President Donald Trump is trying hard to cast himself as the wise leader who rejected the advice of a “group” of people who had portrayed the coronavirus as a “mere flu” and had argued that life should go on as normal.
He did not mention that he had been the most powerful member of that group.
On Tuesday, Trump’s marathon coronavirus press conference included the usual barrage of specific false claims. But it was more notable for the dishonesty of the broad story he was telling — an audacious attempt to erase his previous coronavirus response.
For the first time since the outbreak hit the United States, Trump spoke frankly about projections that suggest 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the virus even if people follow federal guidelines meant to slow its spread. But he also made a claim that he prevented a much higher death toll, as high as 2.2 million, by taking the virus much more seriously than some other intelligent people.
“Think of what would have happened if we didn’t do anything. I mean, I’ve had many friends — businesspeople — 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. It’s vicious,” he said.
But Trump himself repeatedly told Americans in January and February to think of the coronavirus as the flu.
At the coronavirus briefing on February 26, for example, Trump said all of the following: “This is a flu. This is like a flu”; “Now, you treat this like a 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.”
Just four days ago, on March 27, he said that you can call the coronavirus “a flu,” or a virus or a germ.
Trump never used the phrase “ride it out” in downplaying the coronavirus — but he had expressed precisely the same sentiment. As recently as the second week of March, Trump was an advocate of facing the virus without taking drastic measures to address it.
“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,” he tweeted on March 9. “Think about that!” CNN’s tally on March 9 was 565 confirmed cases.
Asked Tuesday about the period when he was downplaying the coronavirus, Trump said that, during that time, “people didn’t know that much about it, even the experts.”
However, White House officials in September 2019 warned Trump that a coronavirus the pandemic could cause the deaths of a half million Americans and cost the economy as much as $3.8 trillion. Trump chose to ignore them.
Trump’s minimization efforts continued into late February and early March — when it was abundantly clear to experts inside and outside the government that the virus was much worse than the flu and that the US was likely to face a severe problem.
Here are a few fact checks of claims that Trump made during Tuesday’s briefing:
Trump on Tuesday again touted anti-malaria drugs as a potentially effective treatment for coronavirus, and extolled their safety, despite the lack of scientific studies on the matter.
“It’s been out there for a long time,” Trump said of the drug chloroquine and a related drug, hydroxychloroquine. “Very powerful drug. But it’s been out there, so it’s tested in the sense that you know it doesn’t kill you.”
Facts: While the drugs have been available for a while, Trump’s wrong to imply that they’ve been proven safe for Covid-19 patients.
The drugs have been used to safely prevent and treat malaria, and for lupus and other conditions. But there isn’t scientific data proving that they’re safe for coronavirus patients. There’s no evidence to back up Trump’s assertion that it’s already known that Covid-19 patients won’t die from the treatment. The drug can lead to cardiac side effects, including an irregular heartbeat, which can be especially dangerous for patients with Covid-19, doctors say.
“We stopped all of Europe,” Trump said of travel restrictions his administration passed to slow the spread of coronavirus. He later claimed he stopped travel from Italy before imposing broader European travel restrictions.
“We started with certain parts of Italy, and then all of Italy,” Trump said. “Then we saw Spain. Then I said, stop Europe, let’s stop Europe. We have to stop them from coming here.”
Facts: Trump did not issue a series of travel bans before restricting broader travel from Europe. Furthermore, the travel restrictions Trump did announce in a prime-time Oval Office address on March 11 did not apply to all European countries and contained multiple exemptions for countries where he has golf resorts.
Trump says it was unknown how contagious coronavirus was
During the presser, Trump claimed that it was unknown early on how contagious the coronavirus was. “The one thing nobody really knew about this virus was how contagious it was,” he said. “It’s so incredibly contagious and nobody knew that.”
Facts: It’s misleading to suggest that nobody knew how contagious the coronavirus was. Since late January and February researchers and health experts were warning the virus was likely highly contagious.
On January 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voiced concerns about the lack of information and data coming from China, specifically regarding how contagious the virus was.
On January 26, China’s health minister warned that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms, making the virus much harder to contain.
By February 19, the Chinese CDC, in a study of more than 72,000 confirmed and suspected cases of the novel coronavirus, found that the virus was more contagious than the related viruses that cause SARS and MERS.
However, as late as March 9, however, Trump was downplaying the threat of the virus in the US, noting that the flu kills thousands of Americans each year and that there were only 565 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US at the time.