WASHINGTON (AP) — His face framed by the golden Oval Office curtains behind him, President Donald Trump stared straight into the camera aimed at the Resolute Desk.
It was the night of March 11, 2020. And Trump’s presidency would be forever changed.
Trump, whose improbable election ripped up the rules of American politics, had spent three-plus years defying history and orthodoxy in a chaotic spectacle that dominated the national discourse and fervently engaged both sides of a bitterly divided country. And now, essentially for the first time, he was confronted by a crisis that was not of his own making.
It was the kind of test presidents inevitably must face, and Trump responded with trademark certitude.
“The virus will not have a chance against us,” Trump told Americans that night.
Five months later, the coronavirus has killed more than 175,000 Americans and left tens of millions unemployed. And now, as Trump prepares to again accept the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday in a ceremony at the White House, he must convince an electorate that has largely disapproved of his handling of the pandemic that he is not to blame, that he deserves another term and that all the chaos has been worth it.
“The future of our country and indeed our civilization is at stake on Nov. 3,” Trump said Friday.
Trump has spent his presidency bending Washington to his will. He has transformed a public health crisis into a political litmus test. He has presided over a booming, if stratified, economy, and claimed he created it. He has again forced race to the center of the American conversation, using federal police to enforce his view. He has alienated historical allies and changed how much of the world views the United States.
At seminal moments — in set speeches, impromptu riffs and long-sought policy reversals, examined in this story — he has redefined, at least temporarily, the presidency.
But he has not shaken the virus.
A virus born in China had swept through Europe and reached America’s shores. Global markets were tumbling, hospitals filling, cities locking down. On the day the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive. The NBA suspended its season.
And for only the second time as president, Trump addressed the nation in a formal Oval Office speech. He spoke slowly, his voice halting, and he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands.
The U.S., he told Americans, would “expeditiously defeat this virus.”
But by any measure, Trump’s address didn’t go over well: The White House had to correct significant errors — one on travel from Europe, another on international cargo — within minutes of the speech’s conclusion.
And ever since, the virus has proven impervious to bullying tweets or the ability to dictate cable news captions. It has upended American politics, stripping Trump of both his most potent reelection argument, a strong economy, and the venues from which to extol it, his raucous campaign rallies.
“Historically, demagogic power wanes when seismic events overwhelm the existing moment,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “Pearl Harbor crushed America First; Bloody Sunday helped break the grip of Jim Crow. The pandemic may be the seismic shift, the mind-concentrating challenge, that ends Trump’s appeal beyond his hard-core base.”
Until now, one of Trump’s greatest skills as a politician has been to assert his own political reality, careening from headline to headline, while seemingly able to dodge scandals that would probably have ended any other political career.
His 2016 campaign was chaos and it worked, in part due to the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, as well as outside help both foreign (Moscow) and domestic (James Comey). The Russia investigation shadowed him throughout his first two years in office. His response: an unrelenting assault from the Oval Office on the investigators and intelligence agencies.
In the end, special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that Trump conspired with Moscow to interfere with the election, but he also did not exonerate the president on possible charges of obstruction of justice. Trump claimed total victory. Several key aides ended up with guilty pleas, yet the president emerged relatively unscathed — only soon to enter another maelstrom over foreign help, this time his request to Ukraine to investigate his eventual Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
Somehow, Trump’s block-the-sun response made the third impeachment of a sitting president feel like both a foregone conclusion and an afterthought.
He had, again, survived. But the day after his acquittal also brought an ominous milestone: the nation’s first COVID-19 death.
When Trump made the trip to the Capitol for his State of the Union address in February, he was buoyed by polling that showed the impeachment proceedings had turned out to have little impact and Americans approved of his handling of the economy.
“Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again,” Trump declared.
The numbers did look good. And Trump aides were quick to credit his sweeping tax cut, one of his signature first-term achievements.
The unemployment rate was hovering at 3.5%, a level not seen since the 1960s. The stock market, one of the president’s favorite measures of economic success, was up roughly 20% from the previous year. And workers, particularly in lower-paying jobs, were seeing wages tick up.
Trump’s campaign advisers were giddy over signs that his message was resonating beyond the voters who had helped him win 2016. Advisers took note of the significant number of people requesting tickets to Trump rallies who hadn’t voted in the last presidential election.
Since 1956, in the 12 months before presidential elections, only one of nine incumbent presidents lost when unemployment fell over that year (Gerald Ford in 1976), and only one was reelected when it rose (Dwight Eisenhower in 1956).
Then came the virus.
In a matter of weeks, the economy collapsed. Unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7% and all the gains made by the stock market since he was elected were erased.
The virus-weakened economy has shown some signs of improvement but it is far from being healed. Unemployment has edged down to 10.2% — still just below the peak of U.S. joblessness in the Great Recession — and the S&P 500 reached a new high.
But the suffering for a huge slice of America remains great. More than 40% of recent layoffs are likely to become permanent job losses, by one recent estimate. The National Restaurant Association forecasts the industry could lose 5 to 7 million employees. And if the White House and Congress don’t come to terms on another aid package, the economy could go sideways after Labor Day.
Still, Trump’s backers believe he has an argument to make.
“I think the message needs to be in post-COVID times: Trump has got the energy, the stamina, the experience and track record to bring us back,” said Dan Eberhart, chief executive of oil services company Canary LLC and a major Republican donor.
But with less than 10 weeks to go until Election Day, Trump has spent an inordinate amount of time on squabbles and distractions, bashing the U.S. Postal Service, warning “suburban housewives” about perceived threats to their neighborhood idylls from affordable housing, lending credence to the right-wing QAnon conspiracy movement.
“I don’t know what persuadable voter is moved by anti-Post Office rhetoric,” Eberhart said. “We’ve got to get the closing message right.”