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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Correcting Trump’s Press Conference Misinformation

President Donald Trump has been holding daily press conferences to provide the latest information about the coronavirus from the federal government, but his rhetoric has sometimes been imprecise, misleading or outright incorrect.

Here are three recent examples:

  • News reports suggest China may have known about and concealed emerging information in the weeks after the novel coronavirus was detected, but Trump exaggerated how long when he said, “I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem.”
  • Trump said, “We enacted legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers at no cost to employers.” He didn’t mention that nearly half the nation’s workforce — those who work for companies employing 500 or more people — isn’t covered by the bill.
  • He also said, “I don’t think I’ve ever said, ‘No,'” to providing funds for other countries to fight diseases. But Trump has proposed global health budget cuts, including for programs that aim to prevent or respond to infectious diseases worldwide.

These statements were made in press conferences on March 20, 21 and 22.

How Long Did China Conceal News?

News reports suggest China may have known about and concealed emerging information in the weeks after the novel coronavirus was detected. But Trump went too far when he said, “I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem.”

The symptoms from the first cases of the virus did not emerge until early December, at the earliest, and China alerted the World Health Organization of mysterious pneumonia cases on Dec. 31. By early January, at the latest, the U.S. government was aware of the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Trump’s right-hand man during the coronavirus crisis, said the president’s statement “doesn’t comport [with the facts], because 2 or 3 months earlier would have been September.”

But the president has since repeated the claim.

In a press conference on March 21, Trump was asked when he first learned that the new coronavirus was going to be a problem. Trump said it was right around the time he imposed travel restrictions on China, which were announced on Jan. 31 and went into effect two days later.

Trump, March 21: Well, you know, when I learned, I started doing the closings. So, you know, probably around that time. We didn’t learn much. I think you’re going to ask a little bit about China responsibility. I do think that — again, I have great respect for China. I like China. I think the people of China are incredible. I have a tremendous relationship with President Xi.

I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could have told us earlier about it because we could have come up with a solution.

Tony Fauci and all of the people — the talent that we have — would have loved to have had three or four months of additional time, if you knew that this was going to be happening. They didn’t have that time. They read about in the newspapers like everybody else. China was very secretive, okay? Very, very secretive. And that’s unfortunate. …

But I wish they were able to — I wish they would have told us earlier, Steve, that they were having a problem. Because they were having a big problem and they knew it, and I wish they could have given us an advanced warning. Because we could have done — we could have had a lot of things — as an example, some of the things that we’re talking about, where we order them as quickly as we can. If we had a two- or three-month difference in time, it would have been much better.

In an interview with Science magazine the following morning, Fauci said he told “the appropriate people” on the White House staff that Trump’s “three to four month” timeline was off.

Jon Cohen, Science magazine, March 22: What about the travel restrictions? Trump keeps saying that the travel ban for China, which began 2 February, had a big impact on slowing the spread of the virus to the United States and that he wishes China would have told us 3 to 4 months earlier and that they were “very secretive.” [China did not immediately reveal the discovery of a new coronavirus in late December 2019, but by 10 January, Chinese researchers made the sequence of the virus public.] It just doesn’t comport with facts.

Fauci: I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?

Cohen: Most everyone thinks that you’re doing a remarkable job, but you’re standing there as the representative of truth and facts, but things are being said that aren’t true and aren’t factual.

Fauci: The way it happened is that after he made that statement [suggesting China could have revealed the discovery of a new coronavirus 3 to 4 months earlier], I told the appropriate people, it doesn’t comport, because 2 or 3 months earlier would have been September. The next time they sit down with him and talk about what he’s going to say, they will say, ‘By the way, Mr. President, be careful about this and don’t say that.’ But I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.

It didn’t get corrected the next time.

In a press conference later that day, Trump repeated the claim, saying, “I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem.”

Trump, March 22:  I wish — again, our relationship with China is a very good relationship. I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem. We didn’t know about it. They knew about it and they should have told us. We could have saved a lot of lives throughout the world. If you look at what’s happening in Italy and Spain and a lot of other countries, we could have saved a lot of lives throughout the world.

So when did China know about the virus, and when did the U.S. find out? The answer to both questions is difficult to pinpoint. But let’s start with China.

According to the World Health Organization, symptoms from the first cluster of confirmed cases emerged between Dec. 8 and Jan. 2. A study on the novel coronavirus published in The Lancet reported, “The symptom onset date of the first patient identified was Dec 1, 2019.”

On Dec. 31, the Chinese informed the World Health Organization’s China office “of a pneumonia of unknown cause, detected in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China. According to the authorities, some patients were operating dealers or vendors in the Huanan Seafood market.”

The WHO says it then “began monitoring the situation and requested further information on the laboratory tests performed and the different diagnoses considered.”

On Feb. 1, the Washington Post, citing “official statements, leaked accounts from Chinese medical professionals, newly released scientific data and interviews with public health officials and infectious disease experts,” documented efforts by the Chinese government to tamp down information about the virus “during the critical period from mid-December to mid-January.”

According to the Post, “Medical professionals who tried to sound an alarm were seized by police. Key state media omitted mention of the outbreak for weeks. ”

By Jan. 11, the Chinese had shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus, which could then be used by other countries to develop diagnostic kits. Still, the Washington Post reported, “Key information about who got sick and when was not released publicly until weeks later, scientists and researchers said.”

Trump said he didn’t learn that the virus would be a problem until “probably around” the time when he imposed travel restrictions on China. Those were announced on Jan. 31. But the government had growing concerns about the virus weeks before that.

In a press conference on March 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the U.S. was alerted to the problems in China “by some discussions that Dr. [Robert] Redfield, the director of the CDC, had with Chinese colleagues on January 3rd. It’s since been known that there may have been cases in December, not that we were alerted in December.”

According to the Washington Post, “U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.” Those agencies warned that “Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.”

The WHO confirmed the first case outside of China on Jan. 13 in Thailand and confirmed three days later that the virus had spread to Japan. At around that time, the WHO warned that there could be a wider outbreak and recommended “all countries to continue preparedness activities.”

In a CNBC interview on Jan. 22, Trump said of the virus, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

On Jan. 24, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!

On Jan. 30, the WHO declared a global public health emergency, and Trump imposed travel restrictions a day later.

But even into late February, Trump continued to downplay the potential spread of the virus.

“So we’re at the low level. As they get better, we take them off the list, so that we’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck,” Trump said at a White House briefing on Feb. 26. “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

Asked about his Jan. 24 tweet praising China for its “efforts and transparency,” Trump on March 21 said his comments about China’s efforts were true.

“China has worked very hard,” Trump said, but he added that “they weren’t transparent.”

“They were transparent at that time, but when we saw what happened, they could have been transparent much earlier than they were,” Trump said. “I just wish they could have told us earlier. They knew they had a problem earlier. I wish they could have said that.”

Trump has a point about Chinese officials not being transparent with information about the new coronavirus. But suggesting China could have alerted the U.S. and the world three or four months earlier does not comport with the timeline of events.

The first cases were not identified until December. Although it is unclear when exactly China may have pegged the sickness to the novel coronavirus, it was a matter of weeks between when those first cases were discovered and when the world knew about the virus. Those were critical weeks, but they weren’t months.

Sick Leave Legislation

At a March 20 press conference at the White House, Trump said, “We enacted legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers at no cost to employers.” But the assistance isn’t available for everyone. The legislation providing the leave excludes larger companies employing nearly half of the nation’s workforce.

Under a coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump on March 18, workers are to receive paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave. But companies with 500 or more employees are not covered. In addition, the labor secretary can exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees and health care providers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48% of American workers are employed by companies with 500 or more employees.

The legislation provides workers with two weeks of paid leave if they are sick or quarantined or taking care of sick relatives. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to those taking care of children whose schools are closed or whose child care facilities are unavailable. The bill also provides free coronavirus testing.

Most larger companies offer their employees paid sick leave, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, but many provide fewer than the 14 days necessary for a coronavirus quarantine. The average number of paid sick days for private companies with 500 workers or more was eight after one year on the job and 10 after 20 years, based on March 2018 data.

This was not the only time the Trump administration has cited the paid leave without mentioning that many aren’t eligible for it.

For example, on March 19, Trump said: “We’re providing sick leave and family medical leave to those affected by the virus and more help is on the way as we speak.”

That same day, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Last night, as you heard, the president signed the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, family leave for caregivers, and food assistance for the needy, among a broad range of benefits.”

Funding to Fight Diseases

In a press briefing on March 22, Trump was asked whether the proposed coronavirus economic stimulus bill would include financial assistance for countries to fight global pandemics. In response, the president said “no,” but noted that “we give billions and billions and billions of dollars to other countries” to fight diseases. He added: “I don’t think I’ve ever said, ‘No.’ I can’t.”

Trump hasn’t proposed eliminating all funding to combat global diseases, but he has proposed reduced funding. His most recent budget proposal for fiscal year 2021, for instance, includes funding cuts for such programs.

Reporter, March 22: Are you considering any financial support for them? Let me quote to you, two retired — a retired general and a retired admiral from the U.S. Global Health Coalition: “No matter how successful we are in fighting the threat of COVID-19 pandemic at home, we’ll never stop it unless we’re also fighting it around the world.”

So, financially, is there anything in the stimulus bill? And then are you considering any financial support?

Trump: So — no, not in the stimulus bill, but we are very much — I mean, we give away billions of dollars for, as an example, AIDS in Africa. We’re still fighting that battle. It’s a tremendous battle. …

But we’re spending a lot of money with other countries. If you look at the aid that we give to other countries, we give billions and billions and billions of dollars to other countries. And a lot of times, I say, “You know, we could save a lot of money. We shouldn’t.” And then, they come in. I say, “What’s it used for?” “It’s used to fight malaria in countries that are very poor. It’s used to fight AIDS in Africa. It’s used to fight many other things.” Many other things. And I don’t think I’ve ever said, “No.” I can’t. It’s just so terrible.

According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, Trump’s most recent budget proposal requests less funding to fight diseases globally than what has been appropriated by Congress in previous years.

For example, Trump requested $3.76 billion for global HIV/AIDS programs, which is $1.59 billion less than what Congress approved in fiscal 2020 and would be the lowest amount of funding since 2007.

The president also requested $283.2 million for tuberculosis programs, or $37.6 million less than what Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2020, and $905.2 million for malaria programs, which would be a reduction of $93.9 million from the funding for the current fiscal cycle.

Plus, Trump proposed cutting U.S. funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a publicly and privately funded international organization, by $902 million — from the $1.56 billion appropriated in FY 2020 to $658 million proposed in the president’s FY 2021 budget.

Trump’s budget would also reduce funding for neglected tropical diseases to $75 million, down more than $27 million from the enacted amount of $102.5 million for 2020. The World Health Organization says NTDs “are a diverse group of communicable diseases that prevail in tropical and subtropical conditions in 149 countries and affect more than one billion people, costing developing economies billions of dollars every year.”

And, KFF says, compared with 2020, Trump’s budget request seeks almost $119 million less in 2021 for “other” services, which “includes funding for WHO and PAHO [Pan American Health Organization]; global parasitic diseases at CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]; the Fogarty International Center at NIH [National Institutes of Health]; as well as the Emergency Reserve Fund, which was created in the FY17 Omnibus bill to respond to contagious infectious disease outbreaks, and would be made available if there is an ‘emerging health threat that poses severe threats to human health.’”

In fact, according to KFF’s analysis, Trump’s request of $557 million for global health security — which would be an $11 million increase from 2020 — is the only global health program area that would see an increase under Trump’s desired budget for fiscal 2021. With its global health security initiatives, including its work as part of the Global Health Security Agenda, the U.S. aims to help other countries prepare to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats worldwide.

Overall, though, “The FY 2021 President’s budget request proposes to reduce global health funding to $7.7 billion, its lowest level since FY 2008,” KFF said. And Trump has consistently sought cuts to the global health budget since he has been in office, KFF has found.

In addition to programs to fight diseases, the global health category also includes efforts to improve global nutrition and family planning and reproductive health.

As we’ve explained before, a president’s budget request is more a symbolic statement of priorities than anything Congress would enact. A March 2019 Congressional Research Service report details how Congress has repeatedly appropriated more money for certain global health programs than Trump has requested in his budgets.

But the president’s claim that he doesn’t think he has said “no” to providing funds to other countries to fight diseases ignores his budget proposals.