Throughout April, the White House’s coronavirus task force briefings, at times, sparked feelings of fact-checking deja vu: President Donald Trump made many of the same inaccurate statements repeatedly.
The president – as is the case with many politicians – has exhibited a penchant for reiterating his talking points. But that political trait is compounded when Trump speaks in near daily briefings, many running well over an hour.
These news conferences contained information about how the coronavirus outbreak was affecting the United States, which has had more than 1 million cases and 60,000 deaths, and the government’s response to it.
But they also harbored this lengthy list of false, unsupported and misleading assertions — both on the pandemic and old standards we have been debunking for months, if not years. For more information on these claims, see the links provided below to our original stories.
Travel Restrictions on China
The president often talked about travel restrictions on China that his administration announced on Jan. 31 as a significant action to combat the coronavirus. But he exaggerated what those restrictions entailed and made unsubstantiated claims about their impact.
Not a “travel ban.” Three times during April — on April 7, 13 and 14 — he said he had imposed a “travel ban.” On April 8, he said he had “closed the border.” But the Trump administration’s travel restrictions stopped well short of a “ban.” They were not absolute.
When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the restrictions, he said the policy prohibited non-U.S. citizens who have traveled to China within the previous two weeks from entering the U.S. But he said the new rules didn’t apply to U.S. citizens and their immediate family members. In addition, the rules don’t apply to permanent U.S. residents. And they don’t bar importing goods from China.
A New York Times story on April 4 found that nearly 40,000 people had flown on direct flights from China to the United States in the two months after the travel restrictions went into effect. So Trump had hardly “closed the border.”
On six occasions in April, Trump said he had been “early” in imposing restrictions on travel from China. For example, on April 1, he said he acted to ban “dangerous foreign travel that threatens the health of our people. And we did that early — far earlier than anyone would have thought and way ahead of anybody else.”
But, as we have reported, 36 countries imposed travel restrictions by Feb. 2, the day the U.S. restrictions went into effect.
“What this data shows is that the United States was neither behind nor ahead of the curve in terms of imposing travel restrictions against China,” Samantha Kiernan, a research associate on global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations, told us via email. Kiernan is co-author of a council project, Think Global Health, that has been tracking travel restrictions on China due to COVID-19.
Impact of travel restrictions. Without evidence, in at least two briefings, the president claimed that the travel restrictions he implemented on China “saved tens of thousands” and even “hundreds of thousands of lives,” after using more general terms such as “a tremendous number” in March. We found no support for such figures, and the White House didn’t provide any.
The few studies that have been done estimate travel restrictions the United States and other countries enacted on China had modest impacts, slowing the initial spread outside of China but not containing the coronavirus pandemic. Past studies also have found travel restrictions could delay the path of the spread of diseases but do little to contain them.
We found no study that looked only at the U.S. travel restrictions Trump instituted, and we found only one study, which wasn’t peer-reviewed, on Australia, that found an impact on decreasing the number of deaths — but the study had a major limitation. It didn’t consider any impact of cases coming to Australia from other countries besides China.
As we’ve written (twice), it’s possible the U.S. travel restrictions on China had some impact in slowing the importation of cases, but we don’t have evidence of that, or of what the magnitude of the impact would be.
In one briefing, on April 14, Trump claimed that countries that didn’t put travel restrictions on China now “have problems the likes of which they cannot believe,” but there’s no discernible pattern in the trajectories of COVID-19 cases between countries with such restrictions and those without, according to charts created by Think Global Health.
Testing and the Stockpile
In the face of criticism for being slow to ramp up testing and questions about the demand for emergency medical supplies, Trump has responded with misleading comparisons to other countries and misplaced blame for his predecessors.
Testing compared with other countries. At least five times, Trump misleadingly claimed that the U.S. had conducted “more tests” or “the most” for coronavirus cases “of any country,” even adding “by far” or “it’s not even close.” But the U.S. still lags behind other countries in testing on a per-capita basis.
The per-capita number is important, because testing a higher proportion of the population gives countries a greater ability to control the spread of COVID-19.
The president first made this claim in late March, when he made a misleading comparison on the amount of testing done in the U.S. and South Korea, a country that had been held up as an example of how early, extensive testing can help contain the coronavirus outbreak. At that time, South Korea, and other countries, had done more tests on a per-capita basis than the United States.
Trump continued to make the claim throughout April, and eventually, the U.S. per-capita testing did outpace that of South Korea — but it still hasn’t caught up to that of other countries.
Charts compiled by Our World in Data, a project based at the University of Oxford, show the U.S. leads the pack in the sheer number of coronavirus tests, but several countries, as of April 28, had done more testing per-capita, including Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Another source, Worldometer, a data aggregation website, showed the U.S. doing nearly 19,000 tests per 1 million people, as of April 30. But that was a lower figure than those of 42 other countries and territories.
There are differences in the way each country reports this data; Our World in Data notes: “there are substantial differences across countries in terms of the units, whether or not all labs are included, the extent to which negative and pending tests are included and other aspects.”
Rangarajan Sampath, the chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, told us in late March, after the president first made this claim, that there’s “no data that would support” the claim, and “no reason to believe US tests are any better (or worse)” than those being run in other countries. Sampath told us again in late April that there still wasn’t support for the claim.
Misleading claims of a “broken system.” Throughout April, the president repeatedly misled the public by claiming he had “inherited a broken system” from previous administrations. Once, he referred to it as a “broken test.”
As we explained, the president would have a point were he to say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alone couldn’t conduct the amount of testing this pandemic demanded, a point Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made in March. But several former officials also have said the CDC simply isn’t set up to be a commercial test lab, nor the only source of testing for the entire country.
“The CDC designed a good system.” Fauci said on March 13. “If you want to get the kind of blanket testing and availability that anybody can get it or you could even do surveillance to find out what the penetrance is, you have to embrace the private sector.”
But, as we showed in a timeline of testing in the U.S., it was a month after the administration declared a public health emergency (on Jan. 31) that it took steps to allow testing to be conducted more broadly. The Food and Drug Administration said on Feb. 29 that it would allow labs to create and use their own in-house tests immediately. And it took several days more before the private sector announced testing availability.
Another problem was a manufacturing issue with the CDC’s test kits that were sent to state and local public health labs in early February. It took more than two weeks for the CDC to provide a fix for that issue.
Coronavirus mortality rates. Currently available data do not support Trump’s April 21 claim that the U.S. has “one of the lowest” or “most successful” COVID-19 mortality rates “in the entire world.” He similarly said on April 16, “the United States has achieved a significant lower mortality rate than almost all other countries.”
Johns Hopkins University is tracking coronavirus mortality numbers for nearly 140 countries, and, as of April 29, the U.S. (5.9%) had the 36th highest case fatality ratio (confirmed deaths divided by confirmed cases) and the 12th highest number of deaths (18.63) per 100,000 people.
These fatality rates, we should note, are based on only the known coronavirus cases and deaths. Unreported cases and deaths are not included, and because of that, it’s difficult to say with certainty what the rate of death from the disease is in any country.
Trump was more on target with his April 18 claim that, “on a per capita basis, our mortality rate is far lower than other nations of Western Europe, with the lone exception of possibly Germany.” Available data as of April 29 showed the U.S. has had fewer deaths per 100,000 people than Belgium (65.67), Spain (51.95), Italy (45.81), the United Kingdom (39.35), France (36.01) and the Netherlands (27.43). Those European nations, and Germany (7.80) along with the U.S., are all among the “10 countries most affected by COVID-19 worldwide,” according to Johns Hopkins University.
Strategic National Stockpile wasn’t “empty.” Trump has frequently claimed — falsely — that the federal stockpile of emergency medicine and supplies was “empty” or “bare” when he took office.
We counted nine times Trump made this claim in April task force briefings. On April 19, he said that “initially … our stockpiles were empty. We had horrible stockpiles.” Prior to that, on April 13, he said, “The whole administration, we inherited a stockpile where the cupboards were bare. There was nothing. … [W]e didn’t have medical supplies, we didn’t have ventilators, we didn’t have a lot of things that should have been had.”
That’s not so. The government does not disclose the exact counts of the stockpile’s contents, but, as of 2016, the year before Trump took office, there were at least six warehouses holding “approximately $7 billion in products across more than 900 separate line items,” according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Plus, reporters who were allowed to tour at least one of the secret U.S. facilities that year described seeing “shelves packed with stuff” and “row after row of containers filled with mystery medications and equipment — including that one item everyone’s been talking about lately, ventilators.”
It’s true that some personal protective equipment that was distributed from the stockpile to states during the Obama administration — such as 85 million N95 respirator masks for the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 — were not restocked, according to news reports. But that doesn’t mean there were none of those items in the stockpile when Trump was inaugurated in early 2017.
In March, Trump first touted two existing drugs — chloroquine and its derivative hydroxychloroquine — as potential treatments for COVID-19. Both drugs are used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, but the president was pushing for off-label use of the drugs for COVID-19.
As we wrote at the time, there has been only limited evidence to suggest the drugs might be effective against the new virus, and the drugs come with dangerous side effects that affect the heart. At a March 20 briefing, Fauci said that without controlled clinical trials “you really can’t make any definitive statement” about the effectiveness of the drugs as COVID-19 therapies.
Pushing an unproven treatment. Still, on at least five occasions in April, Trump made false and misleading claims about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, while downplaying the drug’s risks.
On April 3, the president said that hydroxychloroquine is “looking like it’s having some good results,” when in fact there was only anecdotal evidence.
A day later, the president made the false claim that “there’s a study out that people with lupus aren’t catching this horrible virus.” As we wrote, there is no such study, and, in fact, lupus patients have contracted COVID-19. And he claimed “malaria countries … have very little of this virus,” citing nonexistent “studies.” In fact, hydroxychloroquine is not widely used for malaria in much of the world, we found.
On April 5, he said that “there are some very strong, powerful signs” the drug works against COVID-19. “[Y]ou know the expression, I’ve used it for certain reasons: ‘What do you have to lose?’ ” Trump said.
On April 8, Trump said his administration had purchased “30 million doses” of hydroxychloroquine for the Strategic National Stockpile, based on “a lot of good stories” and “some very good results” that the drug worked against COVID-19.
Toward the end of the month, the president was asked why he wasn’t talking much about hydroxychloroquine anymore, and he acknowledged that the results were mixed. “We’ve had a lot of very good results and we had some results that perhaps aren’t so good,” he said at the April 23 briefing.
The next day, the FDA issued a warning against using “hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems.” The warning came a few days after a study found that patients at Veterans Health Administration medical centers treated with hydroxychloroquine had an increased mortality risk compared with those that were not treated with the drug.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of Trump’s favorite foils, and he repeatedly distorted the facts on Pelosi’s actions.
Pelosi and Chinatown. Six times in April, Trump inaccurately described what Pelosi did when she went to San Francisco’s Chinatown on Feb. 24. Trump variously said Pelosi held a “rally” in Chinatown, was having or wanted to have “parties” or a “street party” there and encouraged people to go to a “big parade.”
Trump contrasted his administration’s announcement of travel restrictions on China on Jan. 31 with Pelosi supposedly encouraging public events during the pandemic.
Pelosi did visit Chinatown on Feb. 24, telling people it was safe there and urging them to shop and eat there at a time when tourism was suffering because of the novel coronavirus, which originated in China late last year. But her visit came three weeks before six Bay Area counties implemented shelter-in-place restrictions. On the same day as Pelosi’s visit, Trump tweeted, “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!”
Pelosi never mentioned parties or rallies. And her visit came two weeks after the Chinese New Year parade on Feb. 8.
At a time of economic turmoil due to the pandemic, Trump has returned to a familiar, and false, boast about how well the economy was doing previously.
Not the “greatest economy.” On 11 occasions in April, Trump said that the United States had “the greatest economy in the history of the world” before it was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, on April 10, he used a variation, “the greatest economy ever created.” And on April 4, he settled for the more modest “greatest economy in the world.”
It’s certainly true that the economy was in good shape, with stocks soaring (the Dow Jones Industrial Average had a record close at 29,551.42 on Feb. 12), and unemployment was low. But it wasn’t the greatest economy in history.
As we have reported, the economy has gone through many periods of more robust growth than it has under the Trump administration.
Trump had promised annual growth rates of 4% to 6% repeatedly, both as a candidate and as president. But the nation’s real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product has yet to reach even 3% a year under Trump. The real GDP grew 2.3% last year — down from 2.9% in 2018, according to data released on Feb. 27.
Over the last 39 years — dating to Ronald Reagan’s presidency — the nation’s real economic growth has reached or exceeded Trump’s peak year of 2.9% 19 times. Under Reagan, real GDP grew by more than 3% in six of his eight years, including 7.2% in 1984. Under President George W. Bush, real GDP grew 3.8% in 2004 and 3.5% in 2005. The best year under President Barack Obama was in 2015, when it reached 2.9%, equaling the best year under Trump in 2018.
Unemployment has been very low under Trump, falling to a 50-year low of 3.5% in December 2019. It was 3.6% in January, before the arrival of the novel coronavirus. But as far as job creation goes, as we have written, in the 35 months after Trump took office, the economy added just under 6.7 million jobs. In the 35 months before he took office, the economy added nearly 8 million jobs.
Trump’s repeated false claims of once having the “greatest economy in the history of the world” come at a time when the pandemic has devastated the U.S. economy. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. The unemployment rate jumped to 4.4% in March and is expected to be much higher in April.
Trump’s rhetoric went beyond the coronavirus crisis at hand, touching on familiar falsehoods, particularly about trade with China.
Still exaggerates trade deficit with China. Trump repeated a false claim that dates back to his time as a presidential candidate, saying on April 7, “We had a deficit — a trade deficit — with China for years of $500 billion, $400 billion,” and repeating the $500 billion figure three more times later in the month. That’s wrong.
The U.S. trade deficit with China on goods and services was $308.9 billion in 2016, the year before Trump took office and $333.5 billion the year before that. Figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis dating back to 1999 show the total trade deficit with China never hit even $400 billion.
Trump’s $500 billion figure is close to what the total U.S. trade deficit was with all countries before he was inaugurated: $503 billion in 2016. But that trade deficit has gone up under Trump’s presidency, not down. In 2019, it was $616.4 billion.
In the April 21 press conference, Trump made his false claim about the trade deficit with China, adding, “Now, if you look at this last year, the deficit went way down.” It hasn’t gone “way down” compared with the deficit when he took office. It was $307.6 billion in 2019, merely $1.3 billion below the deficit in 2016. Last year’s figure was a drop from 2018, when the deficit with China hit $380.8 billion under Trump.
Tariffs on China. The president continued his trade spin in the April 27 briefing, falsely saying that the U.S. “never took in 10 cents from China” before he increased tariffs on goods imported from the country. In fact, the U.S. has collected billions annually in customs duties on Chinese imports for years.
Trump said, “We took in tens of billions of dollars.” And it’s true that the amount of customs duties has increased substantially since he began a trade war with China. In 2016, the year before Trump took office, the U.S. collected $13.3 billion in customs duties on Chinese imports; the figure went up to $23 billion in 2018. Last year, customs duties totaled $45.5 billion, according to information from the U.S. International Trade Commission DataWeb, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
He’s also wrong to say China is the one paying these tariffs, a false point he emphasized on April 18, saying, “We didn’t pay. China paid.” Tariffs are paid by U.S. importers in the form of customs duties, and to some extent by U.S. consumers in the form of higher prices. Former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told NPR in a May 2019 interview: “For every dollar of tariff that’s collected, it’s coming out of disposable income of the United States consumer today.”
China trade deal. As he has in the past, Trump repeatedly exaggerated the impact of the two-year trade agreement that the U.S. and China signed on Jan. 15.
Trump, April 6: I want to say one other thing. Our farmers — we love our farmers — and, as you know, as of April 1st, the China trade deal — 250-billion-dollar — they purchased $250 billion from us, if not more. And of that, approximately $50 billion is expected to be with our farmers.
On April 18, he repeated the claim, saying, “we just made a trade deal where China is going to have to buy $250 billion a year on our product”; on April 19, he claimed China would buy “$40- to $50 billion” from farmers, adding the false claim that “the most they ever spent was 15 to 16” billion. And he brought up the topic again on April 20.
The agreement requires China to purchase $200 billion in additional U.S. goods and services over two years — not $250 billion a year, as Trump has implied. For example, China agreed in 2020 to purchase $76.7 billion above the $186 billion that it purchased in goods and services in calendar year 2017. (The pre-trade war year of 2017 serves as the base year for both 2020 and 2021, the years covered by the two-year trade pact.)
So, when Trump says, “China is going to have to buy $250 billion a year on our product,” much of those purchases would have been expected with or without an agreement, based on past trade purchases.
As for U.S. agricultural products, Trump falsely said that the “most they ever spent was 15 to 16” billion a year. As we’ve written before, the most China has purchased in U.S. agricultural products was nearly $26 billion in 2012.
Trump is also wrong when he says that under the new trade deal China will purchase “up to $50 billion” in U.S. agricultural products.
Under the deal, China agreed to increase agricultural purchases by $12.5 billion this year and $19.5 billion next year above the 2017 level, which according to the Department of Agriculture was $19.6 billion. That means total agricultural exports to China in 2020 and 2021 won’t add up to $50 billion a year, Chad E. Hart, an associate professor of economics and crop markets specialist at Iowa State University, told us in a phone interview in January.
“The document says $12.5 billion this year and $19.5 billion next year, and that would put [agricultural exports] at $32 billion this year and $39 billion next year,” Hart told us.
World Trade Organization. Trump continued to wrongly claim that before he became president the U.S. “rarely, if ever” won lawsuits within the World Trade Organization, but that because of his advocacy, the U.S. is now “winning a lot” of cases.
On April 14, Trump said, “We’re now winning cases for the first time, because they know I’ll leave if we don’t get treated fairly. This country — our country — was at a point where we rarely, if ever, won the lawsuits within the World Trade Organization. But now we’re winning a lot of them, because they know I’m not — I’m not playing games. We will pull out if we have to. We just won a 7-billion-dollar lawsuit, which was very nice.”
The following day, he similarly claimed, “We’re winning a lot of lawsuits right now that we never won before in the past.”
But as we have written repeatedly, the U.S. has historically won the vast majority of cases it brings, and has lost most of the cases brought against it. That’s generally how other countries fare before the WTO as well, as countries typically only bring lawsuits they are likely win.
“Generally speaking, the US success rate at the WTO is about the same now as it was pre-Trump,” Simon Lester, a trade policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, told us for an October article.
As for Trump’s reference to the U.S. recently winning “a 7-billion-dollar lawsuit,” he’s referring to the WTO announcement on Oct. 14 that it was authorizing the U.S. to impose tariffs of up to $7.5 billion a year on European Union goods and services because the EU had failed to remove subsidies for the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus that were inconsistent with a trade agreement and harmed Airbus’ U.S. rival, Boeing. But a string of WTO decisions since 2011 had already established that the subsidies broke trade rules, and trade experts said the award would likely have come down as it did no matter who was president.
South Korea Defense Costs. Trump gave himself too much credit when he said on April 20 that he “went to” South Korea last year “and now they’re paying a billion dollars a year” for the shared cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
The Trump administration negotiated a one-year Special Measures Agreement for 2019 that saw South Korea increase its contribution to 1.039 trillion Korean won, up 8.2% from what South Korea paid in 2018 under a previous five-year deal approved in 2014. But the State Department said South Korea was already paying “approximately $830 million per year” under the five-year deal that expired in 2018.
Also, the one-year deal for 2019 has now expired, and the U.S. and South Korea have not yet agreed on a cost-sharing deal for future payments.
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