THE UNITED STATES Politics versus science?

John M. Callahan

Political context

The US government first became aware of the novel coronavirus outbreak as a potential pandemic and national security issue on or around January 1, 2020. At that time, impeachment proceedings were under way in the US Congress, and steps were being taken to end a trade war that had been underway between the United States and China. In early January, the United States came very near to a war with Iran, a situation in which the strategic restraint of the administration was under significant attack by the media and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

By the end of February and early March, when cases of the virus were publicly announced in the United States, the impeachment crisis was over, and that, combined with the end of the trade war and the avoidance of a new Middle East conflict put the Trump administration in a relatively good position, in fact, with higher polling numbers than at any previous time.

Indeed, political eyes were focused on the Democratic Party, which was in the throes of attempting to find a candidate to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, and seeing the mainstream party select former Vice President Joseph Biden as their candidate, in spite of mediocre debate performance and a primary race that was still in contention.

In short, the administration and the American people were focused on the upcoming election and an economy that continued to drive forward for the third straight year of Trump’s Presidency. The media reported events in Wuhan, but coronavirus was not a recurring news item until mid- to late-February, understandably when Americans overseas and on cruise ships began to be infected, and focus increased when the virus seriously affected Italy. This chapter examines the period of January 1 to May 31. By the end of May, protests and unrest surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hand of a Minnesota Police officer eclipsed COVID-19 as the main news story in the United States.


See Table 5.1.


It is perhaps unsurprising that the initial responses to the COVID-19 outbreak originated from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as it was, at that point, a foreign crisis. Furthermore, the Trump administration had a series of significant issues to deal with in January and February, ranging from impeachment hearings to brinkmanship with Iran. Nevertheless, the President was quick to comment on the crisis and attempted to build confidence by painting the impact of the virus and the US response in a positive light.

That effort began in January, with Trump’s (2020a) speech in Davos, and his prediction that should the virus spread to the US, it would be handled ‘Very Well. Later in the month, in Michigan, he touted international cooperation, saying, ‘Now we’re working very strongly with China on the coronavirus, that’s a new thing that a lot of people are talking about. Hopefully, it won’t be as bad as some people think it could be’ (Trump, 2020b). On February 25, in a speech in India, Trump continued to take an optimistic tone, saying the coronavirus was ‘well under control’ and that there were ‘very few people with it’ (Lemire, 2020). Larry Kudlow, White House economic adviser, said in an interview with CNBC that the virus was contained in the United States, and the economic impact would be minimal.

However, on that day, the CDC announced that it expected community spread of the virus. ‘It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,’ said Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (Boboltz, 2020). This would not be the last time that messages from leaders and scientists were in conflict. Nevertheless, the White House ended February in an upbeat mood, with Trump (2020c) stating,

We’ve taken the most aggressive actions to confront the coronavirus. They are the most aggressive taken by any country. And we’re the No. 1 travel destination anywhere in the world, yet we have far fewer cases of the disease than even countries with much less travel or a much smaller population.

February would prove to be the calm before the storm for coronavirus.

TABLE 5.1 US chronology

Diffusion of COVID-19 Key Official Actions

Key Communication Events

CDC issues warning to travellers to Wuhan.

CDC activates Incident Management System (IMS).

CDC COVID-19 IMS holds its first press conference.

First case confirmed in

Seattle, Washington.

President Trump speaks to the media at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

A White House-level task force is set up, directed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Trump commented further on the virus at a political rally in Warren, Michigan.

Total for January - one The United States suspends entry to foreign

known case, no deaths. nationals from mainland China, US public

health emergency declared, backdated to Jan

27. ' _j

President Trump justifies decision to exclude ro

travel from China on Fox News (Hannity,

  • 2020). S
  • (Continued)

TABLE 5.1 (Continued)



Diffusion of CO VID-19

Key Official Actions

Key Communication Events

  • 4
  • 6
  • 7
  • 24

First American dies in Wuhan.

The Department of Homeland Security announced all flights into the United States containing travellers originating in China must route through selected airports with enhanced screening procedures.

The United States pledged 100 million dollars in aid to China to fight the virus.

The White House requested 1.25 billion dollars of additional funds to combat COVID-19.


First US military member infected in South Korea.

Trump speaks to the media while in India. The CDC predicts community spread likely.


Whistleblower reveals personnel treating Americans evacuated from Wuhan lacked personal protective equipment (PPE) or proper training.

President Trump announced Vice President Mike Pence would lead the US response, defends decision to close the border.


The victim in Seattle

Travel restrictions expanded to include Italy and

The White House makes a Press Statement

became the first American to die.

February totals: 1 dead,

68 known infections.

South Korea.

The Food and Drug Administration took steps to expand testing availability.

expressing confidence in the response.

70 John M. Callahan

Federal Reserve announces emergency rate cut.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, 2020) announces a regulatory relief package for companies impacted by the virus.

In a daily press briefing, President Trump has first significant divergence with Dr. Fauci.

The White House announced travel bans on 26 European countries for 30 days. Low interest loans to impacted small businesses and mitigation strategies for states designated hotspots of infection announced.

The COVID-19 virus is declared a US national emergency. Restrictions increased on Americans returning from abroad. House of Representatives reach agreement with White House on Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) reliefbill. The Dept ofDefence announces travel ban for civilian employees.

The CDC recommended gatherings of 50+ people be cancelled for 2 months.

The White House recommends 15 days of social distancing across the United States.

President Trump visited CDC headquarters in Atlanta, announced he did not plan to cancel travel and social gatherings in America (Baker, 2020).

President Trump speaks about testing.

The World Health Organisation declares that COVID-19 is a global pandemic.

Trump announces crisis response measures.


The United States 71

TABLE 5.1 (Continued)



Diffusion of CO VID-19

Key Official Actions

Key Communication Events


President Trump signed an executive order to

activate the Defense Production Act to force production of necessary items. However, he did not implement the act at that time (Dzhanova, 2020).


In the White House Daily briefing, President

Trump sparred with Dr Anthony Fauci over the potential efficacy of malaria drugs against COVID-19. Trump said he was going with ‘gut feelings’ on the issue (Alonso-Zaldivar, 2020).


Trump discusses reopening the United States

on Fox News.


Trump signed the FFCRA, injecting two trillion

dollars into the economy.


116,415 cases, 3,806

14% of employed population filed for


unemployment, worst rate since the Great Depression.



The CDC issues new guidance on face masks.


The United States has

highest number of COVID-19 deaths, deaths reported in all 50 states.


Protests erupt in four states against stay-at-home


72 John M. Callahan

The White House urges states to plan for reopening.



Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee announce


reopening plans. By end of May, all 50 states have announced such plans.

Additional relief funding announced for hospitals


hit hard by the virus.

Warnings of food shortages and supply chain

30 1,061,028 cases, 57,137

breakdowns follow news the virus had spread to several meat processing facilities.

US economy shrank by 4.8% in first quarter of 2020, worst since the 2008 great recession.

Federal distancing restrictions expired.




The Food and Drug Administration approve Remdesivir to treat hospitalised patients.

15 states announce reopening plans, following

international norms.


President Trump attends his last daily media appearance of this period.

25 George Floyd died in police custody in

Minneapolis, Minnesota.

29 1,774,034 cases, 97,959


Trump: major speech about the search for a vaccine.

White House announces the United States would withdraw from the WHO, claiming the organisation was dominated by China and not working in the interests of all members.

The United States 73

Crisis response and federalism

Initially, the CDC and White House were clearly in the driving seat of the US response to the crisis. However, as the crisis grew, the perception of leadership became more bifurcated as the crisis became politicised. The nature of US disaster response mechanisms also worked against a perception of centralised response. The Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework mandates that the leading role in crisis management be at the lowest level possible. So, as COVID-19 spread, and the number of infections and hotspots grew, the state governors became more central to the crisis response. This caused significant friction and politicised every act. Any shortage of supplies, however temporary, was blamed on the Federal Government, even in cases in which state resources were not fully utilised. The most public example of this was the open feud between President Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Each held daily press conferences, and a key feature of those press conferences was them bashing each other. Of note is that the two, actually close, associates from Mr. Trump’s career in New York, were in nearly constant communication and often warned each other before each daily bashing. Internal dissension also came to exemplify the response, particularly between the political White House team and the scientists, most notably Dr Anthony Fauci, discussed in more detail below.

Trump’s efforts to communicate federal economic responses were decisive and positive throughout the crisis. Beginning with the travel bans, by March this included financial stimulus. On March 12, in an oval office speech which justified the bans, President Trump said,

Using emergency authority, I will be instructing the Treasury Department to defer tax payments, without interest or penalties, for certain individuals and businesses negatively impacted. This action will provide more than $200 billion of additional liquidity to the economy. Finally, I am calling on Congress to provide Americans with immediate payroll tax relief. Hopefully, they will consider this very strongly. We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus. We made a lifesaving move with early action on China.

(Trump, 2020d)

The issue of reopening, which Trump began discussing as early as late March, put him once again in conflict with the state governors over who actually had the right to make such decisions. On March 25, in an interview with Fox News, Trump expressed hope the country would be able to reopen by Easter, April 12, stating, ‘You will have packed churches all over our country, I think it would be a beautiful time and it is just about the timeline that I think is right’ (Leonardi, 2020). Trump altered his Easter prediction and extended social distancing by a further two weeks, though he predicted by June 1, the country would be ‘well on the way to recovery’ (Smith, 2020). On May 15, Trump announced ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ which proposed to provide funding and support such that a vaccine might be developed by the end of 2020 (Duster, 2020). He also encouraged Americans to enjoy the upcoming Memorial Day holidays, as death rates seemed to be slowing around the country.

Media and social media

Any crisis taking place in the Trump administration is guaranteed to include a robust social media component. Consistent with crisis communication practices, key decisions and proclamations were made via social media channels. The President, as was the custom by this point in his Presidency, made significant announcements and statements via Twitter, and he continued his practice of engaging in media sparring contests both in his press availabilities and in his social media communications.

A bigger concern and lesson from the COVID-19 response is the open warfare that continues between the Trump administration and the traditional media. The administration entered office in a state of war with two major print outlets, the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as CNN and MSNBC among the television media networks. This has led to a complete polarisation over his actions, and an increasing number of actions taken specifically to speak to the Republican Party base and to take symbolic actions which, even when proven wrong or when undone, still speak to Trump’s base.

A key example of this was Trump’s personal attendance at the daily White House COVID-19 task force press conferences in April and May. Although Trump had appointed Vice President Pence as Task Force Leader, he insisted on taking the stage along with Pence, Dr Fauci and other experts. The results were mixed. On some days, Trump’s optimism and bravado carried the day. On others, the briefings and subsequent Twitter storms and post-briefing debates between the participants negated the benefits of the informational briefings.

'Good science' and 'bad science'- politicised science

Americans are well-known science sceptics (Reints, 2020), which is interesting considering that they are also known as tech fetishists believing technology can solve all problems. The greatest scepticism seems to come when technology is said not to work. This happened early in the COVID-19 crisis, when statements from the World Health Organisation (WHO), CDC and even Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested face masks were not an effective defence against the spread of COVID-19. Simultaneously, organisations ranging from hospitals to state governments were begging for more masks for first responders and hospital personnel. On April 3, the CDC reversed its guidance, recommending use of face masks, and providing grist for the rising tide of speculation regarding CDC and WHO motives

(Dwyer, 2020). This was a split narrative that collapsed under its own weight. In hindsight, it was obvious that the anti-mask messaging campaign was designed to try to secure masks for the first responders. However, the distrust generated by that campaign continues to the present day.

The struggle between President Trump and the scientific community grew in intensity as the crisis went on. On March 2, Trump suggested a vaccine might be ready for distribution in three to four months, a statement that was clarified by Dr Anthony Fauci, who said that it normally took at least a year for successful vaccine development. This was the first of a series of intense, but relatively genteel disagreements between the two. Fauci ceased to be included in the daily press briefings weeks before Trump himself stopped attending at the end of April.

Neither social media or politics are good vehicles for science. Nearly every statement of any scientific body had its discreditors on one side or another of the political divide. Whether it was a debate over the efficacy of Hydroxychloriquine or Kendesevir against the virus, or masks, or how the virus spreads and what it does to victims of various age groups, every issue was debated bitterly on traditional and social media and in the halls of power in Washington. When President Trump began taking Hydroxychloriquine in May, he argued it was a preventative; health experts stated it only had some benefit to patients who had already suffered from the virus. Beginning on March 10, the issue of testing became another political and scientific hot potato. At the press briefing, Trump (2020e) said, ‘when people need a test, they can get a test. When the professionals need a test, when they need tests for people, they can get the test. It's gone really well.’

Finally, the goals of the response effort seemed to change, or morph. In early March, there was unified discussion of the concept of‘flattening the curve’; slowing the spread of the virus to a rate which could be handled by existing medical facilities. By May, talk of flattening the curve faded from discussion. The effort had essentially succeeded, but because the discussion ended, the concept was forgotten.


The COVID-19 crisis highlighted several factors which have become hallmarks of American political communications in recent decades. Disagreement between branches of government, especially when led by different political parties, is nothing new. However, conflicting messaging among the departments of the executive branch, has reached a peak in the Trump administration, with the President and key administration officials frequently publicly disagreeing on key messages. By the same token, a series of structural and personality-driven issues led to a lack of consistency on key messaging points, such as when and how long to social distance, when states could close and reopen, if masks should be worn etc.

Trump’s public responses began by downplaying the threat of COVID-19; however, that changed in February when the threat became clear and the virus entered the United States Trump, political and scientific experts and leaders all communicated frequently on the growing crisis but often recommended divergent responses. Hence the COVID-19 crisis, is still ongoing, and, perhaps, worsening. It may not be the greatest public health crisis in US history, but it will certainly be known as the most disruptive at political and economic levels. The lessons it teaches are those which every crisis teaches; that clear, consistent and confident decisions and communications are vital to any crisis response. It was these lessons that were patently not learned when facing the COVID-19 pandemic.


Alonso-Zaldivar, R. (2020). ‘Trump vs Fauci: President’s gut sense collides with science.’ Associated Press, March 20.

Baker, P. (2020). ‘Trump says “People Have to Remain Calm” amid Coronavirus outbreak.’ The New York Times, March 6. ics/trump-coronavirus-cdc.html

Boboltz, S. (2020). ‘CDC urges Americans to prepare for Coronavirus spread.’ Huffington Post, February 26.

Duster, C. (2020). ‘Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” identifies 14 vaccines to focus on.’ CNN, May 4. -warp-speed-coronavirus-vaccines/index.html.

Dwyer, C. (2020). ‘CDC now recommends Americans consider wearing cloth face coverings in public.’ National Public Radio, April 3. navirus-live-updates/2020/04/03/826219824/president-trump-says-cdc-now-reco mmends-americans-wear-cloth-masks-in-public.

Dzhanova, Y. (2020). ‘Trump invoked the defense production act. Here’s how he can use its powers.’ CNBC, March 20. ense-production-act-heres-how-he-can-use-its-powers.html.

Hannity, S. (2020). ‘Interview with President Trump.’ Fox News, February 2.

Lemire, J. (2020). ‘Trump says coronavirus “very well under control” in US.’ ABC News, February 25. ol-us-69201209.

Leonardi (2020). ‘“Beautiful thing”: Trump hopes to see “packed churches” on Easter Sunday.’ The Washington Examiner, March 24. beautiful-thing-trump-hopes-to-see-packed-churches-on-easter-sunday.

Reims, R. (2020). ‘People are becoming increasingly skeptical of science, report finds.’ Fortune, March 20.

SEC (2020). ‘SEC provides conditional regulatory relief and assistance for companies affected by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).’ U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, March 4.

Smith, A. (2020). ‘Trump extends social distancing guidelines to April 30, predicts “great things” by June 1.’ NBC News, March 29. d-trump/trump-extends-social-distancing-guidelines-april-30-predicts-great-thing s-nll71536.

Trump, D. (2020a). ‘Trump speaks in Davos, addresses the world economic forum.’ Fox News, January 26. -world-economic-forum-live-blog.

Trump, D. (2020b). ‘Remarks by President Trump at a USMCA celebration with American workers | Warren, MI.’, January 30. www.whitehouse. gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-usmca-celebration-american -workers-warren-mi/.

Trump, D. (2020c). Remarks to the Media. February 29. -statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-conference-2/.

Trump, D. (2020d). Remarks by President Trump in Address to the Nation. March 11.

Trump, D. (2020e). Remarks by President Trump After Meeting with Republican Senators.

March 10. eeting-republican-senators-2/.

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