alone caused the “biggest market jump ever.”

Trump has repeatedly boasted about the stock market’s rebound after the S&P 500 recorded its best single-day performance since 2008 on Friday — a 9 percent gain, reversing a Thursday plunge that marked the worst day since 1987’s “Black Monday” crash. On Saturday, an unusually jovial Trump said he was “honored” to see positive movement in the markets after his news conference the day before — even joking he should up the volume of his public appearances to further boost investor confidence.

“I think we should do one of them every day perhaps. Maybe five times per day. That was something to watch,” he said.

But not every element of the president’s course correction has gone smoothly.

Representatives from Google said they were caught off guard on Friday when Trump said the tech company was “helping to develop a website … to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location” for Americans who suspect they may have contracted the coronavirus. In a statement shared on Twitter from Verily, a subsidiary of Google, the company said it is still “developing a tool to help triage individuals for COVID-19 testing” that would initially only be available in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Elsewhere in his remarks, Trump disavowed involvement in disbanding a pandemic unit within the White House National Security Council and about the travel restrictions he has imposed on European countries. The president, more than three years into a presidency in which he has eagerly ejected pre-Trump officials, also blamed the Obama administration for testing shortages in the U.S. that have undermined containment efforts and sowed chaos at some hospitals.

“I don’t take responsibility at all because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time,” Trump told reporters, complaining that his predecessor “didn’t do testing” during the 2009 swine flu outbreak. (In fact, diagnostic kits shipped just weeks after the CDC identified the first case of the virus in April 2009.)

Indeed, blaming his predecessors for troubles with his own administration's handling of the pandemic has become a common tactic of late. He accused former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary, on Thursday of overseeing “one of the worst [responses] on record” to a nationwide health epidemic, in reference to that H1N1 outbreak during Obama’s first year in office.

Trump also claimed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been working with top Trump aides on an emergency aid package, is “trying to create a panic” after his administration faced criticism late February about its slow response to the coronavirus outbreak.

He blamed Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell for contributing to the economic pullback by refusing to cut interest rates — despite historic action by the central bank this week to combat chaos in financial markets and an emergency rate cut last week.

As economic relief legislation stalled in the House on Friday, Trump said it was congressional Democrats’ fault because “all of a sudden they didn’t agree to certain things that they agreed to.”

“He has never accepted blame for things that have gone wrong under his watch. Why would he do so now?” said one Republican close to the White House, who claimed the tactic “has worked in the past” for the president.

Although White House aides felt confident about Trump’s message on Friday about testing and the stimulus package passed by the House early Saturday, aides also acknowledged that the next step in rescuing the economy — deciding which industries to bail out — will be much harder politically.

The potential cost of an industry bailout could upset Republican lawmakers who have grumbled for years about the ballooning national debt under their watch after fighting the Obama administration over even smaller deficits and debt levels.

“It quickly devolves into industry vs. industry and parochial stuff,” said one former senior administration official.

Trump also remains intent on pushing for a payroll tax cut through the end of the year, continuing to drop it into his public remarks.

“If you want to get money into the hands of people quickly & efficiently, let them have the full money that they earned, APPROVE A PAYROLL TAX CUT until the end of the year, December 31. Then you are doing something that is really meaningful. Only that will make a big difference!” he tweeted on Friday.

Democrats and Senate Republicans have been cool to that idea, in part because of the eye-popping price tag ($950 billion according to one estimate) and concerns among economists about whether it would be effective in preventing a severe economic downturn.

As the president entered the weekend, however, he appeared intent on striking a more unifying tone. Before meeting with members of the coronavirus task force at the White House, Trump commended the “good teamwork between Republicans & Democrats” that led to the House’s passage of a bill that will expand paid emergency leave and provide tax credits for workers and employers affected by the coronavirus crisis. The legislation also includes $1 billion in food aid for low-income Americans.

“People really pulled together. Nice to see!” Trump tweeted.

He even praised the media — whom he accused last week of trying to “inflame the CoronaVirus situation far beyond what the facts would warrant” — for recent coverage of his administration’s response to the crisis.

“Over the past 24 hours, I think the representation has been very fair. It’s been very fair,” Trump told reporters on Saturday.