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President Donald Trump speaks at the White House about the coronavirus on March 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Brandon) President Donald Trump speaks at the White House about the coronavirus on March 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Brandon)

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House about the coronavirus on March 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Brandon)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy March 27, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • An ad from Priorities USA juxtaposes Trump’s early quotes downplaying the threat of the coronavirus with a graph showing its exponential spread.

  • The quotes from Trump are real. But the ad splices one comment about a “hoax” to leave an impression that the Trump campaign disputes. 

  • Some viewers might assume that the timing of Trump’s comments matches the growth in U.S. cases that the ad shows. Most of the comments came as cases were just starting to mount.

As Americans are spending more time indoors, a top progressive super PAC is filling the TV airwaves with a hard-hitting ad attacking President Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus.

The ad from Priorities USA slams Trump for downplaying the virus that has infected tens of thousands of people in the United States. It juxtaposes quotes from Trump with a graph that traces the exponential growth of coronavirus cases. 

The ad drew sharp criticism from the Trump campaign, which sent a cease and desist letter to TV stations calling the ad "patently false, misleading, and deceptive."

The ad charts the rise in coronavirus cases in the U.S. from Jan. 20 to March 22. It ends with a clip of Trump from a March 13 White House press conference, saying, "No, I don’t take responsibility at all." The Trump quotes featured in the ad are all real.

But the campaign’s letter to TV stations says the ad "stitched together fragments from multiple speeches" to give the impression that Trump called the coronavirus a "hoax." 

Priorities USA responded by expanding their ad buy, throwing another $600,000 dollars behind its initial $6 million investment, according to a press release. Priorities USA spokesman Josh Schwerin told us the organization stands by the facts in the ad.

Overall, the ad splices together many audio clips that were clearly made at different times. The clips don’t necessarily align with the rise in cases that the ad shows. We’ll take you through the ad.

"The coronavirus … this is their new hoax."

Trump’s "hoax" comment came during a Feb. 28 campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C. Trump’s comments at the rally are not particularly clear. 

After accusing Democrats of "politicizing the coronavirus," Trump criticized the 2016 Russia investigation and his impeachment in the House before turning back to the virus.

"Think of it," he said. "And this is their new hoax."

The following day, a reporter asked what he meant. Trump said he was referring not to COVID-19, but to "the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody."

"I’m not talking about what’s happening here; I’m talking about what they’re doing. That’s the hoax," Trump said, fueling the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that Democrats and the media have exaggerated the threat of the coronavirus to hurt his reelection chances.

When former Vice President Joe Biden ran a similar ad that appeared to show Trump calling the coronavirus a hoax, we rated it False because the ad spliced and edited the video to make Trump’s comments seem more clear than they actually were. (Read Trump’s full remarks here.)

The Priorities USA ad uses a brief clip from Trump’s comments to suggest he was saying the coronavirus itself is a hoax. That’s up for interpretation. 

In the ad, the "hoax" comment is heard and displayed on screen while the graph shows U.S. coronavirus cases ticking from one case to five cases.

In reality, the comment came later, when there were 59 U.S. cases, according to the World Health Organization

"We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China."

This comment came during a Jan. 22 interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen. 

Kernen asked whether Trump had been briefed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and whether there were worries about the coronavirus spiraling into a pandemic.

"No, not at all," Trump said. "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."

The quote is featured in the Priorities USA ad while the graph of U.S. coronavirus cases moves from five cases to eight cases.

In reality, the CDC had just announced the detection of the first U.S. case in Washington state on Jan. 21. That person had just traveled to Wuhan, China, where the disease was first identified. 

"One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear."

This quote came during a meeting with black leaders on Feb. 27. Flanked by commentators Rochelle Richardson and Terrence Williams, Trump heralded his administration efforts.

"We have done an incredible job," he said. "We’re going to continue. It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear. And from our shores, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows."

"It will all work out," Trump continued, adding that the low numbers in the U.S. — he said there were 15 cases, although the actual number was closer to 60 — were reflective of a "miracle."

The Priorities USA ad highlights this quote while the graph shows cases in the U.S. rising from nine cases to 11 cases. But again, there were really some 59 confirmed cases by then.

"When you have 15 people, and within a couple of days, it’s going to be down to close to zero … We really think we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum."

These remarks came during a Feb. 26 press conference, when Trump contradicted warnings from top health officials by insisting that the spread of the coronavirus through the U.S. was not "inevitable" and claiming the number of U.S. cases was "going very substantially down."

Trump repeatedly claimed that there were then only 15 Americans with the virus, even though the WHO and CDC had counted closer to 60. He seemed to be referring to people diagnosed in the United States, while leaving out those who had been repatriated with the virus from abroad.

The Priorities USA ad features these comments while the graph depicting U.S. cases spikes to more than 5,000 — far more than what the CDC and WHO had recorded by then.

"I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it."

Trump made this remark during a March 7 visit to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta. 

The visit came one day after Trump wrongly claimed that anyone could get a diagnostic test for the coronavirus. 

In the Priorities USA ad, the comment comes as the graph shows U.S. coronavirus cases skyrocketing over 30,000 and off the grid. 

But the CDC and the independent COVID Tracking Project show that the number of U.S. cases eclipsed 30,000 on March 22. On March 7, the number of known cases was closer to 300.

A final note: U.S. cases really took off after the calendar flipped to March, according to the CDC and COVID Tracking Project

By then, Trump’s rhetoric toward the coronavirus had shifted. On Twitter and in an address to the nation, he continued celebrating his response, but he also encouraged elderly populations to be "very careful" and urged all Americans to practice good hygiene.

He declared a national emergency on March 13. Days later, he said the U.S. was in a "big war."

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Our Sources

Priorities USA on YouTube, "Exponential Threat," March 23, 2020

Priorities USA on Twitter, March 23, 2020

The COVID Tracking Project, "US Historical Data," accessed March 26, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Cases in U.S.," March 26, 2020

Priorities USA, "Priorities USA Expands "Exponential Threat" Ad Buy to Arizona Following Trump Campaign’s Failed Challenge," March 26, 2020

Redacted letter from Alex W. Cannon, special counsel for the Trump campaign, March 25, 2020

Politico, "Priorities USA begins $6 million blitz of anti-Trump coronavirus ads," March 24, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing," March 19, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Conference," March 13, 2020

The White House, "Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak," March 13, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump in Address to the Nation," March 11, 2020

The White House on YouTube, "President Trump Visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," March 7, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Conference," Feb. 29, 2020

News 19 WLTX on YouTube, "President Trump speaks at rally in North Charleston, South Carolina: live at 7PM," Feb. 28, 2020

The World Health Organization, "Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 39," Feb. 28, 2020

The White House on YouTube, "President Trump Attends a Meeting and Photo Opportunity with Black Leaders," Feb. 27, 2020

The World Health Organization, "Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 38," Feb. 27, 2020

The White House on YouTube, "President Trump and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force Hold a News Conference," Feb. 26, 2020

CNBC Television on YouTube, "Watch the full CNBC interview with U.S. President Donald Trump at Davos," Jan. 22, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "First Travel-related Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Detected in United States," Jan. 21, 2020

PolitiFact, "Timeline: How Donald Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic," March 20, 2020

PolitiFact, "Trump says he always felt coronavirus was a pandemic. He didn’t talk that way," March 18, 2020

PolitiFact, "Ad Watch: Biden video twists Trump’s words on coronavirus," March 15, 2020

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump’s wrong claim that ‘anybody’ can get tested for coronavirus," March 11, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking President Donald Trump on the coronavirus," Feb. 28, 2020

Email interview with Josh Schwerin, director of communications at Priorities USA, March 26, 2020

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