It was the night of March 11, 2020. And Trump’s presidency would be forever changed.
Trump, whose improbable election ripped up the rules of American politics, had spent three-plus years defying history and orthodoxy in a chaotic spectacle that dominated the national discourse and fervently engaged both sides of a bitterly divided country. And now, essentially for the first time, he was confronted by a crisis that was not of his own making.
It was the kind of test presidents inevitably must face, and Trump responded with trademark certitude.
“The virus will not have a chance against us,” Trump told Americans that night.
Five months later, the coronavirus has killed more than 175,000 Americans and left tens of millions unemployed. And now, as Trump prepares to again accept the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday in a ceremony at the White House, he must convince an electorate that has largely disapproved of his handling of the pandemic that he is not to blame, deserves another term and that all the chaos has been worth it.
“The future of our country and indeed our civilization is at stake on Nov. 3,” Trump said Friday.
Trump has spent his presidency bending Washington to his will. He has transformed a public health crisis into a political litmus test. He has presided over a booming, if stratified, economy, and claimed he created it. He has again forced race to the center of the American conversation, using federal police to enforce his view. He has alienated historical allies and changed how much of the world views the United States.
At seminal moments — in set speeches, impromptu riffs and long-sought policy reversals, examined in this story — he has redefined, at least temporarily, the presidency.
But he has not shaken the virus.
A virus born in China had swept through Europe and reached America’s shores. Global markets were tumbling, hospitals filling, cities locking down. On the day the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, beloved actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive. The NBA suspended its season.
And for only the second time as president, Trump addressed the nation in a formal Oval Office speech. His spoke slowly, his voice halting, and he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands.
The U.S., he told Americans, would “expeditiously defeat this virus.” But by any measure, Trump’s address didn’t go over well: The White House had to correct significant errors — one on travel from Europe, another on international cargo — within minutes of the speech’s conclusion.
And ever since, the virus has proven impervious to bullying tweets or the ability to dictate cable news chyrons. It has upended American politics, stripping Trump of both his most potent reelection argument, a strong economy, and the venues from which to extol it, his raucous campaign rallies.
“Historically, demagogic power wanes when seismic events overwhelm the existing moment,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “Pearl Harbor crushed America First; Bloody Sunday helped break the grip of Jim Crow. The pandemic may be the seismic shift, the mind-concentrating challenge, that ends Trump’s appeal beyond his hard-core base.”
Until now, one of Trump’s greatest skills as a politician has been to assert his own political reality, careening from headline to headline, while seemingly able to dodge scandals that would likely have ended any other political career.
His 2016 campaign was chaos and it worked, in part due to the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, as well as outside help both foreign (Moscow) and domestic (James Comey). The Russia investigation shadowed him throughout his first two years in office. His response: an unrelenting assault from the Oval Office on the investigators and intelligence agencies.
In the end, special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that Trump conspired with Moscow to interfere with the election, but he also did not exonerate the president on possible charges of obstruction of justice. Trump claimed total victory. Several key aides ended up with guilty pleas, yet the president emerged relatively unscathed — only soon to enter another maelstrom over foreign help, this time his request to Ukraine to investigate his eventual Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
Somehow, Trump's block-the-sun response made the third impeachment of a sitting president feel like both a foregone conclusion and an afterthought.
He had, again, survived. But the day after his acquittal also brought an ominous milestone: the nation’s first COVID-19 death.
When Trump made the trip to the Capitol for his State of the Union address in February, he was buoyed by polling that showed the impeachment proceedings had turned out to have little impact and Americans approved of his handling of the economy.
“Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again,” Trump declared.
The numbers did look good. And Trump aides were quick to credit his sweeping tax cut, one of his signature first-term achievements.
The unemployment rate was hovering at 3.5%, a level not seen since the 1960s. The stock market, one of the president’s favorite measures of economic success, was up roughly 20% from the previous year. And workers, particularly in lower-paying jobs, were seeing wages tick up.
Trump’s campaign advisers were giddy over signs that his message was resonating beyond the voters who had helped him win 2016. Advisers took note of the significant number of people requesting tickets to Trump rallies who hadn’t voted in the last presidential election.
Since 1956, in the 12 months before presidential elections, only one of nine incumbent presidents lost when unemployment fell over that year (Gerald Ford in 1976), and only one was reelected when it rose (Dwight Eisenhower in 1956).
Then came the virus.
In a matter of weeks, the economy collapsed. Unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7% and all the gains made by the stock market since he was elected were erased.
The virus-weakened economy has shown some signs of improvement but it is far from being healed. Unemployment has edged down to 10.2% — still just below the peak of U.S. joblessness in the Great Recession — and the S&P 500 reached a new high.
But the suffering for a huge slice of America remains great. More than 40% of recent layoffs are likely to become permanent job losses, by one recent estimate. The National Restaurant Association forecasts the industry could lose 5 to 7 million employees. And if the White House and Congress don’t come to terms on another aid package, the economy could go sideways after Labor Day.
Still, Trump’s backers believe he has an argument to make.
“I think the message needs to be in post-COVID times: Trump has got the energy, the stamina, the experience and track record to bring us back,” said Dan Eberhart, chief executive of oil services company Canary LLC and a major Republican donor.
But with less than 10 weeks to go until Election Day, Trump has spent an inordinate amount of time on squabbles and distractions, bashing the U.S. Postal Service, warning “suburban housewives” about perceived threats to their neighborhood idylls from affordable housing, lending credence to the right-wing QAnon conspiracy movement.
“I don’t know what persuadable voter is moved by anti-Post Office rhetoric,” Eberhart said. “We've got to get the closing message right.”
THE NEWS CONFERENCE
Under a glistening ballroom chandelier, reporters packed into Trump’s Bedminster country club in New Jersey, waiting for the president to address shocking events that had unfolded more than 300 miles to the south on a sweltering day in August 2017.
A clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racism demonstrators had left a young woman dead, mowed down by a neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters. Trump’s response: There was hatred and bigotry on “many sides.” Days later, in a Trump Tower news conference, he again declined to denounce solely the white supremacists, speaking of “very fine people on both sides.”
His equivocal words roiled the White House. Senior West Wing advisers threatened to quit. Republicans found their voices and condemned Trump.
It was more than just a moment. Trump, a billionaire by some accounts, sold himself to voters as an unlikely champion of the forgotten man who would “Make America Great Again,” a slogan that was read by many as a callback to a simpler — and whiter — era in the United States.
The president’s team showcased record low unemployment rates for African Americans and rising prosperity for minorities in the days before the pandemic. But his rhetoric and policies were viewed by many as offensive and, at times, racist.
There was his campaign kickoff suggestion that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists.” His claim that an Indiana-born judge couldn’t be impartial because of his Latino heritage. And there was the racist lie of birtherism — Trump’s false suggestions that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and thus wasn’t eligible to be president.
His moves to sharply curtail legal and illegal immigration became a frequent fault line for the administration. Thousands of Americans protested at airports in January 2017 when the White House enacted its first ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, demonstrations that foreshadowed the uproar the following summer when the administration moved to forcibly separate migrant families at the southern border, leading to television images of weeping children pulled from their parents. And his closing — and ultimately failed — argument before the 2018 midterm elections was that dangerous caravans of migrants were headed for U.S. cities.
“He has made explicit what has been fueling American politics since the 1960s. He is saying the quiet parts out loud,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University. “He has made direct appeals to white grievance, to white resentment. He has dwelled in the underbelly of American politics.”
Trump’s poll numbers, already wobbling, fell further in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
As protests calling for racial justice erupted, Trump leaned in on his law-and-order cry, depicting demonstrators as “thugs.” References to Lafayette Square, the park across from the White House, now evoke images of Trump posing in front of a damaged church holding up a Bible after officers forcefully routed demonstrators from the area.
Vladimir Putin smiled.
The world was watching a post-summit news conference by the American and Russian leaders in Helsinki in July 2018, and Trump had just publicly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of election interference.
The uproar was immediate. Even before Air Force One took off for Washington, Trump’s comments were condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Trump’s deference to Putin, beyond reviving questions about the American leader’s possible ties to Moscow, illuminated his own brand of foreign policy, one that has strained ties with Western allies, in favor of transactional relationships and a warmth toward strongmen.
“Trump came into office believing that the cost of American world leadership was far greater than the benefits,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “He sees allies as economic competitors rather than strategic partners.”
It all adds up to foreign policy wins, in the view of Trump supporters. After his prodding, more NATO members boosted spending on defense. The Islamic State, which once controlled 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq, has been defanged. And North Korea, which at the start of Trump’s term was widely regarded as the most volatile foreign policy issue on his plate, has remained relatively quiet.
“We have two foreign policy presidents with Trump,” said James Carafano, national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There is the showman Trump and there is the serious foreign policy Trump. We spend way too much time focusing on the showmanship.”
Outside of Trump’s links to Putin, no relationship has attracted more scrutiny than the president’s hot-cold ties with China’s Xi Jinping.
Trump campaigned as a China hawk but, after being feted on an extravagant state visit to Beijing, his tone softened and he was eager to strike a new trade deal. And when the virus began to ignite around Wuhan, the president was reluctant to endanger negotiations and thus slow to criticize China.
Those days of expedient restraint are long gone, replaced by Trump’s determination to affix blame elsewhere for the pandemic that has imperiled his presidency. The coronavirus, in Trump’s telling, became the “China virus.”
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCE
No one knew when Trump arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 2, that it might turn out to be the last jam-packed, big stadium rally of his presidency.
At that point in the crisis — more than a week before the government recommended Americans sharply curtail activities to slow the spread of the virus — the number of U.S. infections had surpassed 100 and six people were confirmed dead. Trump assured the 9,600-person crowd that night he was leaning on the “greatest professionals in the world” to advise him.
“My job is to protect the health of American patients and Americans first, and that’s what I’ll do,” declared Trump. He added, “America is so resilient, we know what we’re doing, we have the greatest people on earth, the greatest health system on earth.”
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has leaned hard on florid overstatement, misdirection and out-right lies.
It was a pattern set on his first full day in office when he ordered his press secretary to exaggerate the crowd size at his 2017 inauguration. Since then, he incorrectly claimed the Mueller report “totally exonerated” him, he insisted his administration was “taxing the hell out of China” even as the trade deficit grew, and he promised a sweeping health care plan that has yet to emerge.
But his declaration at the Charlotte rally that he was getting advice from some of the greatest minds in medicine rang true. His coronavirus task force included Dr. Anthony Fauci, a renowned infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah Birx, who had worked with Fauci for years combating HIV/AIDS globally. Their presence gave the medical community hope that Trump would let the scientists lead him and the country through the crisis, said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University.
Trump, in both private life and in the West Wing, has always made himself the center of power, the structure likened to “a wheel where all the spokes lead to the center, directly to the president," according to Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump.
“There was no hierarchy at Trump Org and his White House mirrors that because, for Trump, it’s never been about organization, it is all about results," said Ruddy.
Reinforcing that, the Trump White House has seen an unprecedented amount of turnover among senior staff and Cabinet members, many of whom sharply criticized the president after leaving. And Trump soon began to break with the medical experts.
“He won the benefit of the doubt in the public health community because he surrounded himself with the people who would follow the science,” Gostin said. “The problem is, it doesn’t matter if you have the right people around you if you don’t listen to them.”
Trump, in defiance of federal guidelines, pushed for a rapid reopening of the economy even as public health experts warned him to go slow.
He promoted the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer,” and even used it himself, despite federal warnings against taking the malaria drug to combat COVID-19. He regularly asserts that the virus will soon “go away.” And he recently dismissed a warning by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, that the U.S. could be in for “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had” if Americans don’t step up mitigation efforts, such as wearing masks.
“I think that we’re doing very well,” Trump said. “We’re on our way.”
That’s the bravado that Trump has projected throughout his presidency. He frequently proclaims that no president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, has accomplished as much as he has.
He’s moved the federal judicial system far to the right with the appointment of two conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and more than 200 federal judges to lower courts. And he’s built more than 200 miles of his planned U.S.-Mexico wall, a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign promise to slow illegal immigration.
But in the end, Trump has often ended up his own worst enemy, unwilling or unable to check his impulses. The campaign he now faces is less a choice between candidates than a referendum on himself, a weighting he will try to reverse before November.
And his most lasting legacy might be undermining Americans’ trust in institutions, said Brian Ott, who heads the communication department at Missouri State University and has done extensive research on the president’s social media rhetoric.
“He has waged war on science, fact and truth,” Ott said. “He has, in short, debased the office he holds and the entire nation with his endless lying.”