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President Donald Trump delivers a prime-time address to the nation about the coronavirus from the Oval Office on March 11. (AP) President Donald Trump delivers a prime-time address to the nation about the coronavirus from the Oval Office on March 11. (AP)

President Donald Trump delivers a prime-time address to the nation about the coronavirus from the Oval Office on March 11. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 20, 2020
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 20, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • After the disease was in Washington state and the World Health Organization reported a high global risk, Trump said there were no worries of a pandemic.

  • The day the stock market plummeted, Trump said the virus was very much under control in the U.S., and the stock market was looking pretty good to him.

  • A few days after declaring a national emergency, Trump said he had “always known” this was a pandemic. (That’s Pants on Fire.)

In the span of three months, Americans went from hearing about a new virus in central China to being told they ought to stay home and avoid groups larger than 10. President Donald Trump went from telling people not to worry and everything was under control to leading daily press conferences on containing the outbreak in the United States.

The rapidly evolving story can be broken down into three phases: the emergence of the threat, the government’s focus on keeping it out of the United States, and finally, its efforts to contain the spread.

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Here are the key moments in each phase, and what Trump said at those times — fact-checked.

Phase One: The disease emerges

Dec. 31: China confirms existence of a new virus.

Jan. 20: World Health Organization reports cases in China, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.

Jan. 21: The first U.S. case is announced in Washington state (as well as Vietnam and Singapore). WHO says the virus risk globally is high.

Jan. 22: A reporter asks if there are worries about a pandemic. Trump responds:

"No. Not at all. And 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."

Jan. 24: Trump tweets, "It will all work out well."

Jan 29: The White House forms a coronavirus response task force, initially led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Jan. 30: The WHO declares a global health emergency.

Phase Two: Keeping it out of the United States

Jan. 30: Trump blocks travel from China.

The same night, he holds a campaign rally in Iowa.

"We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. ... we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it."

Feb. 2: Trump tells Fox News host Sean Hannity, "We pretty much shut it down coming in from China." 

Feb. 4: Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama, Japan. Over 2,600 guests and over 1,000 crew. Within two days, over 40 people test positive for COVID-19, including eight Americans.

Feb. 11: WHO names the new disease COVID-19.

Feb 14: Trump discusses the "very small" number of U.S. coronavirus cases with  Border Patrol Council members:

"We have a very small number of people in the country, right now, with it. It’s like around 12. Many of them are getting better. Some are fully recovered already. So we’re in very good shape."

Feb. 20: WHO reports nearly 77,000 cases worldwide in 27 countries.

Feb. 24: Stock market plummets as Dow Jones Industrials falls more than 1,000 points.

The same day, Trump asks for $1.25 billion in emergency aid. It grows to $8.3 billion in Congress.He tweets that the virus "is very much under control" and the stock market "starting to look very good to me!" 

Feb. 26: The first case emerges in California with no clear source, suggesting community spread of the virus.

In a news conference that day, Trump says the United States is "really prepared." He puts Vice President Mike Pence in charge of  the White House task force.

Feb. 28: Cases rise across Europe, including Italy, Germany, France, England, Switzerland and Belarus.

Phase Three: Containing the spread

Feb. 29: FDA eases guidelines to speed the broader use of testing.

March 4: House passes $8.3 billion emergency bill, aimed mainly at the immediate health response to the virus. 

In a Fox News interview, Trump deflects criticism to his response by saying the Obama administration (including the vice president, Joe Biden) "didn't do anything about" swine flu. We rated the claim False.

Trump continues to blame the Obama administration in an exchange with reporters at the White House. 

"The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing."

Our fact-check shows the process dated back to 2006, before Obama took office. So the claim is False

March 6: Grand Princess cruise ship with over 2,000 passengers waits to dock off the California coast.

Asked about the docking of the Grand Princess, Trump says the following:

"I would rather (Grand Princess passengers stay aboard) because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship." 

Trump went on to say that he thought it was more important for passengers to debark than to keep the numbers down.

In a news conference, Trump downplays the concerns around testing:

"Anybody that wants a test can get a test."

With tests in short supply, we rated the claim Pants on Fire.

The same day, Trump tweets out blame to the media and the Democrats for trying to "inflame" the situation "far beyond what the facts would warrant."

March 11: On the same day the WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic, Trump uses a prime-time Oval Office address to announce a ban on travel for non-Americans from most of Europe. He misstates a freeze on cargo and falsely said the health insurance industry has "agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments." In reality, getting tested would be free, but treatment would not be covered. 

March 13: Trump declares a national emergency to access $50 billion for states and territories, and clear the way for fast-track waivers for hospitals and doctors as they respond to the virus.

March 14: The House passes a worker and business relief bill with paid leave guarantees for certain workers, expanded food assistance and unemployment insurance benefits, and employer tax credits. Trump signs it four days later.

March 17: Trump said in a news conference that for the next 14 days, "we’re asking everyone to work at home, if possible, postpone unnecessary travel, and limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people."

Trump says there was no shift in tone from the White House.

"I've always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic."

As this timeline shows, Trump minimized the threat of a pandemic for many weeks. Pants on Fire!

Asked if the World Health Organization had offered detection tests to the United States, Trump said WHO had not, and that the WHO coronavirus test "was a bad test." False. WHO said three independent labs had validated the test, and the White House coordinator for coronavirus response said she assumed the WHO test is effective. 

March 19: The U.S. Senate unveils a $1 trillion-plus economic stimulus package. California orders lockdown for 40 million residents. 

March 20-23: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo orders all non-essential businesses to keep their workers home. Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois and many other states issue similar restrictions.

March 24: Having tweeted on the economic shutdown that "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," Trump says in a Fox News town hall he would "love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go by Easter."

Trump responds to a request from Cuomo for ventilators, reading from papers in his hand:

"(He) rejected buying recommended 16,000 ventilators in 2015 for the pandemic, for a pandemic, established death panels and lotteries instead. So, he had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price, and he turned it down."

False. A state study said that many might be needed in a crisis, but it also said there were immediate pressing health needs, and there was no money to buy that many ventilators.

That evening, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Fox News that Trump is flexible on economic restrictions: "The president clearly listens. I mean, he has this aspirational goal of hoping that we might be able to do it by a certain date. We talked with him about that. We say we need to be flexible. He realizes that and he accepts that."

March 27: Trump signs $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill. The act provides $1,200 per individual and $500 per child for households making up to $150,000 a year. Small businesses are eligible for loans — that can be forgiven — from a $377 billion fund. There’s a $454 billion fund for companies and state and local governments, and $180 billion for the health care sector. The details for families and small businesses are here. Details for corporations, states and health care, here.

Phase Four: Shifting expectations

March 29: Trump reverses course on relaxing strict stay-at-home guidance by Easter and extends the period to the end of April.

"The peak, the highest point of death rates — remember this — is likely to hit in two weeks," he said. "Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all."

In the press conference, he argues with "PBS NewsHour" reporter Yamiche Alcindor over what the president had said, or hadn’t said, about New York’s need for ventilators. Trump falsely denied saying that governors were requesting equipment they didn’t need.

March 30: Cases top 163,000. The number of tests crosses the 1 million mark, still behind where the country needs to be. Trump tells Fox News:

"We inherited a broken test" for COVID-19. 

Trump’s impossible claim is Pants on Fire. There could be no test before the new virus emerged. China first confirmed its existence Dec. 31, 2019, and shared its genetic sequence Jan. 7. The CDC’s first shipment of tests to states contained tainted reagents. That and bureaucratic delays cost the U.S. several critical weeks in testing. 

March 31: Trump asks Americans to be prepared for the "hard days that lie ahead."

"This is going to be a very painful — very, very painful two weeks," he said. "When you look and see at night the kind of death that's been caused by this invisible enemy, it's — it's incredible."

The coronavirus death toll reaches about 3,700.

April 1: Trump talks about keeping the transportation system running.

"They’re doing tests on airlines — very strong tests — for getting on, getting off. They’re doing tests on trains — getting on, getting off." 

This confuses screening — which is happening at only 13 airports and not at any train station — with testing. Screening involves a temperature check or a questionnaire, and takes place only for people traveling from certain countries. This claim is Pants on Fire

April 4: Trump urges use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to fight the virus.

"I hope they use it, because I'll tell you what: What do you have to lose?"

Hospitals are using the drug, but the benefits remain unclear, and the risk of heart damage is well documented. (Doctors in Brazil halted a trial when patients developed irregular heart beats.) Of the two limited tests that suggested it worked, one was later discredited by the scientific society that published it, and efforts to replicate their results failed. See our research round-up here.

April 11: The total number of workers signing up to get unemployment insurance checks reaches nearly 12 million, the highest number (seasonally adjusted) since the government began tracking.

The same day, the United States passes Italy for the most confirmed COVID-19 deaths — over 20,000.

April 13: Eager to restart the economy, Trump says as president he has "total" authority to decide when states lift quarantine rules and other restrictions.

Pants on Fire. Trump overlooked the principle of federalism which reserves certain powers to the states. Legal experts said no part of the Constitution gives the president unlimited power.

Trump also unveiled a White House video summary of progress against the virus. The video used quotes out of context, excluded Trump’s comments during the time when he downplayed the crisis, and ended up highlighting the lack of action during the critical month of February.

April 14: Fourth economic rescue bill stalls. Republicans seek additional $250 billion for small businesses. Democrats agree, but also want another $250 billion for hospitals and state and local governments. On April 16, the SBA says it has committed all of the nearly $350 billion small business aid program called the Paycheck Protection Program.

April 16: Trump releases guidelines to restart the economy. 

"To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy," Trump said. He left the decision of whether to relax restrictions in the hands of each state. The guidelines said states should first make sure that the number of cases was headed down.

"If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that," he said. "And if they believe it is time to reopen, we will provide them the freedom and guidance to accomplish that task."

Trump said that while Washington will help with the wide-scale testing required, testing is in the hands of each state. Public health researchers and state officials issued a report saying to be successful, the testing and contact tracing requires "a new national initiative that combines a massive expansion of rapid diagnostic tests in every community with an unprecedented growth in a public health workforce."

April 17: Total number of U.S. cases tops 672,000, with nearly 34,000 deaths.

"Supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way … It sounds interesting."

April 24: At the regular White House coronavirus briefing, Trump suggests getting disinfectant and light inside the body are interesting possibilities. Experts told us that not only are both approaches ineffective, they can be dangerous.

"You should absolutely open the schools. Our country has got to get back, and it’s got to get back as soon as possible. And I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed."

April 29: The Trump administration organized Operation Warp Speed, which aimed to have substantial quantities of a vaccine by January 2021 as well as to develop therapeutics.

May 13: During a meeting with the governors of Colorado and North Dakota, Trump links reopening the economy with reopening schools.

May 29: Trump announces he is terminating relations with the World Health Organization, saying China "pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities."

In our fact-check of Trump’s claims against WHO and China, we found he ignored actions WHO took to alert the global public health community, and assumed, without evidence, that WHO knew that China was censoring reports of the spread of the disease.

"We’re opening, and we’re opening with a bang. And we’ve been talking about the V. This is better than a V; this is a rocket ship."

June 8: Trump celebrates the recovery of 4.8 million jobs, comparing the coronavirus with a hurricane. "The hurricane goes away, and within two hours, everyone is rebuilding and fixing and cleaning and cutting their grass," Trump said.

COVID-19 cases are "up only because of our big number testing."

June 23: As both testing and new cases rise, Trump argued that the first caused the second. But if that were true, the share of tests coming back positive would hold steady or fall. In 12 days, between June 10 and June 22, the positivity rate rose by about 25%. We rated Trump’s claim False.

"We have tested over 40 million people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless."

President Donald Trump stands on stage before he speaks at the Mount Rushmore National Monument Friday, July 3, 2020, in Keystone, S.D. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

July 4: In his Fourth of July speech in Washington, Trump minimizes the threat of the virus. At the time Trump spoke, based on the number of test-confirmed cases, overall 4.5% of victims had died since the pandemic struck. Daily hospitalizations were at 4% of cases.  We rated this False.

"We have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world."

July 19: Trump said the United States compared quite favorably with other countries in preventing deaths from the virus. No fewer than 15 advanced, industrialized nations currently have a lower mortality rate, as do a host of other countries, including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Russia, Turkey, Argentina and India. We rated this False.

"It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better."

July 21: As cases and deaths surge in states across the South, as well as in Texas, Arizona and California, Trump returned to brief the press on the coronavirus. In a marked shift in tone, he warned that harder times were on the way. Before, Trump had downplayed the need to wear masks. That message changed.

"We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask," Trump said. "Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.  They’ll have an effect. And we need everything we can get."

Aug. 5: Trump downplayed the chances that children would catch COVID-19 and urged schools to reopen.

"Children are "almost immune from this disease."

It’s wrong to say children are "almost immune" to the virus. Before he spoke, there were cases spread at an overnight camp in the U.S. and at some schools overseas, including in Israel. We rated this statement False

Aug. 6: Trump says on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show that a vaccine could be available before the end of the year — or "right around" the Nov. 3 election. Trump has repeatedly presented a more rosy picture of the vaccine development timeline than some other government officials. Even if the vaccine is ready before 2021, it’s likely that it won’t be widely available and will be distributed to certain essential workers or populations first.

Aug. 17: Trump holds a campaign rally in Oshkosh, Wis., an important battleground state that he won in 2016, and dismisses the fact that the U.S. has more cases and deaths than any other country:

"We're coming back and our numbers are better than almost all countries."

The White House pointed to one number to back that up — the number of deaths relative to the number of known cases. But by other yardsticks, the United States was doing worse than many countries, including a higher death rate in relation to its population, and the test positivity rate. We rated this sweeping claim False.

Sept. 1: As the U.S. reaches the 6 million mark for confirmed cases, Trump boosts a conspiracy theory about the CDC’s coronavirus death toll, first on Twitter and then on Fox News on Laura Ingraham’s show.

"Only 6% of the people actually died from COVID."

Pants on Fire! Trump misconstrued data on coronavirus deaths. A National Center for Health Statistics report found that, for about 6% of Americans who die from the virus, COVID-19 is the only condition listed on their death certificates. But that doesn’t mean the remaining 94% didn’t die due to the coronavirus. Officials said COVID-19 is the underlying cause of death for most victims. 

Sept. 7: Speaking at the White House on Labor Day, Trump hinted again that he thought we may have a vaccine by Election Day: "So we’re going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I’m talking about." Two days later at a Senate panel hearing, federal health officials expressed caution about that timeline.

Sept. 9: Investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s new book about Trump entitled "Rage" is released early to some media outlets. The Washington Post posts audio from Woodward’s March 19 interview with Trump in which the presdient said of his early COVID-19 response:

"To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic."

This story was updated April 1, April 17, July 23 and Sept. 10.
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