President Donald Trump’s extraordinary interview with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, who frequently fact-checked the president in real time, contained a long list of false, misleading and unsubstantiated claims:
- The president claimed other countries, later mentioning Europe, are only testing for COVID-19 if someone is “really sick” and that the “massive” testing in the U.S. “skews the numbers.” But testing data show many countries, including in Europe, have conducted more tests per confirmed case than the U.S.
- Trump falsely claimed that there’s “no reason” — “[e]xcept for Nov. 3rd” — for California to pull back on reopening its economy. Multiple states, including California, have concerning trends that public health experts — including those on the White House’s coronavirus task force — say warrant business closures and other precautions.
- Trump claimed he “forced” Seattle officials to finally end protests near a police precinct because “they heard” that “we were going in that following day.” Seattle’s mayor said her decision had nothing to do with Trump, who she said never notified her of a plan to send in federal forces.
- Trump falsely claimed credit for “the biggest pay raises in the history of our military.” The largest increase in basic military pay under Trump was 3.1%. It was higher than that seven times in the last 19 years — including a high of 5% in 2002.
In the interview, which took place on the patio outside the Oval Office, the president also repeated numerous bogus talking points, including about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s immigration proposals, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s alleged “mistakes” and the U.S. economy.
The president falsely claimed once again that the U.S. has “one of the lowest mortality rates” for COVID-19 of any country, and distorted the facts about the harm caused by the coronavirus.
Testing Per Case Higher in Many Other Countries
Trump claimed that other countries — later pointing to Europe — are only testing for COVID-19 if someone is “really sick,” saying the “massive” testing in the U.S. “really skews the numbers.”
But that’s not what testing data indicate. Many countries, including in Europe, have conducted more tests per confirmed case of COVID-19 than the U.S.
If other countries have tested more people than have actually had the disease, compared with the U.S., that suggests those countries couldn’t have been only testing the “really sick.”
Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told us in an email that “tests per confirmed case provides an indication of how aggressively a country is testing. And many countries are at much higher rates than the US.”
Trump’s claim is a new twist on his repeated false assertion that increased testing is the only reason some states in the U.S. have seen an uptick in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
The president first told Wallace this about other countries’ testing programs:
Trump, July 17: You look at other countries; they don’t even do tests. They do tests if somebody walks into the hospital, they’re sick, they’re really sick, they test them then, or they’ll test them in a doctor’s office. But they don’t go around, have massive areas of testing and we do. And I’m glad we do, but it really skews the numbers.
Later in the interview, he singled out Europe and dismissed the possibility that the European Union doesn’t have as bad of an outbreak as the U.S. does now.
Trump: Take a look at Europe, take a look at the numbers in Europe. And by the way, they’re having surges.
Wallace: I can tell you cases are 6,000 in the whole European Union.
Trump: They don’t test. They don’t test like we do.
Wallace: Is it possible that they don’t have the virus as badly as we do?
Trump: It’s possible that they don’t test, that’s what’s possible.
According to the University of Oxford-based project Our World in Data, several European countries’ testing policies are open testing for anyone, including those without any symptoms; those countries include Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Greece and Iceland. That’s the current policy in the United States.
Many other countries in Europe, including Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, test “anyone with symptoms.” Only a handful of countries have more restrictive testing policies for those with symptoms and other criteria, such as having been admitted to the hospital or in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Those countries include Bulgaria, Hungary, Kosovo, Serbia and Albania.
Experts have told us before that looking at the test positivity rate — the percentage of conducted tests that are positive — shows whether a country is doing enough testing. By that measure, nearly all European countries, as well as many other countries around the globe, are doing better than the United States.
“The way we can tell whether a country is only testing people who are sick enough to show up at a hospital is to look at their test positivity,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told us in an email. “When positivity is high, it means a country is likely only testing the sickest of the sick. But if positivity is lower, then the country is likely casting a wide net to look for infections and count them as cases.”
Nuzzo cited New York state as an example. In the spring, when the state was only able to test those sick enough to be hospitalized, the positivity rate was as high as 50.7%. “Now that it has expanded testing, [its] positivity has fallen quite dramatically and is now less than 2%,” she said.
Data from Johns Hopkins University shows the U.S. has an average daily positivity rate of 6.45%. Several countries, including Germany, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Greece and Norway, have lower rates. Among European countries, only France and Sweden have higher rates.
Nuzzo said it’s possible some countries have restricted testing only to the hospitalized, but “the data from many countries in Europe and elsewhere suggest they are doing a better job of finding infections than the US.”
Another way of looking at positivity is the number of tests per confirmed case. The U.S. has conducted 12.4 or 13.2 tests per confirmed case, depending on the data source used, but European countries, and others across the globe, have conducted more tests per case, according to Our World in Data.
For example, the United Kingdom and Italy — two countries that have faced sizable outbreaks of COVID-19 — have conducted 27.4 and 25.6 tests per case, respectively. (Only France and Sweden, among European countries, rank lower than the U.S., but the available information for those two countries dates back to early July and May. We don’t know whether that’s still the case.)
We can also look at tests per confirmed case over time through the seven-day rolling average. By that measure, the U.S. is currently conducting fewer tests per confirmed case than the 30-some European countries for which Our World in Data has figures.
The difference in the trajectory of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. compared with European countries is striking.
In a July 20 Wall Street Journal article, Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute said the “fundamental difference” was that “Europe has taken the virus seriously, and America largely has not.” Jha told the newspaper: “We didn’t build testing and tracing programs, and in parts of the country we didn’t even bring cases down. We have done things half way.”
California’s Pullback on Reopening
In discussing the economy and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump claimed that states were backpedaling on reopening “on purpose,” and singled out California as having “no reason” to do so other than politics.
Wallace: With states now rolling back some of the reopening and…
Trump: On purpose.
Wallace: Well, there are a lot of Republican …
Trump: On purpose.
Wallace: Well, there are a lot of Republican states, like Texas …
Trump: There is no reason …
Wallace: And here’s …
Trump: They’ll be open very soon.
Wallace: Let me just ask my question.
Trump: There’s no reason for California to be doing what they’re doing.
Trump: Except for Nov. 3rd.
There is no evidence that California or other states are halting or reversing their reopenings for political reasons.
On the contrary, multiple states have concerning trends, such as increases in COVID-19 cases and test positivity, that public health experts — including those on the White House’s coronavirus task force — say warrant business closures and other precautions.
On July 13, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was shutting down indoor operations of bars, restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, card rooms, and zoos and museums across the state. Counties failing to meet certain metrics would additionally have to close fitness centers, places of worship, offices for non-critical sectors, hair salons, barbershops and indoor malls.
In a press conference, Newsom said the seven-day rolling average for new coronavirus cases was on the rise, and that over the past two weeks, hospitalizations had increased 28%, ICU admissions had increased 20%, and the two-week average test positivity rate had also gone up 21%, to 7.4%.
“It’s a consequence of [an] increase in positivity rate, increase in hospitalizations, in ICUs,” Newsom said of the decision to pullback on reopening, adding that it was not an “on and off switch,” but rather a dimmer switch intended to be responsive to changing conditions.
Newsom is not the only person to be worried about the coronavirus trends in his state. In a July 8 task force briefing, Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx specifically noted the “increase in the number of test positives and rapid increase in cases” in California and referenced state-level governmental action.
“I think the work that these governors have done to — and ask the American people is it’s stop going to bars, to close the bars, to move to outdoor dining, to decrease indoor — any kind of indoor gatherings again,” she said.
Birx identified Texas, Arizona, Florida and California as four of the most concerning states, and alluded to a task force report labeling “red zone” localities.
“To all of the Americans out there that are in these four states and the states that have — in the report, were in the red zone — because there’s a series of other states that we have in that zone,” she said, “is really asking the American people in those counties and in those states — in those states to not only use the face coverings — not going to bars, not going to indoor dining — but really not gathering in homes either and decreasing those gatherings back down to our phase one recommendation, which was 10 or less.”
The Center for Public Integrity obtained a July 14 edition of the report, which lists 18 states as being in the “red zone” for new COVID-19 cases, or more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. Eleven states were in the “red zone” for test positivity, with figures above 10%.
According to the report, California was in the red for new cases and the yellow for test positivity, with 9.3% of tests coming back positive.
Under the policy recommendations for California’s 14 red counties, the task force report suggested that public officials “[c]lose bars and gyms, and create outdoor dining opportunities with pedestrian areas” and “[l]imit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer.”
For California’s 17 yellow counties, the report recommended that officials “[l]imit gyms to 25% occupancy and close bars until percent positive rates are under 3%; create outdoor dining opportunities with pedestrian areas” and ““[l]imit social gatherings to 25 people or fewer.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a coronavirus task force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a June 24 interview with the Sacramento Press Club that it might be necessary to pause or back down from some reopening if trends started to move in the wrong direction.
Praising Newsom for having a “really good sense of [what] to do,” Fauci explained that the options were not limited to all or none.
“You don’t really need to go back to lockdown,” he said. “You need to pause and say, wait a minute, we [started] opening, and things aren’t going right. What do we need to do to correct that? Now, you may need to stay where you are and impose a few more restrictions. Or, maybe back up a little. But again, just like you don’t want to open in an all or none, you don’t want to start locking down completely.”
Newsom’s plan is not a complete lockdown, and allows many businesses to continue to operate outside.
There may be differing opinions on the degree and type of restrictions to put in place, but California’s limitations are predicated on specific metrics and are an effort to avoid further transmission of the coronavirus.
Trump said Seattle officials finally acted to clear a protest zone near a police precinct in the city because he was sending in federal forces to do so.
Trump: We have forced them in Seattle to end the CHOP [Capitol Hill Organized Protest] because, you know, we were going in that following day. You probably have heard it. We were getting ready to go in. We were all set, and when they heard that we were going they set their police force.
But Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had already told the Washington Post that neither Trump, nor the White House, ever notified her, or her office, that federal troops were being sent in. In fact, Durkan said Trump had nothing to do with her decision to order Seattle police to end the protests that started in early June, not long after George Floyd died while in Minneapolis police custody.
Durkan denied having ever heard from Trump after he made a similar claim during a July 9 interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. In that interview, Trump told Hannity: “We were going in, we were going in very soon. We let them know that. And they, all of a sudden, they didn’t want that, so they went in before we got there.”
Durkan and her office said no notice was given, according to a Washington Post story published a day after the Hannity interview.
“He never contacted me or my office to warn us,” Durkan told the Post. “We had no conversations whatsoever with the White House about anything related to the protests, Capitol Hill, or anything along these lines.”
On June 30, Durkan signed an executive order declaring the weekslong protests near the Seattle Police Department East Precinct and Cal Anderson Park area an “unlawful assembly.” The order noted that the protests, which reportedly started out largely peaceful, had seen an increase in violence, including at least two fatal shootings.
But, as the Washington Post reported on July 10: “Durkan categorically rejected any suggestion that this was related to anything Trump or anyone around him communicated — privately or publicly. Her office told us that serious conversations between the mayor’s office and the police chief and community groups about ending the protests began around June 22.”
“Congress should investigate whether there was actually a plan to send federal forces into an American city,” the Washington Post quoted Durkan as saying.
Military Pay Raises
Trump falsely claimed that he “got soldiers the biggest pay raises in the history of our military.”
In the current fiscal year, basic military pay increased by 3.1% — the largest during the Trump administration, according to a Department of Defense chart of annual pay raises since 2007. But that chart also shows there were larger pay hikes in 2008 (3.5%), 2009 (3.9%) and 2010 (3.4%).
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service provides a table back to 2002 that shows there were larger increases in basic military pay in seven of the last 19 years, including 5% in 2002 and 4.1% in 2003.
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 would raise basic military pay by 3%.
“Under current law, the pay raise for service members is, by default, set to equal the percentage change in” the employment cost index for private-sector workers’ wages and salaries, as the Congressional Budget Office explained in a 2018 report.
The president can “specify an alternative pay adjustment that supersedes the automatic adjustment,” and Congress can pass legislation that would “supersede the automatic adjustment and/or any presidential adjustment,” the CRS said in a May 6, 2019, report.
In his first budget, Trump proposed an increase of 2.1% — less than the 2.4% level set by the statutory formula for fiscal year 2018. Congress overrode the president’s proposal and provided the full military pay hike, according to the CRS report. Trump’s next three proposed budgets all followed the statutory formula, according to CRS and the White House fiscal 2021 budget proposal.
Fauci’s COVID-19 comments. Trump claimed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, initially said of COVID-19: “This will pass. Don’t worry about it. This will pass.” Trump added: “He was wrong.”
But that’s not exactly what Fauci said.
In a Jan. 21 interview on Newsmax TV — which was highlighted in a memo the White House sent to some news outlets — Fauci said: “Well, you know, obviously we need to take it seriously and do the kinds of things that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the Department of Homeland Security are doing. But this is not a major threat for the people in the U.S., and this is not something that the citizens of the U.S. right now should be worried about.”
Jan. 21 was the day the CDC announced the first U.S. case of the disease; relatively little was known about the virus at the time. Still, Fauci qualified his statement about the virus by saying there was no need to worry “right now” and “we need to take it seriously.”
Also, in a Feb. 29 interview on NBC’s “Today” show, which was also cited in the White House memo, Fauci said that “right now at this moment” the risk was “low” and there was “no need” for people “to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.” But, he warned, “When you start to see community spread” — which is when the source of infection is unknown — “this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread.” Fauci added that it could develop into a “major outbreak,” which is exactly what happened.
We wrote about Fauci’s “Today” show interview in late April.
Not the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate. As he has before, Trump falsely said the U.S has the “number one low mortality rate,” alternately saying when pressed, “I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.”
As Wallace explained in the televised interview, the Our World in Data figures the president contends demonstrate the nation’s low COVID-19 case fatality rate do not show that, as many countries are left off of the graph Trump produced. And even on the president’s graph, which was dated July 17, three countries bested America: Brazil, South Korea and Iceland.
Data collected by Johns Hopkins University also do not show the U.S. with a particularly low mortality rate. Of the 20 most affected countries, the U.S. had the seventh highest observed case fatality ratio and the third highest number of deaths per capita at the time of the interview.
Misleads on COVID-19 severity. In response to Wallace noting that COVID-19 cases are up 194%, while testing is only up 37%, Trump downplayed the concern, instead focusing on COVID-19 not being deadly to most people.
“Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day. They have the sniffles and we put it down as a test,” he said. “Many of them — don’t forget, I guess it’s like 99.7%, people are going to get better and in many cases they’re going to get better very quickly.”
It is true that younger people are less likely to die from COVID-19, although it still happens. But Trump overstates the percentage of people who survive the disease, and also misleadingly suggests, as he has before when he claimed 99% of coronavirus cases are “totally harmless,” that anyone who doesn’t die is left unscathed.
Scientists estimate that between 0.6% and 1% of all people who contract the coronavirus will die, with higher rates of death among the elderly and those with chronic conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, around 14% of cases are severe or require hospitalization, which means a sizable fraction of people are not simply those with “sniffles.”
Furthermore, some reports suggest that a proportion of COVID-19 patients do not recover quickly. Anecdotally, numerous patients have reported months of lingering symptoms, even after “mild” COVID-19 infections.
A July 9 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also found that among 143 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Italy, only 18 (12.6%) were completely free of symptoms after an average of two months, while nearly a third had one or two symptoms and more than half had three or more. The most common symptoms were fatigue, difficulty breathing, and joint and chest pain; 44% of patients reported having a worse quality of life relative to before their infections.
Not the “greatest economy.” Trump repeated one of his favorite false talking points: “I built the greatest economy ever built anywhere in the world; not only of this country, anywhere in the world.”
Under Trump, the economy — as measured by the real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product — grew 2.3% last year, 2.9% in 2018 and 2.4% in 2017, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 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, most recently in 2015.
The economy grew at an annual rate of 3.5% or more in seven straight years in the 1980s, including a high of 7.2% in 1984 under Reagan.
False claims on immigration. Trump also falsely said that the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations would “abolish immigration detention” and “end prosecution of illegal border crossers.” Trump made similar misstatements in his remarks in the White House Rose Garden on July 14.
As we have written, the recommendations call for using detention as a “last resort, not the default.” They also call for ending the use of for-profit detention centers. But they do not call for abolishing detention.
Similarly, the task force calls for reducing the number of prosecutions, not eliminating them. It calls for scrapping the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and focusing on prosecuting “human traffickers, smugglers” and other serious criminals.
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