How President Donald Trump got to Election Day in a turbulent 2020

Key Points
  • For President Donald Trump, the year leading to Election Day was even more turbulent than the first three years of his tenure.
  • The year 2020 was packed with an impeachment trial, racial unrest and a killer microbe that claimed more than 225,000 American lives, crushed the economy, and sickened him, his wife and son and many White House aides.
President Donald Trump arrives at Southwest Florida International Airport ahead of a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

For President Donald Trump, the year leading to Election Day was even more turbulent than the first three years of his tenure: an impeachment trial, racial unrest that unsettled an already tense nation, and a killer microbe that claimed more than 225,000 lives in the U.S. and crushed the economy.

In a stunning post-midnight tweet 32 days before the election, the 74-year-old Trump announced that he, too, had become infected with the coronavirus, as did first lady Melania Trump. "We will get through this TOGETHER!" he said.

Just two days earlier, Trump had faced off against Democrat Joe Biden in the first presidential debate of the campaign. Both men, maskless, stood at lecterns more than 6 feet apart during the verbal brawl, in which Trump ridiculed the 77-year-old former vice president for wearing "the biggest mask I have ever seen."

How October surprises took an outsized role in presidential elections

Trump survived the infection and came back to argue his case for reelection, debating Biden a second time and traveling to battleground states around the country to rally supporters despite a surge in Covid-19 cases.

For a profile of Democrat Joe Biden, see: How Joe Biden got to the threshold of the presidency

One week before the election, he prevailed in his appointment of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. It was Trump's third Supreme Court selection, the most for any first-term president since Richard Nixon, and it appeared to solidify the court's conservative majority — 6-3.

Impeached but not removed

Yes, the impeachment trial started only nine months ago, on Jan. 16.

Months after surviving special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the New York real estate baron and reality TV star who made an astonishing rise to the Oval Office found himself at the center of the impeachment probe.

President Donald Trump holds a copy of The Washington Post as he speaks in the East Room of the White House one day after the Senate acquitted him of two articles of impeachment, February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The inquiry focused on his request to Ukraine's newly elected president to investigate Biden's actions in that country and on a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election at the behest of Democrats.

Trump's July 25, 2019, phone call, in which he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to "do us a favor" and order a corruption probe of Biden and Biden's son Hunter, was made one day after Mueller finally broke his silence by testifying in Congress about his 22-month Russia probe. Trump's leverage was his balking on Zelenskiy's request for a face-to-face meeting and his withholding of nearly $400 million in congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine, which was fighting a war against Russian surrogates.

After a whistleblower brought the phone call to light, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approved the impeachment inquiry. Nearly three months later, the House voted along party lines on Dec. 18 to charge Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors, approving two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for stonewalling the House investigation.

With the Republicans' 53-47 control of the Senate, the impeachment trial had a predicable outcome. The only surprise of the Feb. 5 vote was that one Republican senator — Mitt Romney of Utah — broke ranks to vote to convict Trump on one count, abuse of power. All the other Republicans voted to acquit and all the Democrats voted to convict.

The plague

The acquittal came just as Trump was blindsided with an unprecedented challenge — the coronavirus.

Starting immediately with Trump's 2016 election as the nation's 45th president, stocks moved from record high to record high during his first three years in the White House. The market had extended its bull run to more than 10 years, and the economy continued its slow expansion with 50-year lows in the unemployment rate and little inflation.

President Donald Trump speaks while Dr. Anthony Fauci (L) and Vice President Mike Pence stand by during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 31, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

But in spring 2020, states began to lock down their economies in an effort to flatten the rise in coronavirus cases. The shutdowns led to the loss of tens of millions of jobs and wiped out the Trump market gains. Months later, equity indexes clawed their way back to record highs, then turned south in the week before the election. 

The mysterious infection emerged in Wuhan, China, on New Year's Eve. As the virus spread from China, Trump initially played down the risks. A day after the first U.S. case was announced on Jan. 21, CNBC's Joe Kernen asked Trump whether he was worried about it spreading to the United States. 

"No, not at all," Trump replied during the interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "And we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

Watch the full CNBC interview with US President Donald Trump from Davos

But in a briefing on Jan. 28, national security advisor Robert O'Brien warned Trump that "this will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency," according to journalist Bob Woodward's explosive book "Rage." 

Three days later, Trump barred most foreigners who had recently visited China from entering the U.S., but in early February, he still publicly theorized at a campaign rally that "by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away."

However, in a Feb. 7 interview with The Washington Post's Woodward, Trump admitted that he had knowingly played down the coronavirus threat. "You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump told Woodward. "And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu."

"This is deadly stuff," the president said in the phone interview.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told the author on March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

The recorded interviews weren't revealed until two months before the election.

As the number of U.S. cases and fatalities from Covid multiplied, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came under criticism for lagging behind other countries in testing people for the disease

The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11. Aside from the travel restrictions from China and later from other countries with infections, it wasn't until March 13 — seven weeks after the first U.S. case — that Trump declared a national emergency, making $50 billion in federal funds available to states and territories to fight the outbreak. On March 16, he advised citizens to avoid gathering in groups larger than 10, well short of stay-at-home directives by governors and lockdown orders by leaders of other countries.

In early April, he bashed the WHO, claiming it was a tool of China, and ordered a halt in funding for the United Nations agency pending a review, even though Congress already had appropriated the money. As governors began to talk about reopening their states, Trump claimed that only he could make such a decision. "When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total," he said.

He quickly backed away from that assertion, saying governors could decide but soon returned to Twitter in an apparent attempt to encourage supporters to take to the streets to press for reopening their states. "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

All three states happened to have Democratic governors, and six months later, 13 people were charged in a right-wing domestic terror plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government.

At one point, Trump suggested that injecting toxic disinfectants might be worth considering as a treatment, drawing consternation from toxicologists and public health specialists, including Dr. Deborah Birx, who was sitting near the president and appeared to cringe at his statement. (He later claimed he was being sarcastic.) And in May, he declared victory, saying "we have met the moment and we have prevailed," later qualifying his remarks that he was referring to tests, not the pandemic itself.

In the first four months of the pandemic, he refused to wear a mask in public, even during a visit in May to a Ford plant in Michigan, in violation of state law and company policy. (He claimed he was wearing one away from cameras.) He finally wore one in public during a July visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

President Donald Trump wears a mask as he visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland' on July 11, 2020.
Alex Edelman | Getty Images

He conducted indoor political rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June and Las Vegas in September, despite warnings that the virus was more likely to spread indoors than outside. A prominent supporter who attended the Tulsa rally, Herman Cain, died of Covid weeks later. On Oct. 1, the day that one of Trump's closest aides, Hope Hicks, found out she was infected, the president traveled from Washington to meet with GOP donors in a fundraiser at his country club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Hours later, he announced that he and the first lady tested positive for Covid. Their 14-year-old son, Barron, also was infected.

Several other White House officials also tested positive. It appeared that Trump's introduction of Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 became a super-spreading event and helped turned the White House into a coronavirus hot spot.

As U.S. fatalities broke 150,000 in late June, Trump was pressed by Axios' Jonathan Swan about the death toll. "They are dying, that's true. And you have — it is what it is," Trump replied. "But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague."

Three months later, the U.S. death toll broke 200,000 among more than 7 million cases, the highest number of infections in the world, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. And just nine days before the election and 25,000 more U.S. deaths, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows acknowledged on CNN: "We're not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations."

Trump himself had earlier encounters with coronavirus: At his Mar-a-Lago resort in March 2020, he stood next to a Brazilian official who later tested positive. Weeks later, his White House military valet, who served his food, also tested positive. Trump's tests were negative. 

President Donald Trump pulls off his face mask as he poses atop the Truman Balcony of the White House after returning from Walter Reed hospital for treatment of Covid-19, in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2020.
Erin Scott | Reuters

In May, Trump said he started to take a daily dose of hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against the virus. Without conclusive evidence, he had previously promoted the anti-malaria drug as a game changer. The Food and Drug Administration had warned that the medication could cause serious heart problems, and experts said its effectiveness against Covid was unproven.

After the president became infected, he was given an 8 gram dose of Regeneron's polyclonal antibody cocktail and had been taking zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and a daily aspirin, according to his physician, Dr. Sean Conley. Two days after he was hospitalized, he briefly left Walter Reed to wave to supporters outside while driving by in an SUV driven by Secret Service agents. The following day, he was discharged and flew back on Marine One to the White House, where he removed his mask and recorded a video. "Don't let [the virus] dominate you. Don't be afraid of it. ... Don't let it take over your lives," he urged Americans.

The protests

As monumental as it was, the pandemic and the economic meltdown it spawned weren't the only crises ahead of the election.

Just as the nation was emerging from a more than two-month lockdown, the videotaped death of an unarmed Black man, 46-year-old George Floyd, sparked widespread protests and the nation's worst racial disturbances since the Rodney King rioting 28 years earlier. Floyd died on Memorial Day while a White Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes.

Protests swept through dozens of cities, including Washington. During one demonstration at the White House gates, Trump briefly took shelter in a secret bunker under the Executive Mansion.

Rather than offer words of healing, Trump preached confrontation against the protesters, promising "the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons" and warning on Twitter that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Three days later, he castigated governors for what he perceived as weakness, saying: "When they have bricks ... you are allowed to fight back."

"If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden later that day. 

As Trump uttered those words, riot and military police outside the White House used tear gas to clear protesters out of Lafayette Square. Then, Trump and his top aides marched through the square to historic St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been damaged days earlier. He stood in front of the church's marquee board, held up a Bible and posed for photos. 

President Donald Trump holds up a Bible in front of St John's Episcopal Church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

A month later, he dispatched federal forces in Portland, Oregon, to block protesters at the U.S. Courthouse. The forces, using unmarked cars and wearing unidentified camouflage uniforms, were deployed despite opposition from the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon, both Democrats. While appearing at one demonstration, Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those tear-gassed. Trump threatened to deploy the troops in other cities with "liberal Democrats" as mayors: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California.

"We're sending law enforcement," Trump said. "We can't let this happen to the cities."

Amid the convergence of plague and protests, Trump went to war against the post office — specifically voting by mail. Some states had allowed voters to mail in their ballots for years, and election officials were looking for a safe way to avoid crowded polling places, where the virus could spread.

To Trump, mailed ballots risked "the greatest fraud in history." While making his attacks, he himself voted by mail in Florida's August 2020 primary, as he did in the state's presidential preference vote five months earlier. Then in early September, he suggested in North Carolina that voters cast ballots by mail and in person to test the system, even though multiple voting is a crime.

"So let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system's as good as they say it is, then obviously they won't be able to vote. If it isn't tabulated, they'll be able to vote," Trump said. 

Weeks later, Trump was asked if he would abide by a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to Biden.

"Well, we'll have to see what happens," he responded. "You know that. I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster. ... Get rid of the ballots, and you'll have a very — you'll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer, frankly, there'll be a continuation."

Stay tuned.