Over the course of a day, President Donald Trump appeared in a virtual Fox News Town Hall, in a Fox News interview and in the daily coronavirus task force briefing. During the hours before the camera, he mused about packed churches on Easter Sunday, seeking to jawbone the country back to work despite the advice of medical professionals who fear it may be too early to return to normalcy to halt the spread of the virus. Here’s a guide to 11 of Trump’s claims on March 24, most of which were false or misleading.
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“I had to make a decision: Do I stop people from China and specifically that area, but from China to come into the country? And everybody was against it. Almost everybody, I would say, was just absolutely against it. We’ve never done it before. We never made a decision like that … It was instinct.”
Trump’s recollection — that his “instinct” led him to take action over the advice of “everybody” — conflicts with reporting on the decisionmaking that led to the administration, effective Feb. 3, to bar foreigners (with many exemptions) from traveling to the United States from China. The New York Times reported that the plan was initially recommended by staff from the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Department, and they were soon joined by public health experts. Trump was reluctant at first when the idea was presented to him.
The Times reported:
“The debate moved that afternoon to the Oval Office, where Mr. [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar and others urged the president to approve the ban. ‘The situation has changed radically,’ Mr. Azar told Mr. Trump.
Others in the room urged being more cautious, arguing that a ban could have unforeseen consequences. ‘This is unprecedented,’ warned Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor. Mr. Trump was skeptical, though he would later claim that everyone around him had been against the idea. The two countries were in delicate trade negotiations. Was this the time to provoke China? he asked. And what about the consequences on the economy?”
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“I made a decision to close off to China. That was weeks early, and honestly, I took a lot of heat. Sleepy Joe Biden said, ‘It’s xenophobic.’ … He said it’s racist, what I did.”
Trump is seizing on a comment former Vice President Joe Biden made the day Trump announced the travel restrictions. But whether Biden was specifically speaking about Trump’s travel restrictions is open to debate.
“We have, right now, a crisis with the coronavirus, from China,” Biden said during an Iowa campaign appearance on Jan. 31, the same day Trump announced the restrictions. “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” Biden went on to criticize Trump for proposing cuts in global health programs and for folding a White House pandemic office into another unit. But he did not specifically mention the travel restrictions on China.
The travel restrictions were signaled shortly after noon on Jan. 31, after rumors that the Trump administration was considering halting flights. The travel restrictions were announced at 3:55 p.m. Biden took the stage about 15 minutes later.
The Biden campaign says Biden was not referring to the travel restrictions and notes that the former vice president’s remarks were similar to an opinion column he published in USA Today four days earlier. “I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic,” Biden wrote on Jan. 27, such as advocating “reactionary travel bans.” The comment included a link to this Trump tweet from 2014. (At the time, there were no direct flights from Ebola-affected areas to the United States.)
“Vice President Biden was stressing the enormity of the coronavirus threat and the urgent need for a comprehensive response strategy grounded in science and strong government coordination,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told The Fact Checker. “Meanwhile, Donald Trump was disregarding warnings from medical and intelligence experts about the virus. The Vice President has decried Trump’s xenophobia for years, and was saying that it shouldn’t influence the U.S. approach to this outbreak. This was not in reference to coronavirus travel restrictions. Travel restrictions, when supported by science, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy can be warranted. Travel restrictions can buy time; but here, the time they bought for preparation was squandered when Trump used it to downplay, rather than ready the country for, the disease.”
The Trump campaign referred to these tweets by Biden after Jan. 31 as implicit criticism of travel restrictions.
One said: “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fearmongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency.”
The other tweet said: “Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it. This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it.”
“Now that public health experts say President Trump’s decision saved lives, Joe Biden wants a do-over,” said Trump campaign spokesman Zack Parkinson. “But everyone saw him shamefully accuse President Trump of xenophobia the same day the President took action to protect the American people by restricting travel from China. No amount of spin can cover up the fact that Biden got it wrong and President Trump got it right when American lives were on the line.”
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“We had the best economy in the history of our country three weeks ago.”
This was one of Trump’s favorite lines — he said it more than 250 times, according to our database of Trump claims — but it was never true.
There are several metrics one could look at, but the pre-coronavirus economy always fell short, according to experts we consulted. The unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5 percent under Trump, but it was as low as 2.5 percent in 1953. Trump has never achieved an annual growth rate above 3 percent, but in 1997, 1998 and 1999, the gross domestic product grew 4.5 percent, 4.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. But even that period paled against the 1950s and 1960s. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4 percent to 6.6 percent. In 1950 and 1951, it was 8.7 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
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“We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off. I mean, every year. Now, when I heard the number, you know, we average 37,000 people a year. Can you believe that? And actually, this year, we’re having a bad flu season. But we lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off.”
Trump often makes this misleading comparison between the seasonal flu and COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The precise number of deaths from the flu is not known, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers estimates ranging over the past decade from a low of 12,000 in the 2011-2012 season to a high of 61,000 in the 2017-2018 season (though that is a preliminary estimate). The average would be about 37,000 a year.
But Trump misleadingly compares those numbers with known cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Tens of millions of people each year come down with the flu — possibly as many as 58 million in 2017-2018. The fatality rate in the United States from the seasonal flu is 0.1 percent. The new coronavirus appears to have a much higher fatality rate, though it varies by country, and not enough data has been collected to reach firm conclusions. (With 942 deaths and more than 65,000 confirmed cases in the United States as of Wednesday night, the fatality rate would be about 1.4 percent.)
Trump’s comparison is also misleading because vaccines have long been available for various permutations of the seasonal flu, but no vaccine has been developed yet for COVID-19. “While influenza vaccine varies in how well it works, every season influenza vaccines prevent millions of influenza illnesses, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths,” the CDC says.
COVID-19 generally hits patients much harder than the seasonal flu and appears to be more contagious.
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Bill Hemmer, Fox News: “A month ago, the CDC had an initial test that failed. At that moment, late February, you said it’s perfect and, and it wasn’t perfect. So what happened there in the early stages in late February?”
Trump: “Well, what I said, what I said is perfect was my conversation with the head of the Ukraine. That’s what I really said is perfect, OK? That was another whole scandal nonsense, a total, you know, witch hunt. But this one is a much different thing.”
The CDC began to distribute its own coronavirus test in early February, but many kits turned out to have flawed displays for negative results because of contaminated reagents.
When pressed on this issue by his Fox News interviewer, the president dissembled and falsely claimed he did not call the tests “perfect.”
Trump has long maintained he had a “perfect” conversation with Ukraine’s president in 2019, but the requests Trump made in that July 25 phone call — to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and investigate a kooky conspiracy theory — were roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans as inappropriate and were the subject of Trump’s impeachment.
There’s no doubt Trump called the tests “perfect” when he visited the CDC’s headquarters in February. “As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test — that’s the important thing — and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect,” he said. (It wasn’t a letter, it was a phone call.) “The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.”
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“We had other administrations, not just the last one, they built up a platform, they built up a test but the test was no good. It didn’t handle large numbers of people.”
The problem with the CDC test was not that it could not handle large numbers of people, but that it was flawed. The White House did not quickly pivot to a solution that would include private-sector companies, even though two former Trump administration officials had warned in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 28 that past experience showed the CDC could not handle the volume if this turned out to be a pandemic.
“If the number of cases increases, experience from the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the 2015 Zika epidemic suggests that the CDC will struggle to keep up with the volume of screening,” the article said. “Government should focus on working with private industry to develop easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic tests that can be made available to providers.”
The Trump administration did not invite private industry to produce tests until Feb. 29 — a month after the Department of Health and Human Services had declared a public health emergency.
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“And he [New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo] was talking about the ventilators, but he should’ve ordered the ventilators. And he had a choice. He had a chance, because right here — I just got this out, that he refused to order 15,000 ventilators … This says New York Governor Cuomo rejected buying recommended 16,000 ventilators in 2015 for the pandemic — for a pandemic, established death panels and the lotteries instead. So, he had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price and he turned it down.”
Trump was quoting from an article in Gateway Pundit, a right-leaning website, which in turn was borrowed from an opinion article in the New York Post by Betsy McCaughey, a New York Republican politician who was once married to Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
But it’s a false construct, especially how Trump framed it. McCaughey claims that New York, which has 2,000 ventilators, could have purchased 16,000 ventilators it needs in the current pandemic back in 2015, when a task force set out guidelines for allocating ventilators during a possible pandemic. But the task force report — an updating of a previous rules set in 2007 — made no recommendation for buying ventilators, let alone a number such as 16,000.
“New York State may have enough ventilators to meet the needs of patients in a moderately severe pandemic,” the report said. “In a severe public health emergency on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic, however, these ventilators would not be sufficient to meet the demand.” But the report noted that buying too many ventilators might be counterproductive: “Severe staffing shortages are anticipated, and purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be a sufficient number of trained staff to operate them.”
Trump appears to have invented whole cloth the notion that Cuomo could have bought the ventilators “at a very low price.” McCaughey estimated 16,000 ventilators would have cost $576 million, which she acknowledged was “a lot of money.”
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“We’ve done more testing than South Korea. Now, you’re not going to read that in the newspaper because they don’t like to write things like that. But I’d love you to say that one more time because that — that’s a big number. We’ve done more than South Korea in a short period of time. We’re doing more now than South Korea by a lot.”
This is an apples and oranges comparison, though one that Trump likes a lot because he also tweeted something similar the next day:
“Just reported that the United States has done far more ‘testing’ than any other nation, by far! In fact, over an eight day span, the United States now does more testing than what South Korea (which has been a very successful tester) does over an eight week span. Great job!”
South Korea and the United States both reported their first coronavirus case on the same day — Jan. 21. But South Korea acted quickly to begin testing citizens, tracing all possible contacts. The government urged medical companies to quickly produce tests, while opening 600 test centers and 50 drive-through testing centers. The result was that Korea immediately caught many cases and thus did not need to shut down vast segments of its economy.
In terms of raw number of tests, the United States has caught up and exceeded Korea, conducting about 320,000 tests over an eight-day period between March 15 and March 24, according to the website covidtracking.com. That’s not an official source — it is maintained by volunteers, using data from states — but it appears much more up to date than the numbers published by the CDC, which show fewer than 100,000 tests. South Korea, meanwhile, reported nearly 349,000 tests.
So Trump was wrong to claim in his tweet that the United States did more in eight days — the United States conducted fewer in eight days as of March 24. But as of that date, the U.S. total amounted to 359,000, so Trump could claim in the Fox town hall that the United States had conducted “more testing” than South Korea.
The larger point is this: South Korea, with about 51 million people, has less than one-sixth the U.S. population of 327 million people. That means South Korea tested 1 in 146 people, while the United States has only managed 1 in 911.
The United States would need to conduct six times more tests to be in the same league as South Korea.
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“Excuse me, just one second. You can’t compare this to 1918, where close to 100 million people died. That was a flu — it’s a little different — but that was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance or very close of dying. I think we’re substantially under 1 percent because the people that get better are not reporting.”
Trump appeared to be countermanding his coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, who had just said, “I think what’s really important is a lot of what we’ve done is tackled this epidemic the way people said we should’ve tackled flu in 1918.”
But his numbers don’t add up.
Estimates of the 1918 flu deaths vary widely — it was a century ago, and the data is not especially precise — but the 50 percent fatality rate Trump gave does not appear in any of the scientific literature.
The CDC estimated that 500 million people were infected and 50 million died worldwide from the 1918 pandemic, a fatality rate of 10 percent. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology estimated 17.4 million deaths globally and a mortality rate of 8 to 10 percent.
A 2002 report in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine estimated 50 million deaths but said that total could be “perhaps as much as 100 percent understated.” So, the 2002 study suggests a range between 50 million and 100 million deaths.
Other studies suggest the fatality rate was as low as 3 percent.
The U.S. death rate for coronavirus cases was above 1 percent, more than 10 times that of the seasonal flu, when Trump made these remarks. He suggested the actual death rate from COVID-19 is lower because “people that get better are not reporting,” but that assertion is not backed by scientific evidence or echoed by his task force experts.
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“The core element of this strategy is my executive order authorizing the use of the Defense Production Act, which has, as you know, already been activated, actually, a long time ago — quite a long time ago. Private companies are heeding our call to produce medical equipment and supplies because they know that we will not hesitate to invoke the DPA in order to get them to do what they have to do. It’s called leverage.”
The Trump administration has dithered and given mixed messages on whether it will use the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law designed for national emergencies that allows the president to force private industries to produce needed supplies.
Democrats and Republicans say Trump could fill a critical shortage of ventilators for COVID-19 patients and personal protective equipment for health-care workers by using the law to its full extent. Trump says it’s not necessary because private companies are stepping up voluntarily.
Trump signed an executive order authorizing Health Secretary Alex Azar to use the law’s powers to direct industries and allocate resources to places that need them. But Azar has not used the strongest provisions in the law.
The order was signed March 18, six days before these remarks. That’s hardly “quite a long time ago.”
FEMA Administrator Peter T. Gaynor announced Tuesday morning on CNN that the administration would be using the Defense Production Act for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak to commission 60,000 testing kits, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency backtracked later in the day and said it was able to get the kits without using the law.
Cuomo and others say Trump could also be using the law to allocate resources to the places that most need them. Currently, he says, states are competing and having to outbid one another to buy supplies on the market.
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“Today, as you probably saw, the Dow surged over 2,100 points. That’s the all-time record in history.”
Yes, but the Dow Jones industrial average was in free fall from Feb. 12 to March 23 as investors panicked over the coronavirus and an economic slowdown. The index fell a whopping 11,000 points in that period, or 37 percent. (In terms of percentage gain, March 24 ranks fourth, not first.)