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, deserves another term and that all the chaos has been worth it.
“The future of our country and indeed our civilisation is at stake on November 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, beloved 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. His spoke slowly, his voice halting, and he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands.
The US, 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 chyrons.
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 likely 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.