President Donald Trump tried Tuesday to cast himself as the wise leader who rejected the advice of a “group” of people who had portrayed the coronavirus as a mere flu and had argued that life should go on as normal.
He did not mention that he had been the most powerful member of that group.
Trump’s marathon coronavirus press conference included the usual barrage of specific false claims. But it was more notable for the dishonesty of the broad story he was telling – an audacious attempt to erase the memory of his relentless efforts to suggest the coronavirus was not a crisis.
Trump spoke frankly on Tuesday about projections that suggest 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the virus even if people follow federal guidelines meant to slow its spread. But he also made a claim that he prevented a much higher death toll, as high as 2.2 million, by taking the virus much more seriously than some other intelligent people.
“Think of what would have happened if we didn’t do anything. I mean, I’ve had many friends – businesspeople – people with great, actually, common sense, they said, ‘Why don’t we ride it out?’ A lot of people have said – a lot of people have thought about it. ‘Ride it out. Don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.’ But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious,” he said.
Trump himself repeatedly told Americans in February and early March to think of the coronavirus as the flu.
At the coronavirus briefing on February 26, for example, Trump said all of the following: “This is a flu. This is like a flu”; “Now, you treat this like a flu”; “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.”
Just four days ago, on March 27, he said that you can call the coronavirus “a flu,” or a virus or a germ.
Trump never used the phrase “ride it out” in downplaying the coronavirus – but he had expressed precisely the same sentiment. As recently as the second week of March, Trump was an advocate of facing the virus without taking drastic measures to address it.
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths,” he tweeted on March 9. “Think about that!” CNN’s tally on March 9 was 565 confirmed cases.
Asked Tuesday about the period when he was downplaying the coronavirus, Trump said that, during that time, “people didn’t know that much about it, even the experts.”
Though there is still more to learn about the virus, Trump’s minimization efforts continued into late February and early March – when it was abundantly clear to experts inside and outside the government, and millions of laypeople, that the virus was much worse than the flu and that the US was likely to face a severe problem.
Trump also accused New York on Tuesday of getting off to a “very late start” in fighting the virus – implicitly contrasting New York’s leaders with himself. While leaders of both New York City and the state can be criticized for not acting sooner on the coronavirus, Trump himself did not even do the rhetorical minimum in January and February by urging political leaders or individual Americans to treat the virus as a major threat – much less by urging them to take real action. And, critically, his administration was slow to take early action that experts say could have made a real difference in containing the virus before it spread nationally, such as deploying a large quantity of test kits.
Here are a few fact checks of claims that Trump made during Tuesday’s briefing:
Trump on Tuesday again touted anti-malaria drugs as a potentially effective treatment for coronavirus, and extolled their safety, despite the lack of scientific studies on the matter.
“It’s been out there for a long time,” Trump said of the drug chloroquine and a related drug, hydroxychloroquine. “Very powerful drug. But it’s been out there, so it’s tested in the sense that you know it doesn’t kill you.”
Facts First: Trump is right that the drugs have been available for a while, but he’s wrong to imply that they’ve been proven safe for Covid-19 patients. Public health officials have said testing is still needed, and trials are underway.
Over the weekend, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for doctors to use the drugs in hospitals for a limited set of Covid-19 cases. Some physicians had already been using the malaria drugs off-label to treat coronavirus patients.
The drugs have been used to safely prevent and treat malaria, and for lupus and other conditions. But there isn’t scientific data proving that they’re safe for coronavirus patients. There’s no evidence to back up Trump’s assertion that it’s already known that Covid-19 patients won’t die from the treatment. The drug can lead to cardiac side effects, including an irregular heartbeat, which can be especially dangerous for patients with Covid-19, doctors say.
Early tests are underway now in New York, the hardest hit area in the United States with more than 75,000 cases.
This isn’t the first time Trump has made this comment. His messaging on the drugs have been far more optimistic than the messaging from the public health officials that have attended the daily White House briefings.
“We stopped all of Europe,” Trump said of travel restrictions his administration passed to slow the spread of coronavirus. He later claimed he stopped travel from Italy before imposing broader European travel restrictions.
“We started with certain parts of Italy, and then all of Italy,” Trump said. “Then we saw Spain. Then I said, stop Europe, let’s stop Europe. We have to stop them from coming here.”
Facts First: Trump did not issue a series of travel bans before restricting broader travel from Europe. Furthermore, the travel restrictions Trump did announce in a prime-time Oval Office address on March 11 did not apply to all European countries and contained multiple exemptions.
The State Department issued advisories (not bans) in February against travel to specific Italian regions that were hardest hit by the coronavirus, but the Trump administration only issued a “reconsider travel” advisory for the rest of Italy and did not issue a specific ban against travel from Spain or Italy as a whole before imposing restrictions against travel from Europe overall.
The broader European travel suspension applied to the 26 countries in the Schengen Area, a European zone in which people can move freely across internal borders without being subjected to border checks. While Trump initially identified the United Kingdom as exempt, additional countries that are not in the Schengen Area and thus also exempt from the restrictions include Ireland, Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Armenia, Montenegro, Belarus and Russia. As of March 14, the ban was expanded to include foreign nationals traveling from UK and Ireland.
The restrictions also did not apply to US citizens returning from Europe as well as permanent US residents and certain family members of both citizens and permanent residents.
You can read more about the European travel restrictions here.
Trump says it was unknown how contagious coronavirus was
During the presser, Trump claimed that it was unknown early on how contagious the coronavirus was. “The one thing nobody really knew about this virus was how contagious it was,” he said. “It’s so incredibly contagious and nobody knew that.”
Facts First: It’s misleading to suggest that nobody knew how contagious the coronavirus was. While it’s unclear what time frame Trump was referencing, since late January and February researchers and health experts were warning the virus was likely highly contagious.
On January 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voiced concerns about the lack of information and data coming from China, specifically regarding how contagious the virus was.
On January 26, China’s health minister warned that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms, making the virus much harder to contain. A veteran adviser for a US health agency told CNN this bit of information was a “game changer.”
“When I heard this, I thought, ‘Oh dear, this is worse than we anticipated.’ It means the infection is much more contagious than we originally thought,” Dr. William Schaffner, a longtime adviser to the CDC, said at the time.
A day later the CDC said there was not yet clear evidence that the coronavirus could be transmitted by those who lacked symptoms, but it was a possibility health officials were investigating.
On January 28, Tom Frieden, a former director at the CDC, told Bloomberg News that it was “very clear that this is a serious epidemic” noting that the virus was more contagious than SARS. “So the possibilities here go from the bad, to the very, very bad,” Frieden said.
The first case of person-to-person transmission in US was reported on January 30.
On February 7, a study was published in the medical journal JAMA, which found that found that 41% of the first 138 patients diagnosed at one hospital in Wuhan, China, were presumed to be infected in that hospital. The study’s results indicated that the virus was very infectious. Some researchers were warning of the contagious nature of the virus earlier in February as well.
Days later, on February 12 Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases warned that the US “should be prepared for this new virus to gain a foothold” in the country and that “at some point we are likely to see community spread in the US or other countries.”
By February 19, the Chinese CDC, in a study of more than 72,000 confirmed and suspected cases of the novel coronavirus, found that the virus was more contagious than the related viruses that cause SARS and MERS.
As late as March 9, however, Trump was downplaying the threat of the virus in the US, noting that the flu kills thousands of Americans each year and that there were only 565 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US at the time.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the time reference to the President likening coronavirus to the flu. He began to do so in February and continued into early March.