As America Reaches 200,000 COVID Deaths, President Trump’s Early Approach to the Virus Draws Scrutiny

September 21, 2020

Wed., Sept. 23, update: The U.S. COVID death toll has crossed 200,000, according to the CDC’s COVID data tracker. The headline and opening sentence of this story have been updated to reflect this development.

Nearly seven months after President Donald Trump took to the podium and reassured the public that the U.S. was prepared to face the coronavirus, the nation reached a grim milestone: 200,000 people dead from COVID-19, the highest death toll by far of any country in the world.

“We’re ready for it,” Trump said of the coronavirus in late February. “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

“It’s going to disappear,” he said the following day. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” 

Trump’s approach to the coronavirus is among the issues scrutinized in The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, which examines how he and former Vice President Joe Biden have each handled moments of crisis throughout their lives and careers.

In the film, which premiered Sept. 22 and is now streaming online, President Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, who was dismissed by Trump last year, criticizes the president’s initial handling of the virus. 

“There’s no question that, in the first several months of 2020, staff on the [National Security Council] and the Centers for Disease Control were raising red flags about what was happening in China,” Bolton says in the above scene from The Choice 2020, but “the president was determined not to hear any bad news.”

It was a stance that would have devastating consequences.

“This unwillingness to think about the implications meant that there was no strategic planning going on,” Bolton says. “Because that would have meant that we were acknowledging a severe threat, and he simply did not want to do that.”

Bolton, whom Trump has described as disgruntled and a liar, has come under fire for his own role in reorganizing a high-level pandemic response team in 2018. And last week, The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has opened a criminal probe examining whether Bolton’s recent book, The Room Where It Happened, illegally revealed classified information. Bolton and his lawyers say he did not.

Behind the scenes, Trump acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus early on, according to recently released conversations with journalist and author Bob Woodward. But publicly, Trump would play down the threat COVID-19 posed to Americans.

Trump’s allies say his handling of the coronavirus reflects a “can-do” spirit that appeals to voters.

“As the country deals with this worst pandemic, they’re seeing a man who doesn’t see any problems,” Trump’s friend Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, tells FRONTLINE. “He always sees a rosy, bright future, and that he can succeed.”

The president’s approach to the coronavirus mirrors how he has handed earlier crises over the years, the film finds: “Just insist that you’re successful. Insist that what you’re doing is right,” says Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps. That’s part of this playbook: double down, triple down, say everything that’s any problem are somebody else’s fault.”

The Trump White House has strongly defended its coronavirus response, including restricting travel from China at the end of January. Following the Woodward revelations, Trump said that he had actually “up-played” the virus, not downplayed it.

In September, as the U.S. neared 200,000 deaths, Trump again said the coronavirus would “disappear,” eventually petering out, even without a vaccine, once enough people were infected and had recovered. Scientists say this threshold would likely take hundreds of thousands of additional American deaths to reach without a vaccine.

Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s election-year series The Choice has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. This year’s installment, The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, examines how both men have responded to crises throughout their lives. The documentary premiered Tues., Sept. 22 on PBS and is now streaming online:

In tandem with the premiere, FRONTLINE is publishing the transcripts of 47 original interviews conducted by filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, as well as 13 interviews from their archive, as part of the ongoing Transparency Project. You can also listen to extended audio interviews with six sources, plus Kirk, on the FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast.

This story was updated to include embeds and links to the full documentary once it became available, as well as links to extended interviews.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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