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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump and the ‘New Hoax’

Democratic presidential candidates harshly criticized President Donald Trump for using the term “hoax” in connection with the coronavirus outbreak. There’s no question that the president described the disease as the Democrats’ “new hoax” at a political rally on Feb. 28 in South Carolina.

But the following day, after the death of the first American from coronavirus in Washington state, Trump said that when he used the word “hoax,” he was referring to Democrats finding fault with his administration’s response to coronavirus, not the virus itself.

Even after Trump explained his remarks, some Democrats — including former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — continued to wrongly accuse Trump of describing the coronavirus as a “hoax.”

The kerfuffle began at the rally in North Charleston, South Carolina when Trump accused the Democrats of “politicizing” the coronavirus outbreak.

Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right?” he said. “Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’ They go, ‘Oh, not good, not good.’ They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa.”

Then the president, who often dismissed special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as a hoax, continued, “They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”

Trump went on to praise his administration for taking “the most aggressive action in modern history to prevent the spread of this illness in the United States,” referring to travel restrictions on foreign nationals who recently visited China. 

“A virus starts in China, bleeds its way into various countries all around the world, doesn’t spread widely at all in the United States because of the early actions that myself and my administration took against a lot of other wishes,” Trump said, “and the Democrats’ single talking point, and you see it, is that it’s Donald Trump’s fault, right?”

Democratic presidential candidates were quick to pounce on Trump’s “hoax” remark. Former Vice President Joe Biden described the president’s comments as “absolutely bizarre”

“Look, this is a serious, serious problem,” Biden told MSNBC on Feb. 29. “It’s able to be solved, but it requires us to be absolutely level-headed and let the scientists have the lead in all of this,” Biden said. “But for him to start talking about it being a hoax is absolutely dangerous. It’s just not a decent way to act.”

Biden told reporters in Greenville, South Carolina, on Feb. 29 “The president of the United States says it’s a hoax? It’s hard to believe. Even for him it’s hard to believe.”

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, at the time still a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, also said he was troubled by Trump’s use of the term “hoax.”

“It’s critically important that the administration and the White House handle this in a way that’s based on science and not based on politics,” Buttigieg said on NBC’s “Today” show on Feb. 29. “I was particularly disturbed to hear the word ‘hoax’ used by the president recently in talking about this issue.” 

Buttigieg ended his run for the White House on March 1.

In the wake of the criticism, Trump said at a press conference on Feb. 29 that he used the term “hoax” to refer not to coronavirus itself but to Democrats’ criticism of how his administration had responded to it.

Asked if he regretted using that particular word, he replied “No. No. No. Hoax referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them not… I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax. That’s just a continuation of the hoax, whether it’s the impeachment hoax or the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax. This is what I’m talking about. Certainly not referring to this. How could anybody refer to this? This is very serious stuff…”

But that hardly put an end to criticism from Democrats.

In an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on March 1, Bloomberg said, “I find it incomprehensible that the president would do something as inane as calling it a hoax, which he did [Friday] night in South Carolina.”

Correspondent Scott Pelley responded, “He said that the Democrats making so much of it is a Democratic hoax, not that the virus was a hoax.”

And Bloomberg shot back, “This is up to the scientists and the doctors as to whether there is a problem. They all around the world would say that it is in some places and has enormous potential to become one elsewhere. And it is just ignorant and irresponsible to not stand up and be the leader and say, ‘We don’t know, but we have to prepare for the fact that, if it is, we have the medicines and the structure and the knowledge to deal with it.'”

A day later, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, similarly criticized Trump at a Biden rally on March 1 in Norfolk, Virginia.

“We got a guy in the White House who doesn’t know anything about patriotism, doesn’t know anything about empathy,” McAuliffe said. “He said the coronavirus was a hoax.”

But that’s not what Trump said he meant.