The epidemiological models under review in the White House Situation Room in late March were bracing. In a best-case scenario, they showed the novel coronavirus was likely to kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans.
President Trump was apprehensive about so much carnage on his watch, yet also impatient to reopen the economy — and he wanted data to justify doing so.
So the White House considered its own analysis. A small team led by Kevin Hassett — a former chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers with no background in infectious diseases — quietly built an econometric model to guide response operations.
Many White House aides interpreted the analysis as predicting that the daily death count would peak in mid-April before dropping off substantially, and that there would be far fewer fatalities than initially foreseen, according to six people briefed on it.
Although Hassett denied that he ever projected the number of dead, other senior administration officials said his presentations characterized the count as lower than commonly forecast — and that it was embraced inside the West Wing by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other powerful aides helping to oversee the government’s pandemic response.
It affirmed their own skepticism about the severity of the virus and bolstered their case to shift the focus to the economy, which they firmly believed would determine whether Trump wins a second term.
For Trump — whose decision-making has been guided largely by his reelection prospects — the analysis, coupled with Hassett’s grim predictions of economic calamity, provided justification to pivot to where he preferred to be: cheering an economic revival rather than managing a catastrophic health crisis.
Trump directed his coronavirus task force to issue guidelines for reopening businesses, encouraged “LIBERATE” protests to apply pressure on governors and proclaimed that “the cure can’t be worse than the problem itself” — even as polls showed that Americans were far more concerned about their personal safety.
By the end of April — with more Americans dying in the month than in all of the Vietnam War — it became clear that the Hassett model was too good to be true. “A catastrophic miss,” as a former senior administration official briefed on the data described it. The president’s course would not be changed, however. Trump and Kushner began to declare a great victory against the virus, while urging America to start reopening businesses and schools.
“It’s going to go. It’s going to leave. It’s going to be gone. It’s going to be eradicated,” the president said Wednesday, hours after his son-in-law claimed the administration’s response had been “a great success story.”
The span of 34 days between March 29, when Trump agreed to extend strict social-distancing guidelines, and this past week, when he celebrated the reopening of some states as a harbinger of economic revival, tells a story of desperation and dysfunction.
So determined was Trump to extinguish the deadly virus that he repeatedly embraced fantasy cure-alls and tuned out both the reality that the first wave has yet to significantly recede and the possibility of a potentially worse second wave in the fall.
The president sought to obscure major problems by trying to recast them as triumphs. He repeatedly boasted, for instance, that the United States has conducted more tests than any other country, even though the total of 6.75 million is a fraction of the 2 million to 3 million tests per day that many experts say is needed to safely reopen.
And though Trump was fixated on reopening the economy, he and his administration fell far short of making that a reality. The factors that health and business leaders say are critical to a speedy and effective reopening — widespread testing, contact tracing and coordinated efforts between Washington and the states — remain lacking.
“We wasted two months denying it. We’re now wasting another two months by just dithering around,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and health secretary in the Obama administration. “The administration seems to have washed their hands of it and said [to governors], we’re out of it. You’re on your own. Figure it out.”
“That’s really the story of all this,” agreed one outside adviser to the Trump administration. “The states are just doing everything on their own.”
This story documenting Trump’s month-long struggle to reopen America is based on interviews with 82 administration officials, outside advisers and experts with detailed knowledge of the White House’s handling of the pandemic. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount internal discussions or share candid assessments without risk of retribution.
Some of Trump’s closest advisers rebutted on the record the suggestion that the pandemic response has been anything but successful.
“This is a historically new challenge, and we’ve really risen to the occasion,” Kushner said in an interview. “When history looks back on this, they’ll say, man, the federal government acted really quickly and creatively, they threw a lot at the problem and saved a lot of lives.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany agreed. “President Trump’s swift and unprecedented action has saved American lives,” she said, pointing out that governors from both parties have praised some of the administration’s work.
Trump tried to manage the perception of his performance by holding daily, hours-long press briefings that confused and repelled large swaths of the country. As the death toll mounted, the briefings became less about providing critical health information and more a forum for Trump to air grievances, shift blame, stoke feuds, spread misinformation and inspire false hope.
“It’s one hell of a difficult situation,” said economist Arthur Laffer, an outside Trump adviser. “Whatever he does, if something goes wrong, his critics will say, ‘I told you so!’ So he’s dealing with that, which isn’t a healthy environment.”