White House grapples with the coronavirus outbreak: A timeline

The coronavirus has become an all-consuming crisis for the White House, the United States and the rest of the world.

Thousands of Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and hundreds have died from the disease, numbers that are certain to grow in the weeks and months ahead even with much of the country effectively on lockdown.

The pandemic is also crushing the U.S. economy, shuttering thousands of businesses and leading to massive layoffs.

Here’s a timeline of key moments in how COVID-19 has spread across the United States and how President Trump and the White House have responded.

Jan. 21: The first U.S. case of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, is confirmed in Washington state.

Jan. 22: Trump says the coronavirus is “under control.” 

Jan. 29: Trump forms a coronavirus task force, headed by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.

Jan. 31: Azar declares the coronavirus a public health emergency. The Trump administration also restricts travel from China into the United States. 

Feb. 4: Trump says during his State of the Union address that his administration is “working closely” with the Chinese government to address the coronavirus and will take “all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”

Feb. 5: Trump administration officials brief Congress on the coronavirus behind closed doors.

Feb. 6: Trump discusses the coronavirus in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump later predicts that Xi “will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.”

Feb. 10: Trump tells a group of governors during a meeting at the White House that “a lot of people think [the virus] goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in.” He also says the U.S. has 11 or 12 cases and “many of them are in good shape now.”

Feb. 25: The Trump administration says it will seek $2.5 billion from Congress to combat the coronavirus, though Democrats criticize the number as too low.

Feb. 26: Trump tasks Vice President Pence with leading the federal response to the coronavirus. The president takes questions in the White House briefing room for the first time, saying the country’s 15 coronavirus cases would soon be down “close to zero” and that he does not believe the spread of the virus throughout the U.S. to be inevitable.

Feb. 27: Pence taps Dr. Deborah Birx, the State Department’s global AIDS coordinator, to coordinate the White House coronavirus response. Trump says the administration has done an “incredible job” and that one day the coronavirus will disappear “like a miracle.”

Feb. 29: The U.S. records its first death from the virus, and the Trump administration announces travel restrictions on Iran and urges U.S. citizens not to travel to impacted regions of Italy and South Korea. The administration also announced increased screening of individuals coming to the U.S. from those areas. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues a new policy to allow for faster testing to detect cases of the coronavirus. 

March 3: Trump donates his quarterly salary to HHS to support efforts to “confront, contain, and combat” the coronavirus.

March 6: Trump signs an $8.3 billion coronavirus package passed by Congress. Later, the president visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters, urging the public to remain calm and touting the country’s testing capabilities. 

March 7: It is learned that someone attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, a confab of the right attended by Trump and many GOP lawmakers, tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump says he’s not concerned at all about potential exposure, and the White House says there is no indication Trump or Pence was in contact with the person who tested positive. The CDC says it has tested 1,583 people for the coronavirus, a figure that does not include those tested at commercial labs.

March 9: Trump compares the severity of the coronavirus favorably to the “common Flu,” adding that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”

March 10: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. surpasses 1,000.

March 11: The World Health Organization declares the coronavirus a global pandemic. The NBA says it is suspending its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert becomes the first player to test positive. Actor Tom Hanks announces he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Trump announces in a rare Oval Office address that he is restricting travel from most of Europe for 30 days, a prohibition that applies to non-U.S. citizens who have traveled recently in the Schengen Area. Trump also says he will use executive action to help small businesses and individuals adversely impacted by the virus. The White House cancels Trump’s trip out west for the coming weekend and his campaign postpones an upcoming event in Milwaukee. 

In a sign of how quickly things were changing, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign in an interview that afternoon, hours before the NBA suspended its season and Trump gave his Oval Office address, said the president would continue to hold big rallies.

Campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was the best authority on the issue after she was asked about National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci’s recommendation against such large public gatherings.

“The president is the best authority on this issue. He takes into consult the words of everyone around him, that would include Alex Azar, that would include Dr. Fauci, that would include others. So, I’ll leave it to the president,” McEnany said. “Right now, we’re proceeding as normal.”

March 12: The NCAA cancels the “March Madness” men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with other college sporting events through the spring. This comes after the NBA suspended its season and the same day the NHL and MLB say they will shut down. Broadway shuts down as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo orders a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 500 people.

An aide to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tests positive for coronavirus. The aide had recently posed for a photo with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Trump says he’s not concerned about the news and says he’s likely to postpone an upcoming campaign rally in Tampa because of the virus.

March 13: Trump declares a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up nearly $50 billion in disaster funds to be used to help state officials address the virus. He also says he will waive interest payments on federal student loans “until further notice.” The FDA grants emergency approval to a new coronavirus test. 

March 14: The Trump administration says it will also bar travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland, after criticism when those two countries were not part of the original ban. Trump tests negative for the coronavirus after coming in contact with two people at his Mar-a-Lago resort who since tested positive.

March 15: The CDC issues guidance recommending no events of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to zero percent and announced it would purchase $700 billion in bonds and securities to stabilize financial markets and support the economy.

New York, which is seen as an epicenter for the coronavirus as cases near 1,000, announces it will close schools the following day, leaving 1.1 million students at home. Cuomo says all bars and restaurants in New York must close by 8 p.m. the following night. Other cities and states offer similar announcements throughout the week.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hold their first one-on-one debate in the Democratic primary — but without an audience because of the coronavirus. Days later Biden sweeps to huge victories in three primaries, making it clear he will be the Democratic nominee and Trump’s opponent in November.

March 16: The White House issues guidelines urging Americans to avoid restaurants and bars, limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and work and engage in schooling from home when possible. The National Institutes of Health begins the first phase of testing for a coronavirus vaccine.

Airlines say they will need a $50 billion bailout as signs of how serious an economic crisis is resulting from the coronavirus become more apparent. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposes $1,000 cash payments to workers to help get them through the economic crisis. His idea quickly gains steam as Congress seeks to get behind a $1 trillion stimulus package.

March 17: After weeks of minimizing the coronavirus, Trump now claims he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says Trump is looking at sending direct payments to Americans to lessen the economic impact of the virus and tells GOP senators in a private meeting that unemployment could reach 20 percent without serious steps. He later walks back the remarks, saying it was not a prediction. The U.S. death toll from the virus hits 100. 

March 18: The Trump administration closes the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential traffic. Trump says he has invoked the Defense Production Act and that it will be used to ramp up production of medical equipment in a worst-case scenario. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Federal Housing Finance Agency suspend foreclosures and evictions. By mid-afternoon the Dow has erased all of the gains since Trump took office. 

Trump signs into law an aid package offering paid sick leave and free testing for the virus, the result of negotiations between Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah) become the first members of Congress to test positive for the coronavirus.

March 19: Cases in the U.S. top 10,000 as the virus quickly spreads. Trump says the FDA is accelerating testing of treatments for the coronavirus, though he suggests incorrectly that the government body has approved a malaria drug for use on patients with the virus. The State Department urges American citizens to avoid traveling internationally. The White House cancels the planned June Group of Seven summit at Camp David in favor of a videoconference. California directs residents to stay in their homes.

Weekly jobless claims jump by 70,000 in the wake of thousands of restaurant, bar, gym and other business closings.

March 20: The administration closes the U.S.-Mexico border to nonessential travel. Governors in New York and Illinois urge residents to stay home. The vice president’s office says a Pence staffer has tested positive for coronavirus, marking the first known case of the virus at the White House.

An analyst for Goldman Sachs says unemployment claims could jump to 2.25 million and the Dow drops another 900 points and 4.5 percent. The Treasury Department pushes back the tax deadline from April 15 to July 15. The Education Department says student loan borrowers can request a payment pause for a period of at least 60 days.

March 21: The FDA approves the first “point of care” test for the coronavirus that can generate results in about 45 minutes. Pence and second lady Karen Pence test negative for the coronavirus after a staffer for the vice president’s office tested positive.

March 22: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) becomes the first U.S. senator to test positive for the coronavirus, prompting multiple Republicans to go into self-quarantine. The Senate fails to move forward on a massive stimulus package. 

More than 254,000 Americans have been tested for the virus, with just over 30,000 testing positive. Trump mobilizes the National Guard and says makeshift medical facilities will be built in New York, California and Washington, the three states hit hardest by the outbreak. 

— This report was updated at 3:26 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Donald Trump Joe Biden Karen Pence Mario Diaz-Balart Mike Pence Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul Steven Mnuchin
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