Analyzing the Patterns in Trump’s Falsehoods About Coronavirus
Hours after the United States became the nation with the largest number of reported coronavirus cases on Thursday, President Trump appeared on Fox News and expressed doubt about shortages of medical supplies, boasted about the country’s testing capacity, and criticized his predecessor’s response to an earlier outbreak of a different disease.
“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” he said, alluding to a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. The president made the statement in spite of government reports predicting shortages in a severe pandemic — and he reversed course on Friday morning, calling for urgent steps to produce more ventilators.
Speaking on Fox on Thursday, Mr. Trump suggested wrongly that because of his early travel restrictions on China, “a lot of the people decided to go to Italy instead” — though Italy had issued a more wide-ranging ban on travel from China and done so earlier than the United States. And at a White House briefing on Friday, he wrongly said he was the “first one” to impose restrictions on China. North Korea, for one, imposed restrictions 10 days before the United States.
He misleadingly claimed again on Friday that “we’ve tested now more than anybody.” In terms of raw numbers, the United States has tested more people for the coronavirus than Italy and South Korea but still lags behind in tests per capita.
And he continued to falsely claim that the Obama administration “acted very, very late” during the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 and 2010.
These falsehoods, like dozens of others from the president since January, demonstrate some core tenets of how Mr. Trump has tried to spin his response to the coronavirus epidemic to his advantage. Here’s an overview.
Playing down the severity of the pandemic
When the first case of the virus was reported in the United States in January, Mr. Trump dismissed it as “one person coming in from China.” He said the situation was “under control” and “it’s going to be just fine” — despite a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention telling the public to “expect more cases.”
No matter how much the count of cases has grown, Mr. Trump has characterized it as low.
“We have very little problem in this country” with five cases, he said in late January.
He maintained the same dismissive tone on March 5, as the number of cases had grown by a factor of 25. “Only 129 cases,” he wrote on Twitter.
A day later, he falsely claimed that this was “lower than just about” any other country. (A number of developed countries like Australia, Britain and Canada as well as populous India had fewer reported cases at that point.)
By March 12, when the tally had again increased tenfold to over 1,200, the president argued that too was “very few cases” compared to other countries.
He has also misleadingly suggested numerous times that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, saying on Friday, “You call it germ, you can call it a flu. You can call it a virus. You can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody knows what it is.”
The mortality rate for coronavirus, however, is 10 times that of the flu and no vaccine or cure exists yet for the coronavirus.
In conflating the flu and the coronavirus, Mr. Trump repeatedly emphasized the annual number of deaths from the flu, and occasionally inflated his estimates. When he first made the comparison in February, he talked of flu deaths from “25,000 to 69,000.” In March, he cited a figure “as high as 100,000” in 1990.
The actual figure for the 1990 flu season was 33,000, and in the past decade, the flu has killed an estimated 12,000 to 61,000 thousand people each flu season in the United States. That’s so far higher than the death count for the virus in the United States, but below projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimated that deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million. As of Friday evening, more than 1,200 deaths in the United States have been linked to the coronavirus.
On the flip side, Mr. Trump inflated the mortality and infection rates of other deadly diseases as if to emphasize that the coronavirus pales in comparison. “The level of death with Ebola,” according to Mr. Trump, “was a virtual 100 percent.” (The average fatality rate is around 50 percent.) During the 1918 flu pandemic, “you had a 50/50 chance or very close of dying,” he said on Tuesday. (Estimates for the fatality rate for the 1918 flu are far below that.)
This week, as cities and states began locking down, stock markets tumbled and jobless claims hit record levels, Mr. Trump again played down the impact of the pandemic and said, with no evidence and contrary to available research, that a recession would be deadlier than the coronavirus.
Overstating potential treatments and policies
The president has also dispensed a steady stream of optimism when discussing countermeasures against the virus.
From later February to early March, Mr. Trump repeatedly promised that a vaccine would be available “relatively soon” despite being told by public health officials and pharmaceutical executives that the process would take 12 to 18 months. Later, he promoted treatments that were still unproven against the virus, and suggested that they were “approved” and available though they were not.
Outside of medical interventions, Mr. Trump has exaggerated his own policies and the contributions of the private sector in fighting the outbreak. For example, he imprecisely described a website developed by a company affiliated with Google, wrongly said that insurers were covering the cost of treatment for Covid-19 when they only agreed to waive co-payments for testing, and prematurely declared that automakers were making ventilators “right now.”
Often, he has touted his complete “shut down” or “closing” of the United States to visitors from affected countries (in some cases leading to confusion and chaos). But the restrictions he has imposed on travel from China, Iran and 26 countries in Europe do not amount to a ban or closure of the borders. Those restrictions do not apply to American citizens, permanent residents, their immediate families, or flight crews.
Not only were these restrictions total and absolute in Mr. Trump’s telling, they were also imposed on China “against the advice of a lot of professionals, and we turned out to be right.” His health and human services secretary, however, has previously said that the restrictions were imposed on the recommendations of career health officials. The Times has also reported that Mr. Trump was skeptical before deciding to back the restrictions at the urging of some aides.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent test kits to states in February, some of which were flawed and produced inconclusive readings. Problems continued to grow as scientists and state officials warned about restrictions on who could be tested and the availability of tests overall. Facing criticism over testing and medical supplies, Mr. Trump instead shifted responsibility to a variety of others.
It was the Obama administration that “made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing,” he said on March 4. This was a misleading reference to draft guidance issued in 2014 on regulating laboratory-developed tests, one that was never finalized or enforceable. A law enacted in 2004 created the process and requirements for receiving authorization to use unapproved testing products in health emergencies.
The test distributed by the World Health Organization was never offered to the United States and was “a bad test,” according to Mr. Trump. It’s true that the United States typically designs and manufactures its own diagnostics, but there is no evidence that the W.H.O. test was unreliable.
As for the shortage of ventilators cited by Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Trump has misleadingly said that the governor declined to address the issue in 2015 when he “had the chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price and he turned it down.”
A 2015 report establishing New York’s guidelines on ventilator allocation estimated that, in the event of a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu, the state would “likely have a shortfall of 15,783 ventilators during peak demand.” But the report did not actually recommend increasing the stockpile and noted that purchasing more was not a cure-all solution as there would not be enough trained health care workers to operate them.
Since the severity of the pandemic became apparent, the president has defended his earlier claims through false statements and revisionism.
He has denied saying things he said. Pressed on Tuesday about his pronouncements in March that testing was “perfect,” Mr. Trump said he had been simply referring to the conversation he had in July with the president of Ukraine that ultimately led to the House impeaching him. In fact, he had said “the tests are all perfect” like the phone call.
He has compared his government’s response to the current coronavirus pandemic (“one of the best”) favorably to the Obama administration’s response to the H1N1 epidemic of 2009 to 2010 (“a full scale disaster”). In doing so, Mr. Trump has falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama did not declare the epidemic an emergency until thousands had died (a public health emergency was declared days before the first reported death in the United States) and falsely said the previous administration “didn’t do testing” (they did).
At times, Mr. Trump has marveled at the scale of the pandemic, arguing that “nobody would ever believe a thing like that’s possible” and that it “snuck up on us.”
There have been a number of warnings about both a generic worldwide pandemic and the coronavirus specifically. A 2019 government report said that “the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large scale outbreak of a contagious disease.” A simulation conducted last year by the Department of Health and Human Services modeled an outbreak of a rapidly spreading virus. And top government officials began sounding the alarms about the coronavirus in early January.
Despite his history of false and misleading remarks, Mr. Trump has also asserted, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”