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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump, Pence and Reassessing Coronavirus


In a little more than a month, President Donald Trump’s language about the coronavirus has shifted, from talk of 15 cases that “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero” to warning of as many as 2.2 million deaths in the country if no social distancing efforts were undertaken. 

At times, the president has acknowledged he changed his assessment of the pandemic, but in other cases, he and Vice President Mike Pence have tried to revise history, ignoring or recasting his previous statements.

Here, we outline Trump’s evolving language on the deadliness of the virus, its spread in the U.S. and how it compares with the seasonal flu. We also provide a timeline of the president’s comments below.

The Threat of the Coronavirus

In an interview on CNN on April 1, Pence said, “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.”

That may be what the vice president believes. But he is wrong. The truth is that Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus.

From Jan. 22 to March 10, as we reported before, Trump made a series of statements minimizing the danger posed to the United States. (See our timeline below.)

On March 16, Trump reversed course, imposing social distancing guidelines for 15 days. The following day, he said at a press conference: “This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” 

But he soon sounded a different tone again.

As recently as March 24 at a Fox News virtual town hall, Trump likened the disease’s impact to that of the flu or automobile accidents. At the time the president was considering, for economic reasons, whether to relax the social distancing guidelines he had imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Trump, March 24: I brought some numbers here, 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, 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. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies, say, “Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.” We have to get back to work.

He suggested he might ease the social distancing guidelines. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.

On March 29, the president abandoned that aspiration and announced the guidelines would remain in place until April 30.

In the CNN interview, Pence maintained that the president had been aware throughout of the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak. Confronted by anchor Wolf Blitzer with statements by Trump minimizing the danger, Pence replied, “The president is an optimistic person. We’ve been from the very beginning, when the president suspended all travel from China and stood up the White House coronavirus task force in January, we have been hoping for the best but planning for the worst, and that’s been being worked out every single day.”

(The vice president is wrong to claim that “the president suspended all travel from China” from “the very beginning.” As we have written, the administration did not suspend “all travel.” There were exceptions, including for Americans and their family members, to the travel policy announced on Jan. 31.)

‘Under Control’

In a coronavirus task force press briefing on March 15, Trump praised the task force members standing behind him, saying they have been “working around the clock” and were “doing an incredible job.” Then, he added, “This is a very contagious — this is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

The next day, when asked about that statement, Trump attempted to reframe his past comments about the U.S. having the coronavirus “under control.”

“Well, when I’m talking about control, I’m saying we are doing a very good job within the confines of what we’re dealing with,” Trump said. “If you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world.”

At times, Trump has been clear that he meant the federal government’s response to the pandemic is “under control,” such as on Feb. 29 when talking about a “natural reflex” among Democrats to criticize his actions.

“And we’ve done a great job,” Trump said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “And I’ve gotten to know these professionals. They’re incredible. And everything is under control. I mean, they’re very, very cool. They’ve done it, and they’ve done it well. Everything is really under control. But when they put a mic in front of a Democrat, and the Democrat said — doesn’t even know what’s going on. ‘How is Trump doing?’ ‘He’s doing a terrible job.’ Well, sadly, I’d probably say the same about them.”

At other times, however, Trump’s “under control” comments appear to be about the coronavirus itself. For example, on Feb. 24, Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”

Or on Feb. 26, when Trump said, “It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we are totally prepared.”

Or on Feb. 25 when he said at a business roundtable in India, “If you go back six months or three months ago, nobody would have ever predicted. But let’s see, I think it’s going to be under control. And I think I can speak for our country, for — our country is under control.”

That same day during a press conference in India, Trump said: “You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it.”

Moving the Goal Posts on the Outbreak

The Trump administration has moved the goal posts dramatically when it comes to estimates of how many Americans will contract COVID-19.

For weeks, as he downplayed the disease’s danger, Trump said there were just a small number of cases in the U.S. and that the disease would vanish. By the end of March, he was saying that without dramatic action like social distancing, as many as 2.2 million Americans could die.

On Feb. 10, when he suggested the disease would go away “in April with the heat — as the heat comes in,” Trump said, “We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.” (See our item “Will the New Coronavirus ‘Go Away’ in April?“)

On Feb. 26, the president said, “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.”  That same day, he also said, “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.”

Trump was still downplaying the scope of the problem on March 4, when he said, “[W]e have a very small number of people in this country [infected]. We have a big country.”

But by the end of the month, Trump was painting a stark picture of the disease’s potential toll. On March 29, when he announced he was extending social distancing guidelines until the end of April, he said as many as 2.2 million Americans could die of COVID-19 if the country failed to take decisive action.

He said, “So you’re talking about 2.2. million deaths — 2.2 million people from this. And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — that’s a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job. But 2.2, up to 2.2 million deaths and maybe even beyond that.”

At a White House briefing on March 31, federal health officials raised the upper limit of those who might die from the disease even with mitigation efforts to 240,000.

Trump’s Flu Comparisons

Several times, Trump had compared the coronavirus outbreak to the seasonal flu, but in the March 29 task force briefing, Trump acknowledged that he had changed his mind about this.

But there were a lot of people that said — I thought about it. I said, ‘Maybe we should ride it through.’ You know, you always hear about the flu. I talk about it all the time. We had a bad flu season. We’re in the midst of a bad flu season, Trump said. “But this is different. And part of this is the unknown, and part of it also is the viciousness of it.”

Two days later, he repeated those remarks, but said the flu comparison came from “many friends” and “a lot of people.”

“I mean, I’ve had many friends, business people, 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,” Trump said.

That’s a marked difference from his earlier comments comparing COVID-19 to the flu. For example, in the March 24 virtual town hall, Trump said, “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.”

And in a March 9 tweet, he said deaths from the flu average “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. Think about that!”

In a Feb. 26 press conference, Trump made some confusing remarks that wrongly suggested the fatality rate for the flu is “much higher” than the rate for COVID-19, as we wrote. So far, the worldwide fatality rate for COVID-19 has been higher, but, as we have explained, the rate may end up falling as more is known about the actual number of cases. 

As for the seasonal flu, or influenza, it does kill thousands of Americans each year, and infects millions. For the 2019-2020 flu season, 39 million to 55 million people had flu illnesses in the U.S., according to preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates this season’s flu had caused between 24,000 and 63,000 deaths. Since 2010, influenza in the U.S. has caused between 9 million and 45 million illnesses annually, the CDC says, with 12,000 to 61,000 of those resulting in death.

Trump also has made comparisons between the coronavirus pandemic and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, but as we’ve written, the two viruses are very different. Peter Jay Hotez, a professor and dean of the tropical medicine school at Baylor College of Medicine, told us that the novel coronavirus, which is known as SARS-CoV-2, is considerably more transmissible and more lethal than the H1N1 influenza virus. “The urgency to contain this coronavirus is so much greater than the H1N1 2009 one was,” he said.

Timeline of Trump’s Comments

Here is a timeline of statements the president has made about the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, beginning two days after the first case in the country was confirmed:

Jan. 22: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. And we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” — CNBC interview

Jan. 30: “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five — and those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us … that I can assure you.” — a speech in Michigan

Feb. 10: “Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape though. We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.” — remarks to governors

Feb. 14: “There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus. So we don’t know yet; we’re not sure yet. But that’s around the corner.” — speaking to National Border Patrol Council members

Feb. 23: “We have it very much under control in this country.” — speaking to reporters

Feb. 24: The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” — on Twitter

Feb. 25: “You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are — in all cases, I have not heard anything other.” — press conferencein New Delhi, India

Feb. 25: “If you go back six months or three months ago, nobody would have ever predicted. But let’s see, I think it’s going to be under control. And I think I can speak for our country, for — our country is under control.” — abusiness roundtablein New Delhi, India

Feb. 26: 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.” — White House task force briefing

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.” — press conference

Feb. 26: I think every aspect of our society should be prepared. I don’t think it’s going to come to that, especially with the fact that we’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up.” — press conference, when asked if “U.S. schools should be preparing for a coronavirus spreading”

Feb. 26: “It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we are totally prepared.” — press conference

Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”” — White House meeting with African American leaders

Feb. 29: And I’ve gotten to know these professionals. They’re incredible. And everything is under control. I mean, they’re very, very cool. They’ve done it, and they’ve done it well. Everything is really under control.” — speech at CPAC, outside of Washington, D.C.

March 4: “[W]e have a very small number of people in this country [infected]. We have a big country. The biggest impact we had was when we took the 40-plus people [from a cruise ship]. … We brought them back. We immediately quarantined them. But you add that to the numbers. But if you don’t add that to the numbers, we’re talking about very small numbers in the United States.” —White House meeting with airline CEOs

March 4: Well, I think the 3.4% is really a false number.” — interview on Fox News, referring to the percentage of diagnosed COVID-19 patients worldwide who had died, as reported by the World Health Organization. (See our item “Trump and the Coronavirus Death Rate.”)

March 7: No, I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. No, we’ve done a great job.” — speaking to reporters, when asked if he was concerned about the arrival of the coronavirus in the Washington, D.C., area 

March 9: “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. Think about that!” — on Twitter.

March 10: And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” — after meeting with Republican senators

March 15: “This is a very contagious — this is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.” — White House task force briefing

March 16: “When I’m talking about control, I’m saying we are doing a very good job within the confines of what we’re dealing with. We’re doing a very good job. … If you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world. … I was talking about what we’re doing is under control.” — White House task force press briefing

March 17: “I’ve always known this is a — this is a real — this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” — White House task force press briefing

March 23: “People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies. You have death. Probably and — I mean, definitely — would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.” — White House task force briefing

March 24: “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” — Fox News virtual town hall

“I brought some numbers here, 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, 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. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies, say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.’ We have to get back to work.” — Fox News virtual town hall

March 29: “But there were a lot of people that said — I thought about it. I said, ‘Maybe we should ride it through.’ You know, you always hear about the flu. I talk about it all the time. We had a bad flu season. We’re in the midst of a bad flu season. … But this is different. And part of this is the unknown, and part of it also is the viciousness of it.” — White House task force press briefing

“So you’re talking about 2.2. million deaths — 2.2 million people from this. And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — that’s a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job. But 2.2, up to 2.2 million deaths and maybe even beyond that.” — White House task force press briefing

March 31: “I mean, I’ve had many friends, business people, 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.” — White House task force briefing

 

Correction, April 14: We originally said our timeline of Trump’s statements began on Jan. 24. It begins on Jan. 22.