Inside the White House for “15 days to slow the spread”
This account of the past two weeks in the White House is based on interviews during this period with staff members and outside advisers, as well as previous reports from POLITICO. Collectively, the staff described a period of uncertainty and reassessment as the West Wing reoriented itself around a singular mission. They have witnessed historic moments from the center of power – the the biggest one-day plunge for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, then its the biggest a day’s gain since 1933. They wondered what all this would mean for the 2020 election – would there even be an in-person vote in eight months? Is the campaign as we know it over?
Meanwhile, Americans around the world were grappling with their changing realities: Will the way we celebrate, gather, and pray change forever? Are we going to become a more isolated society, connected through video conferencing rather than face-to-face gatherings?
“Should I even be here?” A White House official said in disgust after several high-level staff were exposed to the virus and forced to stay at home.
On Tuesday, the White House’s “15 Days to Slow Spread” initiative will end. The country will look to Trump to tell people how long their daily lives will be crippled, how long they will be out of work.
What he will say, however, is still unknown.
THE BEGINNING: JAN. 2
US cases: 0
Deaths in the United States: 0
DOW JONES: 28,868.80
As with many Americans, the magnitude of the situation did not initially manifest itself in the White House.
As early as January 2, Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contacted the National Security Council to discuss developments in China regarding a respiratory illness that they had not yet confirmed as a new 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 case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was confirmed on January 21. Days later, the president set up a task force to tackle the potential spread. But publicly, the president and his advisers have maintained the situation is under control, with the president halting most travel from China in early February.
Internally, some White House officials monitoring the situation overseas have felt frustrated that the virus was being ignored by senior officials, including the president. Cutting back on travel from China was not enough, they argued. They urged Trump to take more aggressive action, citing forecasts indicating the United States could face a case trajectory mirroring places like Italy, which saw peak in mid-February.
Trump arrived in late February on an 18-hour trip back from India, where he had spent two days amid jubilant crowds, miles from the coronavirus concerns. During the flight, he saw 24-hour media coverage of the disease. According to his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Trump did not sleep the entire trip home.
Minutes after landing on the morning of February 26 in Washington, DC, Trump tweeted that he would hold an information meeting to resolve the situation. He urged Vice President Mike Pence to oversee the coronavirus task force and predicted that the number of coronavirus cases in the United States would soon be “close to zero”.
The opposite has 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 United States. The World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. The stock market collapsed, even halting trading for 15 minutes on March 9 to prevent a sharp fall in the market.
Trump and his team rushed to address the nation’s concerns in an Oval Office speech – only the second Trump has ever given.
“If Trump doesn’t say tonight, ‘This is bad and it could get worse, you have to take all the necessary precautions,’ then he can say goodbye to a second term,” an administration official told the ‘era.
He didn’t say that. Instead, the president, in hastily arranged remarks, said he was banning all travel from Europe and promised that health insurers had agreed to cover all coronavirus treatment. Investors panicked: would the necessary shipments still be allowed to enter the United States? Insurers were baffled – they had only agreed to cover coronavirus tests, not all treatments.
The White House was quick to clarify. Shares fell again and trading was halted again for 15 minutes on March 12.
Moral hit rock bottom to the White House.
A White House official said it was the week that everything changed. In addition to the president’s prime-time remarks and stock market breaks, the virus has unexpectedly overturned collective American culture. Within minutes of Wednesday night, Hollywood star Tom Hanks announced that he had tested positive for the virus, the NCAA canceled its national basketball tournaments and the NBA suspended its season.
“This week, the Democrats’ BS impeachment seemed trivial,” another White House official joked.
Daily life was not going to be the same.
In a week, most of the United States would be closed.
A week later, Congress would pass the largest economic stimulus bill ever assembled.
Here’s what those two weeks at the White House looked like.
DAY 1: MARCH 16
US cases: 6,400
Deaths in the United States: 83
DOW JONES: 20,188.52
The president and his team decided that dramatic action was needed to curb the spread of the virus.
They had seen gruesome new projections from Imperial College London that showed millions dead if more extreme measures were not taken. Chastened by the new data, the president’s behavior has changed.
On March 16, a Monday, the president announced new recommendations that Americans should not congregate in groups greater than 10 – five times more extreme than the guidelines introduced by the CDC 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 ready to do whatever it takes.
Dr Deborah Birx, a global health specialist tasked with leading the efforts of the Coronavirus Task Force, directly urged the American people to adhere to the guidelines.
“We really want people to be separated right now, so that we can deal with this virus in a holistic way that we can’t see, for which we don’t have a vaccine or a treatment,” she said.
The president sent Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to work out a stimulus bill with Congress to stimulate the economy. Mnuchin gave a terrible, but premonitory, warning to Senate Republicans during a lunch on Capitol Hill: Act now or the United States could see double-digit unemployment numbers.
DAY 3: MARCH 18
US cases: 13,700
Deaths in the United States: 150
DOW JONES: 19,898.92
On Wednesday, the streets of major cities like San Francisco and New York began to empty.
At the White House, the president had a new message: the country is at war.
“To this day, no one has seen anything like what they did in WWII,” Trump said at a press conference. “And now is our time. We have to sacrifice together because we are all in the same boat and we will be successful together. “
He invoked a wartime law – the Defense Production Act – giving him broad power to order manufacturers to manufacture the equipment needed in a crisis. But he said he would only use the law in the “worst-case scenario”.
America was facing an invading, deadly “invisible enemy”, Trump said.
In the White House, the enemy was already inside.
Members of the president’s inner circle continued to be exposed to people with coronavirus. Several senior officials, including Ivanka Trump and acting chief of staff Mulvaney, have had to isolate themselves.
Members of Congress closest to the president – including his new chief of staff, Mark Meadows – have been forced to self-quarantine. And even as the President began to use the press conference room day in and day out, his own press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, was clearly going missing. She, like others in the White House who have been exposed, was following the same advice given to her from the podium: stay home.