Nurse practitioner Amy Israelian puts on protective gear in a tent in the parking lot of a hospital before testing a patient in Newton, Mass., on March 16, 2020.

Nurse practitioner Amy Israelian puts on protective gear in a tent in the parking lot of a hospital before testing a patient in Newton, Mass., on March 16, 2020. Adam Glanzman/Washington Post

Donald Trump posed an all-but-shouted query on his social media platform last week, echoing a talking point that has recently become popular in Republican circles: “ARE YOU BETTER OFF THAN YOU WERE FOUR YEARS AGO?”

The clear implication from Trump and his allies is that the country was thriving in 2020 when he was president in a way that it is not now under President Biden. But the reality is far more complicated.

Four years ago this week, the stock market was collapsing – hitting its worst week since the Great Recession of 2008 – as the country spiraled into a yearslong pandemic that claimed more than 1 million American lives, cratered the economy, upended daily life and, arguably, helped cost Trump a second term in the White House.

The third week of March 2020 – four years before Trump sent his query – reveals a nation that was on the precipice of crisis and a leader exhibiting the full panoply of characteristics that his supporters love and his detractors revile.

Reported COVID cases exploded that week, growing from 588 to 3,659, and COVID deaths more than tripled, from 16 on Sunday the 15th to 52 the following Saturday. Over the course of the pandemic, Trump regularly indulged in his most combative and erratic impulses, alienating large swaths of the public along the way.

During that seven-day stretch, Trump promised the country had “tremendous control” over the virus and that “we’re winning it.” In fact, the opposite was true.


Throughout the year, Trump rarely agreed to wear a mask – publicly undermining the advice of his own health experts – and at one point suggested injecting disinfectant as a possible treatment. He held near-daily news conferences – spectacles he came to view as ratings bonanzas rather than serious information sessions for desperate and terrified Americans. He diminished and feuded with his team of scientists and public health officials, and he ultimately contracted COVID himself, having to be airlifted from the White House to the hospital.

Voters did not blame Trump for the pandemic, a once-in-a-lifetime calamity thrust upon the entire globe – but they did fault his response to it.

From May through November 2020, polls consistently showed most Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and most polls showed Trump’s ratings for his handling of the pandemic were worse than his overall job performance.

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who conducts weekly focus groups with voters, said Trump critics like herself are answering his question literally, “and if you answer it literally, Trump loses every time.”

But three years after Trump left office, polls show that some of the voters who helped oust him are looking back on his administration more favorably now, either forgetting or willing to look past much of the chaos and mayhem that characterized his presidency. In interviews, some speak of his first term with a sense of gauzy nostalgia and rate his performance better than Biden’s.

They seem to have forgotten some of Trump’s myriad controversies and scandals, from the trivial – toying with buying Greenland and doctoring a hurricane’s projected path with a Sharpie – to the more serious, like claiming there were “very fine people on both sides” at a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and encouraging his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.


Trump and his campaign seem to be posing the question in a less literal and more emotional way: Do you, the voter, feel better off under Biden than you did under Trump?

They are also making the calculation that when it comes to the pocketbook issues that so often decide elections, voters will reward Trump for the strong economy that he presided over until the pandemic sent it plummeting.

In fact, Trump had plenty to tout about the economy before COVID upended it. The civilian unemployment rate had been trending down and hovering between 3% and 4%, similar to this past year’s rates. Inflation would stay low throughout his term before spiking sharply in spring 2021 at the start of Biden’s term.

And despite a host of other positive economic indicators – including steady growth and a soaring stock market – interest rates, gas prices and the cost of groceries are still higher now than they were under Trump.

Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt accused Biden and the media of cherry-picking details “from the worst of the COVID crisis” but said Americans still understand “Biden has been a disaster.”

She pointed to low inflation and mortgage rates before the pandemic, as well as immigration rates and Biden’s problematic withdrawal from Afghanistan, as examples.


Biden and his campaign, meanwhile, have seized on Trump’s question to try to remind voters of what they didn’t like about the Trump years, including his bungled COVID response.

Speaking Wednesday in Dallas, Biden said he was “glad” Trump had posed the question, urging the country to think back to life in March 2020.

Sunday, March 15

COVID closures were already sweeping across Europe – Italy went first, with Spain and France following close behind – when Trump appeared in the White House briefing room early Sunday evening, to assure the nation that while he and his team were paying close attention to what was happening in other countries, the United States was doing fine.

COVID, he acknowledged, is “a very contagious virus.” But, he added quickly, “it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

By then, it had become clear that Trump had drastically oversold a potential Google project to help connect citizens with drive-through testing locations. And it had also emerged in news reports that a birthday party Trump had hosted at his private Mar-a-Lago Club a week earlier had become a potential superspreader event – offering an early glimpse of Trump’s reckless stance toward the safety protocols surrounding the virus.


At the news conference, Trump also said his administration was using “the full power of the federal government” to defeat COVID.

“We’re doing – I think – really, really well,” Trump said. “A lot of good things are going to happen.”

Monday, March 16

The day became known as “Black Monday II,” one of three days that month when COVID-inspired sell-offs were so extreme that the New York Stock Exchange temporarily paused trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted nearly 3,000 points, wiping out almost 13 percent of its value.

The cratering stock market presaged the coming economic calamity, including the unemployment rate that would more than triple to a high of 13 percent at its 2020 peak, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Facing pressure from his health team, Trump did roll out more robust recommendations to try to halt the spread of the virus that Monday, urging Americans to stop discretionary travel, to conduct home schooling, and to avoid bars, restaurants and gatherings of more than 10 people. But his guidelines were suggestions, rather than the mandatory requirements recommended by many experts.


“If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus,” Trump said at the White House briefing, before promising “a big celebration all together” once the virus was eradicated.

That same day, Trump in a tweet described COVID, which had originated in China, as “the Chinese Virus” – the sort of racially insensitive language that critics and experts alike worried could prompt increased discrimination against Asian Americans.

And when asked how he would rate his response to the pandemic on a scale of one to 10, Trump gave himself high marks.

“I’d rate it a 10,” he said. “I think we’ve done a great job.”

Tuesday, March 17

Trump defended his description of COVID as “the Chinese virus,” rejecting the suggestion that such language was offensive. “No, I don’t think so,” Trump said, when asked by reporters if the phrase could create a stigma around Asian Americans.


Several hours later, during a meeting with tourism executives, Trump repeated the description, saying the group planned to discuss “what’s happened since the Chinese virus came about.”

Underscoring the severity of the growing pandemic, Trump dispatched Treasury Security Steven Mnuchin to begin pitching Republicans on Capitol Hill on a $1 trillion stimulus plan, which would include $250 billion in checks directly to millions of Americans.

“We want to go big, go solid,” Trump said, appearing next to Mnuchin in the White House briefing room.

Trump also began trying to rewrite history. After long downplaying the virus, he suddenly claimed that he had “always known this is a real – this is a pandemic.”

“I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” Trump said, publicly contradicting weeks of his own behavior.

Wednesday, March 18


Declaring himself a “wartime president,” Trump said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturing of medical supplies – “just in case we need it.” For critics, the move came too late.

“People are struggling right now,” former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said at the time. “They’re running out of masks and gowns and gloves, right now.”

But Trump was still sunny at a briefing. “We’re winning it,” he said. “We will win. … It’s going to go quickly.”

Thursday, March 19

Trump doubled down on blaming China for the virus at a briefing the next day. A Washington Post photographer caught a glimpse of his notes – the word “corona” crossed out and replaced with “Chinese” in thick black pen. Months later, at a conference for young conservatives, Trump would get massive cheers for embracing the phrase “kung flu.”

But the headlines this Thursday were focused on a new controversy: Trump’s optimism that an antimalarial drug called hydroxychloroquine could prove effective against COVID-19. Federal health officials said it needed more study as a potential treatment, and a high-quality trial eventually found it was no better than a placebo.


But Trump was effusive and said it could be a “game-changer.”

Friday, March 20

With U.S. cases ballooning to 14,000 and shutdowns mounting – California had just issued a stay-at-home order for its 40 million residents – an NBC News reporter asked the president for his message to “Americans who are watching you right now who are scared.”

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say,” Trump retorted from the briefing room podium. “I think it’s a very nasty question.”

Americans were looking for “answers” and “hope,” he said, and the media was giving them “sensationalism.”

He called on the next reporter – “I want to get back to the science and the logistics here” – but he couldn’t help interrupting to take one more shot at the first reporter: “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”


Saturday, March 21

By the end of the week, cases had topped 20,000 in the United States and 300,000 worldwide. U.S. deaths had passed 300, and congressional leaders were preparing to meet about the economic rescue plan.

Some in the media began to question the value of streaming Trump’s coronavirus briefings live.

“There is a very real possibility that in broadcasting these press conferences live or in quickly publishing and blasting out his words in mobile alerts, we are actively misinforming our audience,” said Alex Koppelman, the managing editor of CNN Business.

At the daily briefing, then-White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked about a Trump tweet touting the promise of hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic “taken together” and declaring that the FDA had “moved mountains.”

“I’m not totally sure what the president was referring to,” Fauci responded.

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