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Trump’s Deceptive Comparison of the Coronavirus to the Flu

A new book by journalist Bob Woodward shows that President Donald Trump sought to downplay the seriousness of the novel coronavirus despite the fact that he knew just how dangerous it was.

One way he did that was to liken the coronavirus to the flu, even though he told Woodward in early February that the coronavirus was far more lethal. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump misleadingly contrasted the total deaths of an entire flu season with very preliminary numbers for the coronavirus.

In a Jan. 28 intelligence briefing, Woodward writes in “Rage,” National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien told Trump that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat” he would face.

In taped interviews, Trump underscored to Woodward just how deadly the disease could be. In a Feb. 7 conversation, Trump told Woodward, “This is deadly stuff,” adding that it might be five times more lethal than the flu. Trump said, “It’s also more deadly than your – you know, your, even your strenuous flus.”

Yet, as we have written, from Jan. 22 through March, Trump constantly minimized the danger of the disease. He often did so by comparing it to the flu, as he did at a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24.

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 — you know, 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.

Trump frequently said the disease would simply go away. On Feb. 10, he said, “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in.”  

On March 19, Trump told Woodward he was understating the threat on purpose. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, adding, “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

There have been 6,354,869 coronavirus cases in the United States and 190,589 deaths as of Sept. 9, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.

Despite knowing the severity of the threat, here’s what the president said in public remarks, interviews and tweets from Jan. 22 through March, often likening the novel coronavirus to the flu as a way of downplaying the danger.

Jan. 22: “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.” — Trump in a CNBC interview.

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.” — Trump at the White House. (See our item “Will the New Coronavirus ‘Go Away’ in April?“)

Feb. 26: “I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that — and I spoke with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me. And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is — one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000. Over the last 10 years, we’ve lost 360,000.” 

“This will end. This will end. You look at flu season. I said 26,000 people? I’ve never heard of a number like that. Twenty-six thousand people going up to 69,000 people, Doctor — you told me before. Sixty-nine thousand people die every year — from 26 [thousand] to 69 [thousand] — every year from the flu. Now, think of that. It’s incredible.”

“But when I mentioned the flu, I said — actually, I asked the various doctors. I said, ‘Is this just like flu?’ Because people die from the flu. And this is very unusual. And it is a little bit different, but in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s a little bit tougher.”

“But that’s a little bit like the flu. It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” — Trump at a White House coronavirus task force briefing.

Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” — Trump at a White House meeting with African American leaders.

Feb. 28: “So a number that nobody heard of that I heard of recently, and I was shocked to hear it, 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? Thirty-five thousand, that’s a lot of people. It could go to a hundred thousand. It could be 27,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die, and so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody. And it doesn’t mean we won’t and we are totally prepared. It doesn’t mean we won’t. But think of it, you hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody. You wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.” — Trump at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.

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.” — Trump at a White House meeting with airline CEOs.

March 4: “Now, with the regular flu, you know, we average from 27,000 to 77,000 deaths a year. Who would think that? I never knew that, until six or eight weeks ago. I asked that question. I said, how many people die of the flu? You know, you keep hearing about flu shot, flu shot, take your flu shot. But I said, how many people die of the flu? And they said, sir, we lose between 27,000 and, you know, somewhere in the 70s. I think we went as high as 100,000 people died in 1990, if you can believe that. But a lot of people, regardless, I think it averages about 36,000 people a year. So I said, wow. And that’s — now, that’s a percentage that’s under 1% very substantially. So, it would be interesting to see what that difference is. But, you know, again, a lot of people don’t report, because they get the coronavirus, and they get better relatively quickly. Not that severe.” — Trump in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

March 6: “We’ve had 11 deaths, and they’ve been largely old people who are — who were susceptible to what’s happening. Now, that would be the case, I assume, with a regular flu too. If somebody is old and in a weakened state or ill, they’re susceptible to the common flu too. You know, they were telling me just now that the common flu kills people and old people is sort of a target.” 

“Well, we’re considering different things [for dealing with the coronavirus]. But we’re also considering the fact that last year we had approximately 36,000 deaths due to what’s called the flu. And I was — when I first heard this four, five, six weeks ago — when I was hearing the amount of people that died with flu, I was shocked to hear it. Anywhere from 27,000 to 70,000 or 77,000. And I guess they said, in 1990, that was in particular very bad; it was higher than that.” — Trump after a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

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!” — Trump in a tweet.

March 10: “Look, right now, I guess we’re at 26 deaths, and if you look at the flu — the flu, for this year — we’re at 8 mil- — we’re looking at 8,000 deaths.  And, you know, hundreds of thousands of cases, but we have 8,000 deaths. So you have 8,000 versus 26 deaths, at this time. With all of that being said, we’re taking this unbelievably seriously, and I think we’re doing a really good job. And, again, the task force, headed up by the vice president, has been fantastic.”

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.” — Trump after meeting with Republican senators.

March 13: Trump declares a national emergency concerning the novel coronavirus.

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