WASHINGTON – Minutes before President Donald Trump was preparing Wednesday to reassure a skittish nation about the coronavirus threat, he received a piece of crucial information: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had identified in California the first U.S. case of the illness not tied to foreign travel, a sign that the virus’ spread in the United States was likely to explode.
But when Trump took to the lectern for a news conference intended to bring transparency to the spiraling global crisis, he made no explicit mention of the California case and its implications – and falsely suggested the virus might soon be eradicated in the United States.
“And again, 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,” he said.
Trump’s playing down of the California patient at his news conference underscores the administration’s slapdash and often misleading attempts to contain not just the virus, but also potential political damage from the outbreak – which has tanked financial markets, slowed global commerce and killed some 3,000 people worldwide, including the first U.S. death, announced Saturday.
Since Trump touched down from a two-day trip to India early Wednesday morning, the administration struggled to cope with the fallout from the crisis – shaking up and centralizing its coronavirus response team under the leadership of Vice President Mike Pence, floating plans to stabilize the markets and publicly seeking to minimize the threat posed by the potential pandemic.
Interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, former White House aides, public health experts and lawmakers – many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments and details – portray a White House scrambling to gain control of a rudderless response defined by bureaucratic infighting, confusion and misinformation.
“It’s complete chaos,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone is just trying to get a handle on what the [expletive] is going on.”
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Four hours into Trump’s 18-hour trip back from India, Air Force One flew through a patch of turbulence so rough that the shaking of the plane roused some passengers from their slumber.
But Trump himself was not asleep.
Instead, aides said, the president spent the entire ride back to Washington awake, much of it watching cable television and talking with advisers and confidants about the story dominating news cycles around the world.
He grew frustrated as he watched the markets plummet and was particularly fixated on Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who in a briefing Tuesday warned that the virus’ spread to the United States was no longer a question of “if” but “exactly when this will happen.”
“We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” Messonnier said at the time.
By the time he landed at Joint Base Andrews, Trump was already furious over what he considered an alarmist response by his administration and also thought he was being treated unfairly by the media. He was eager to inject his own voice into the unfolding drama and scheduled the White House news conference for Wednesday evening.
When Trump stepped in front of the cameras, “he had not slept for a day-and-a-half, two-and-a-half” days, as acting White House chief Mick Mulvaney told a gathering of conservatives Friday morning. The president offered an account that was, by turns, misleading and sanguine.
“Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said, contradicting Messonnier and the health officials who spoke after him Wednesday. “It probably will, it possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared.”
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As Trump was in the air, a problematic scene was also unfolding on Capitol Hill, where senators were returning from a weeklong Presidents’ Day recess to a private briefing with the top administration officials leading the coronavirus response.
The evening before, the administration had unveiled a $2.5 billion spending plan to combat the virus, and both at the closed-door briefing and in a subsequent open hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a number of Republican senators voiced a variety of concerns. They fretted about the administration’s level of preparation to date, communication failures with Capitol Hill and, in the words of Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the “lowball” funding request.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah – a target of Trump’s ire for his vote to convict the president of an impeachment charge – was among those who stood in the private briefing to register objections.
“One, I’m very disappointed in the preparation that’s been done over the last few years anticipating the potential of an outbreak of substance,” Romney said in an interview later.
“We’ve had SARS, we’ve had MERS, Ebola,” Romney continued, rattling off previous global outbreaks. “We should have stockpiled the kind of protective gear that our medical professionals will need and our citizens will need, and we haven’t. And looking forward, the [spending] number that’s being suggested strikes me as being inadequate to the level of risk.”
At the White House, the focus quickly turned to overhauling the coronavirus team. “I’m going to be announcing – exactly right now – that I’m going to be putting our vice president, Mike Pence, in charge,” Trump said at his Wednesday news conference. “And Mike will be working with the professionals, doctors and everybody else that’s working. The team is brilliant.”
Trump did not, however, name a single “czar,” as some previous administrations have done during health emergencies. The president decided against that option after worrying that bringing in a person from outside the administration might be seen as a failure – and wondering whether such a person would be loyal to him, according to those familiar with the debate.
Azar, who had previously been in charge, found out about his de facto demotion just moments before Trump publicly announced it. But two senior administration officials said Azar found it empowering to have the vice president formally join the response.
“He’s not in control anymore, and that’s clear,” a senior HHS official said of Azar, who remains chairman of the administration’s coronavirus task force. “You need HHS at the table – he’s just not going to be the one guiding the administration through the response.”
The decision to tap Pence and streamline all communication through the vice president’s office was primarily driven by a potent combination of a lack of leadership and structure inside the White House, four senior officials said, as well as a faulty CDC coronavirus diagnostic test, botched and conflicting messaging from senior health officials, and Trump’s obsession with the falling financial markets, two senior administration officials said. Many HHS employees fretted that financial concerns, rather than public health considerations, were dictating the administration’s response, one of the officials added.
Some of Pence’s own advisers wondered whether having Pence in charge was a good idea, given the messy situation and a lack of experience in his office on the topic. But, ever loyal, the vice president accepted the role assigned by Trump.
Late Wednesday, at Pence’s request, Mulvaney sent out an email to administration staffers and Cabinet secretaries ordering that all communication about the virus be routed through the vice president’s office.
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Even before the emergence of the first “community spread” cases of the new coronavirus – meaning the source of the infection is unknown and indicating that the virus is likely to be spreading – a trail of incidents offered warning signs of the challenges to come.
In mid-February, for example, the State Department overruled the CDC in bringing 14 cruise ship passengers back from Japan who tested positive for the virus on the same plane as noninfected passengers. Trump, who had been told that no healthy passengers should be on the plane with sick ones, was livid with Azar and other officials over not being informed of the change of plans.
Another failure in the U.S. response has been a faulty CDC coronavirus diagnostic test. The United States has tested far fewer people than other nations have, and the criteria for who gets tested remained exceedingly narrow until Thursday.
Personal animosities between Azar and senior members of the White House – including Mulvaney and Joe Grogan, the Director of the Domestic Policy Council – also complicated response efforts, several senior administration officials said. Several officials said those relationships have never recovered from past battles, while two others said Azar and Mulvaney have had their best working relationship in two years.
White House advisers, for instance, grew frustrated with Azar last weekend while they worked to hammer out the details of the supplemental budget request for the coronavirus response. Azar had advocated for far more than the $2.5 billion that was ultimately requested, about half of which is reallocated from existing funds.
But members of the Domestic Policy Council and the Office of Management and Budget initially did not want to appropriate additional money and grew angry with Azar’s request, according to four people familiar with the discussions, who added that Azar appeared to be in trouble after the talks. Two senior administration officials involved in the negotiations disagreed, however, saying there were no disagreements between the HHS and the White House. Azar told members of Congress the request had his complete support.
When Pence finally took over the response midweek, he hosted a Thursday meeting at the HHS that some officials said was intended to undermine Azar and make clear that Pence was now in charge; others described it as a show of support.
Pence announced additions to the task force and also appointed Debbie Birx – a State Department official who leads the government’s global response to HIV/AIDS – to serve as White House response coordinator for the virus. The decision to pick Birx, a doctor, was praised internally and externally.
The combination of Azar, Birx and Pence all in leadership roles, however, also prompted a new round of confusion among officials struggling to determine how the response would be run.
Ron Klain, who has served in several Democratic administrations and was the Ebola czar under President Barack Obama, said it was a positive step that the response was being moved to the White House. But he added that the Trump administration has been hampered by dismantling the pandemic preparedness unit in the White House in 2018 and by cuts to public health programs over the past several years.
“Everything we’re seeing in the response to date – the confusion about who’s in charge, the debate about how to bring the 14 people back from the cruise ship, questions about hospitals getting equipment and expertise they need – all these things would have a structure managing them and driving them and wouldn’t have to be going through this initial confusing, somewhat disoriented phase they’re going through now,” Klain said.
There were other setbacks, as well. First, news emerged Thursday of an HHS whistleblower complaint alleging that more than a dozen HHS employees were sent to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak, without protective gear or adequate training.
Trump only added to the uncertainty. During a meeting with African-American leaders Thursday evening, the president offered a contradictory and ambiguous message about the virus.
“It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear,” Trump said. “And from our shores, we – you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
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The Dow Jones industrial average fell 1,032 points on Monday and continued to bungee downward all week, including an 879 point drop Tuesday and a loss of 1,191 points Thursday. When the Dow closed Friday, it had fallen nearly 3,600 points – or 12 percent – over the course of the week.
For a president and campaign team that have long relied on a strong economy to help buoy Trump’s reelection prospects, the precipitous market plunge raised deep concerns.
Yet administration officials plowed forward with their previous schedules, modifying them only slightly as they tried to minimize the coronavirus threat.
Mulvaney spoke, as previously planned, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, where he assured the crowd, “We know how to handle this,” and accused the news media of overhyping the virus to “bring down the president.”
Pence, too, continued with a prior commitment Friday evening – a closed-door, high-dollar fundraiser in Sarasota, Florida, – while tacking on a brief coronavirus response meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, at the airport when he landed in the state.
And Trump held a long-standing campaign rally Friday in North Charleston, South Carolina, where he accused Democrats of “politicizing” the coronavirus.
“And this is their new hoax,” the president crowed from the stage.
As Trump was dismissing the virus as a serious threat, the infection continued spreading in the country. California officials Friday evening announced the state’s second case of coronavirus of unknown origin, and just hours later, a northwest Oregon resident tested positive for the virus.
By Saturday, officials in Washington state revealed the first U.S. death attributed to the virus – the person misidentified by Trump at a hastily called news conference as a “wonderful woman” in her 50s who had underlying health problems. Health officials later said that Trump had been misinformed and that the patient was a man.
And even as he announced new restrictions on travel involving Iran, South Korea and Italy, Trump continued to play down the risks – and brag about his administration’s response.
“Our country is prepared for any circumstance,” Trump said. “We hope it’s not going to be a major circumstance, it’ll be a smaller circumstance. But whatever the circumstances, we’re prepared.”
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The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.