On the last day of 2019, a year so filled with news of Jeffrey Epstein, raging wildfires scorching the Amazon basin and the third presidential impeachment in United States history that most were ready to shake the dust off for a fresh start, the World Health Organization reported new, mysterious cases of pneumonia discovered in China’s Wuhan City.
The rapid spread of what turned out to be the novel coronavirus COVID-19 led to a generation-defining pandemic that devastated families, crippled economies and caught world leaders by surprise. It dominated news cycles all year as governments and institutions worldwide struggled to contain a virus that touched all lives without exception.
In the United States, the pandemic further exacerbated political and class divides during a contentious presidential election year and a summer roiled by protests over the continued deaths of unarmed Black Americans.
While news of a mysterious new illness simmered in China, the United States was dealing with its first foreign policy headache of the year: escalating tensions with Iran. President Donald Trump had pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reinstated sanctions on the country and its oil trading partners, before ordering a strike that killed Iran’s top general, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in an airstrike near Baghdad’s airport on Jan. 2.
The political strain between both countries would continue, with Iran firing missiles at U.S. forces stationed in Iraq a week after the strike, and the U.S. imposing new sanctions against Iranian banks in October.
Elsewhere, the United Kingdom formally left the European Union in a messy divorce dubbed “Brexit.”
Domestically, the Senate opened an impeachment trial against Trump – the third ever in United States history. The president stood accused of abusing his presidential power by allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Trump's political rival, and of obstructing justice during an investigation of his dealings with Ukraine. The Democratic Party continued to sift through its pool of presidential candidates, hosting its first debate of 2020 between former Vice President Joe Biden, billionaire Tom Steyer, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).
The sudden death of NBA great Kobe Bryant along with his teenage daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in California led to an outpouring of national grief that lasted weeks before culminating in a public memorial for the Los Angeles Lakers legend on Feb. 25. Murals of Bryant, painted by dedicated fans, covered walls and basketball courts from Los Angeles to Manila. Thousands of mourners swarmed the Staples Center in Los Angeles, forming crowds that would be unimaginable months later. In cities across the U.S., landmarks were lit in the Lakers' gold and purple in his honor.
Meanwhile, the new illness had spread from its epicenter in Wuhan, leading to the first confirmed case in the United States on Jan. 20. By the end of January, China had reported 500 infections and 17 deaths.
February would become the eye of the hurricane known as 2020, a time of relative calm following a whiplash January and right before the coronavirus made itself known stateside in March.
President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial ended with an expected acquittal by the Republican-dominant Senate on Feb. 6, freeing him to work on his reelection campaign.
The bulk of the month’s focus remained on the political front with the first primaries of the election season. Iowa’s status as the first state to cast primary votes for presidential nominees came under scrutiny after results became "indefinitely delayed" due to an app malfunction. Democratic hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden led in delegates for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Meanwhile, the incumbent Trump captured all but one delegate in the first three Republican primaries, with one going to his GOP challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.
On the entertainment front, South Korean production “Parasite” made history as the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Director Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy flick swept five other Oscar categories: Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.
On Feb. 23, a 25-year-old Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was on his daily jog when he was gunned down by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia.
On Feb. 28, the United States reported its first coronavirus-related death.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders became the frontrunners for the Democratic party nomination for the Oval Office after capturing the majority of the delegates available during the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries. The former vice president and the progressive senator from Vermont would continue to sweep up the lion’s share of delegates for Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Washington, Arizona and Florida during the second week of primaries.
But election news would soon be sidelined as the novel coronavirus, officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, made itself known stateside.
There were 30 recorded cases of the coronavirus across seven states on March 1. The first hundred cases were recorded on March 4. By March 15, all states but West Virginia had recorded cases of the virus, with outbreaks in Washington state and New York pushing the case count close to 3,000 and thousands more in preventative quarantine. Election officials shuttered or postponed in-person voting for state elections as the virus made its way into every corner of the U.S.
Puerto Rico became the first in the United States to initiate a curfew and the shuttering of nonessential businesses as a containment measure for the virus on March 15. Hard-hit California and New York enacted stay-at-home orders on March 19 and March 22, with the latter restricting public operation for all non-essential businesses.
Cases in the United States surpassed China by March 28, with 120,123 cases to Italy’s 92,472 and China’s 81,999.
On March 13, in Louisville, Kentucky, a 26-year-old Black EMT worker named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police officers as she slept in her home. Daniel Prude, 41, died on March 30 after he was restrained by Rochester police during a mental health call.
By early April, all but five states had stay-at-home orders in place: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas. On April 2, the number of positive cases worldwide hit one million for the first time. Within a span of two weeks, that figure would double to two million cases. Easter became the first major holiday in the United States spent either at a distance or online, with some churches going as far as to live-stream their services.
The strain of stay-at-home directives started to show in cities like Lansing, Michigan, with the first reports of people gathering to protest against the shutdowns emerging. A lack of travel caused oil prices to plummet to historic lows, dropping by 300 percent. Over 20 million jobs were lost in April alone – a devastating side effect of shuttered businesses and stay-at-home orders that kept travel to a standstill.
As residents grew tired of social isolation and economic uncertainty, states started to ease stay-at-home orders with social distancing mandates two months after the first stay-at-home orders were enacted. Governors signed orders to reopen county-by-county and zone-by-zone, easing people back into public space with outdoor dining initiatives and limited patron counts in stores even as cases continued to rise in states like Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina. And for the first time since the pandemic, the COVID-19 death toll within the United States topped 100,000 people.
Moderna became the first vaccine developer to show positive results in their early-stage trials, with all 45 participants showing antibodies after receiving a dose of the potential vaccine.
In Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota, outrage over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor grew with the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis. Footage captured by bystanders showed Floyd on the ground, the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed against his neck, in a scene that invoked memories of Eric Garner’s death in 2014.
The days of protest that followed, sparked by more deaths of unarmed Black Americans at the hands of bystanders or police, would be marked by further violence against protestors, counter protestors, police officers and members of the media. Trump threatened to send the National Guard to Minneapolis, calling protestors “thugs” in one of his first tweets that Twitter chose to flag for violence.
On May 29, as the coronavirus continued to infect Americans, Trump terminated the United States’ relationship with the World Health Organization.
As protests ramped up into June, a fence erected around the White House became, instead, the backdrop for protest art against police brutality.
In Buffalo, New York, a clash between protesters and police became a mark of escalating violence during protests after police were seen on footage shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground, causing him to hit his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. Mass protests continued elsewhere in cities around the United States.
Trump came under further criticism from Democrats and some Republican Senators when he had police clear a park of protesters by using smoke canisters and pepper balls. The scene, captured by photojournalists, would end with Trump holding a Bible aloft in front of the cleared St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy came under fire for changes that caused the USPS to slow delivery. Mailboxes and sorting machines had been removed under DeJoy’s order as he also reduced hours, restricted overtime and closed mail processing facilities.
On the judicial side, the U.S. Supreme Court re-enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LQBTQ+ workers, in a 6-3 ruling considered a major victory for gay rights advocates. Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority decision, writing that "Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids," in cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation or against transgender workers.
Interest in the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein revived in early July with the arrest of his longtime confidante and girlfriend, socialite Ghislane Maxwell. Maxwell, who was arrested by FBI at a “reclusive” Bradford, New Hampshire, home, was accused of conspiring with Epstein to groom and sexually abuse young girls for decades.
In California, the body of “Glee” actor Naya Rivera would be found after several days of searching. Rivera had gone on a boat ride with her 4-year-old son at Lake Piru in Ventura County when she drowned during a swim.
Trump ally Roger Stone, meanwhile, had his sentence commuted by the president days before he was to report to prison for 40 months. Stone was sentenced in February to serve jail time for obstructing a House investigation into allegations of the Trump team colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
August opened with news of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s surprise pick for vice president. Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris of California for his ticket despite the two’s contentious volleys during the debates, in which Harris criticized Biden’s record on race related issues and his former opposition to busing. Harris will be the nation’s first woman Vice President, as well as the first Black Vice President and first Vice President of South Asian descent.
Concerns for the USPS rose sharply in August as DeJoy enacted cost-cutting measures and after Trump threatened to withhold funding for the agency to hobble mail-in voting in the months leading up to Election Day. DeJoy had decommissioned close to 700 letter-sorting machines at USPS facilities, sparking fear of a slowdown that would impact mail-in ballots during the pandemic.
Former Trump campaign executive and White House strategist Steve Bannon became the latest Trump associate to be indicted. He was one of four to be accused of defrauding donors of the “We Build the Wall” campaign out of millions of dollars, after investigators found that money from the campaign was spent for personal use among fund founders.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back during a domestic incident call, leaving him paralyzed. News of the shooting spread fast: Protesters had gathered in the area by evening, with some marchers burning cars and smashing storefronts as they clashed with riot police. Days of unrest followed Blake’s shooting, prompting the city to enact 8 p.m. curfews. During the protests, 17-year-old counterprotestor Kyle Rittenhouse fired into a crowd, killing two protestors and wounding one other in an act that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers called “a senseless tragedy.”
Less than a week after protests erupted in Kenosha, 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee was shot and killed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, while records of Daniel Prude’s death were released to the public. Prude was seen in body-cam footage naked, his head pinned to the ground and covered with a spit hood before he stopped moving.
The newly released footage of Prude’s death, along with national outrage stoked to a crescendo over the deaths of Arbery Ahmaud, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Dijon Kizzee, prompted the chief and deputy chief of the Rochester police department to retire.
As the weeks counted down to Election Day, Trump made headlines for his suggestion to North Carolina voters to “vote twice”: once by mail, once in-person. The suggestion from a sitting president for voters to cast their ballots twice was Trump’s latest attempt to cast doubt on mail-in ballots as more Americans consider the option to comply with social distancing directives. Voting twice in the same election is illegal.
Journalist Bob Woodward, famed for his work on President Richard Nixon’s “Watergate” scandal, stirred up some controversy of his own with the announcement of a new book on Trump that had quoted the president admitting that the coronavirus was contagious and “deadly” in February, even as he spent most of his presidency downplaying it. Woodward defended himself against allegations of seeking personal notoriety rather than serving the public with what he knew, saying that he had to fact-check and build context around the information.
As Trump dealt with the fallout from North Carolina and Woodward’s allegations, the New York Times released their own Trump bombshell: 20 years of the President’s tax returns. The documents revealed numerous business failures, personal debt of up to $420 million and the shocking fact that Trump, a self-alleged billionaire, had only paid $750 annually in federal income taxes for the first few years of his presidency.
But the president made his own political gains. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cleared his path for a third Trump-appointed justice: Amy Coney Barrett.
The White House spent the first days of October in the midst of their own personal COVID-19 outbreak, as Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron tested positive for the coronavirus. The virus had spread among members of Trump’s orbit as well: Hope Hicks, who had returned to the Trump administration in March; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah); White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany; adviser Stephen Miller and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway were a handful of COVID positive people who had come into contact with Trump in the days before he was sickened.
Trump was hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center for the weekend and put on an experimental drug to treat his fever and fatigue. His stay at the hospital was marked by conflicting information provided by his physician, Dr. Sean Conley, over Trump’s health and treatment. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had,” he said.
Trump’s brief motorcade out to visit supporters as he was still infected and contagious also came under scrutiny by other Walter Reed physicians, one of whom called the move “insanity.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who had tested negative with his wife Karen Pence, appeared for his first and only debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. The debate was a marked difference from Trump and Biden’s contentious first debate, with both candidates interrupting each other and a frustrated Joe Biden snapping at Trump in a moment that defined the night’s chaos, “Would you just shut up, man?”
USPS performance continued to slip going into October, plagued by cuts and closures made by DeJoy. Letters sent by NBC journalists in an ad hoc test of the mail system found that nearly a third of the 809 letters sent arrive to its destination late by the USPS’ own standards. On October 14, the USPS agreed to reverse changes made that slowed mail deliveries, as well as to prioritize election ballots.
Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed and sworn in to the Supreme Court on Oct. 26 despite deep opposition from Democrats, making her the third of Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court after Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
The frenzied two-year campaign for the White House and the balance of Congress came to a close in early November as voters from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia racked up the electoral vote count for Biden to 306, making him the presumptive President-elect.
Democrats retained control of the House with 224 seats to the GOP’s 211, as the future of the Senate remains up in the air: Two seats in Georgia are up for grabs in a pair of runoff elections that could swing control of the Senate to either party.
Trump, in a bid to overturn election results, launched over 50 lawsuits in key battleground states, most of which were thrown out or withdrawn. The Trump administration also blocked transition proceedings to Biden’s camp, with a Trump GSA appointee refusing to hand over office space, security clearances and classified information, or to work with the Biden team on coronavirus vaccine development or plans for distribution.
As the White House and the Biden transition team worked on pandemic plans at odds, coronavirus cases once again spiked dramatically stateside. Daily case counts surged over 100,000 for eight days in a row. Daily death tolls rose to over 2,000 people, a figure not seen since May. Worryingly, the plans of millions of Americans to travel during Thanksgiving break caused Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. figurehead of the pandemic, to predict a Christmas-time surge.
The Trump administration eventually lifted the transition blockage against Biden’s team, but the two teams continue to work separately on vaccine development and distribution plans. They even held competing coronavirus-related events during the same day, with Trump hosting a vaccine summit at the White House that Biden was not invited to.
The surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths rose higher than in November: daily cases of COVID-positive patients regularly topped 200,000 as daily deaths stayed within the thousands.
But even as governors and mayors flirt with a second shutdown to mitigate spread, a turning point for the virus appeared: The first COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the FDA for emergency use on Dec. 11, with shipments of the vaccine sent out over the weekend. Medical professionals and first responders became the first in the United States to receive the vaccination that Monday.