WASHINGTON — President Trump and his top aides decided to shift primary responsibility for the coronavirus response to the states during a critical period of weeks in mid-April, eagerly seizing on overly optimistic predictions that the pandemic was fading so the president could reopen the economy and focus on his re-election, a New York Times investigation found.
The investigation revealed that critical decisions about the handling of the virus during that crucial period were made not by the better known coronavirus task force, but by a small group of White House aides who convened each morning in the office of Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff.
One of their goals: to justify declaring victory in the fight against the virus. In that effort they frequently sought validation from Dr. Deborah L. Birx, a highly regarded infectious disease expert, who was the chief evangelist in the West Wing for the idea that infections had peaked and the virus was fading quickly.
Despite warnings from state officials and other public health experts, Mr. Trump stuck to a deliberate strategy by pushing responsibility onto the states almost immediately after introducing reopening guidelines. Then he quickly undermined the guidelines by urging Democratic governors to “liberate” their states from those very restrictions.
Interviews with more than two dozen senior administration officials, state and local health officials, and a review of emails and documents, show how a critical period in mid-April set the nation on a course to a new surge, with the United States logging more than 65,000 new cases of the virus each day.
Here are some of the key findings:
The room where it happened.
Officials in the West Wing viewed the White House coronavirus task force as dysfunctional, and they were increasingly dismissive of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who they believed had been wrong in their early judgments about the course of the virus.
As a result, important elements of the administration’s strategy were formulated out of sight in Mr. Meadows’s daily meetings, populated by aides who for the most part had no experience with public health emergencies and were taking their cues from the president.
The group convened each morning at 8 as the coronavirus crisis was raging in April. In addition to Dr. Birx, the participants included Joe Grogan, the president’s domestic policy adviser; Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff; Russell T. Vought, the president’s acting budget director; Chris Liddell, a deputy chief of staff, and Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law; Hope Hicks, the protector of Mr. Trump’s brand; and Kevin A. Hassett, a top economic adviser.
In the bureaucratese of their meetings, they referred to their goal as orchestrating a “state authority handoff.” As Mr. Meadows would tell people, “Only in Washington, D.C., do they think that they have the answer for all of America.”
Dr. Birx: White House optimist.
Dr. Birx was more central than publicly known to the judgment inside the West Wing that the virus was under control and on a downward path.
But her model-based assessment of the outlook failed to account for a vital variable: how Mr. Trump’s rush to urge a return to normal would undercut the social distancing and other measures that were holding down the numbers.
During the morning meetings in Mr. Meadows’s office, Dr. Birx almost always delivered what the new team was hoping for: “All metros are stabilizing,” she would tell them, describing the virus as having hit its “peak” around mid-April. The New York area accounted for half of the total cases in the country, she said. The slope was heading in the right direction. “We’re behind the worst of it.”
During much of mid-April, Dr. Birx focused intensely on the experience that Italy had fighting the virus. In her view, it was a particularly positive comparison, telling colleagues that the United States was on the same trajectory as Italy, where there were huge spikes before infections and deaths flattened to close to zero.
Dr. Birx would roam the halls of the White House, sometimes passing out diagrams to bolster her case. “We’ve hit our peak,” she would say, and that message would find its way back to Mr. Trump.
Trump was in a box: More testing meant more reported cases.
The president quickly came to feel trapped by his own reopening guidelines, which put him in a box of his own making.
States needed declining cases to reopen, or at least a declining rate of positive tests. But more testing meant overall cases were destined to go up, not down, undercutting the president’s insistence that the priority was to get the economy cranked up again.
The result was to intensify Mr. Trump’s remarkable public campaign against testing, which was among the most vivid examples of his rejection of any informed leadership role. And it highlighted how Mr. Trump often ended up at war with his own administration’s experts and stated policies.
Mr. Trump shifted from stressing that the nation was already doing more than any other country to deriding its importance. By June the president was regularly making nonsensical statements like, “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.”
Trump’s handoff of responsibility had consequences
The president’s bizarre public statements, his refusal to wear a mask and his pressure on states to get their economies going again left governors and state officials scrambling to address a leadership vacuum that complicated their efforts to deal with the virus.
In one case, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was told that if he wanted the federal government to help obtain the swabs needed to test for the virus, he would have to ask Mr. Trump himself — and thank him.
After offering to help acquire 350,000 testing swabs during an early morning conversation with one of Mr. Newsom’s advisers, Mr. Kushner made it clear that the federal help would hinge on the governor doing him a favor.
“The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, had to call Donald Trump, and ask him for the swabs,” recalled the adviser, Bob Kocher, an Obama-era White House health care official.
Mayor Francis X. Suarez of Miami, a Republican, said that the White House approach had only one focus: reopening businesses, instead of anticipating how cities and states should respond if cases surged again.
“It was all predicated on reduction, open, reduction, open more, reduction, open,” he said. “There was never what happens if there is an increase after you reopen?
The White House was slow to recognize it had been wrong.
Not until early June did White House officials even began to recognize that their assumptions about the course of the pandemic had proved wrong.
In task force meetings, officials discussed whether the spike in cases across the South was related to crowded protests over the killing of George Floyd or perhaps a fleeting side effect of Memorial Day gatherings.
Digging into new data from Dr. Birx, they soon concluded that the virus was in fact spreading with invisible ferocity during the weeks in May when states were opening up with Mr. Trump’s encouragement and many were all but declaring victory.
Even now, there are internal divisions over how far to go in having officials publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation.