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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 September 27, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Donald Trump regularly minimized the threat of the virus.

  • He exaggerated the country’s gains against the disease.

  • He touted drugs that proved to be ineffective.

  • He falsely blamed others for the country’s lagging efforts to control the spread inside its borders.

President Donald Trump has faced many adversaries, but none as unbending and deaf to his words as the coronavirus. 

Early on in the outbreak, as Trump was saying the country had just a handful of cases and matters were well under control, the virus was rampant in New York City. It just hadn’t made people sick yet.

When the United States had about 60,000 deaths, Trump voiced cautious optimism that the toll might stop short of 100,000, the low-end projection. The country is now past the 200,000 mark. 

Trump’s words about the virus have strayed from the truth in ways small and large.

He denied ever saying that Chinese President Xi Jinping had done "a good job." In fact, he said it at least three times.

He said COVID-19 is like the seasonal flu. It’s not. It is a new virus, and our bodies’ arsenal of antibodies must start from scratch to beat it back. And it can attack the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain in ways the flu doesn’t.

Trump has deployed misleading and incorrect claims to downplay the threat, tout his leadership, pitch ineffective treatments and blame others for the nation’s struggles. On a recently released tape, Trump declared that he aimed to downplay the virus.

Here are 10 instances of false claims that stand out.

99% of COVID-19 cases "are totally harmless."

On the Fourth of July, Trump played down the danger of COVID-19.

"We have tested over 40 million people," Trump said July 4. "By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless."

At the time he said that, 4.5% of cases had ended in death; 4% of each day’s new cases sent people to the hospital.

We rated this claim False.

"Only 6% of the people actually died from COVID." The others "died from other reasons."

In an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Trump fed the belief that official reports greatly exaggerate the death toll.

"I saw a statistic come out the other day, talking about only 6% of the people actually died from COVID, which is a very interesting — that they died from other reasons," Trump said Sept. 1.

Ingraham pushed back, correctly noting that the death reports didn’t say that at all.

COVID-19 can trigger a cascade of organ failures in vulnerable people. It can, for example, cause a person with a heart condition to go into cardiac arrest. That doesn’t change the pivotal role of the coronavirus.

"The people dying were not going to die but for the acquisition of COVID," said Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The government found that of the death certificates that mention coronavirus, 94% called COVID-19 the "underlying cause of death."

We rated this claim Pants on Fire.

Children are "almost immune from this disease."

"This thing is going away, it will go away like things go away. My view is that schools should be open," Trump said on Fox and Friends Aug. 5.  "If you look at children, children are almost, I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease."

At the time he said that, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that children accounted for about 7.3% of cases, and represented fewer than 1% of deaths.  

"Children as a group are clearly less impacted by this virus than adults, but to say they are almost immune does not provide a truthful message," said University of South Florida public health professor Dr. Marissa J. Levine.

Strictly speaking, immunity means a person has antibodies to defeat the virus, but that’s impossible with a virus it hasn’t encountered before.

Trump also overlooked the potential for students to transmit the virus, even if they remain outwardly healthy.

We rated this claim False.

"If we stopped testing right now, we'd have very few cases, if any."

While the wording has varied, this remains one of Trump’s preferred talking points. As the U.S. massively ramped up testing, the case count rose.

"If you don't test, you don't have any cases," Trump said at a June 15 roundtable discussion at the White House. "If we stopped testing right now, we'd have very few cases, if any."

This is wrong.

Testing reveals cases only if they are there to be found. 

A key yardstick of the infection’s spread is the percentage of tests that come back positive. Through much of July and into August, the U.S. had a positivity rate over 7%. It has come down to 5.8%, but that still puts the U.S. in the middle of the pack globally. Germany’s rate is 0.8%. The United Kingdom is at 1.3%.

Not testing wouldn’t reduce the number of cases, but it would make it harder for hospitals and health officials to know what was going on in their communities.

We rated this claim Pants on Fire.

"Our (COVID-19) numbers are better than almost all countries."

At a rally in Oshkosh, Wis., Trump said the country was "doing great." 

"We're coming back and our numbers are better than almost all countries," he said Aug. 17.

The White House has numbers to back that up, but even the source it uses says it hinges on a measure that doesn’t tell you much.

Judged by the number of deaths per case, the U.S. has a death rate that’s half that in Europe and a hair under the global average.

But by a tougher standard — the risk of dying based on the entire population — the United States has the 10th-highest death rate in the world. It’s doing better than the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Chile, but worse than France, Canada and Germany, to pick a few examples.

We rated this claim False.

The health insurance industry has "agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments."

In a rare Oval Office address, Trump reassured Americans that getting treated for COVID-19 wouldn’t break the bank.

"Earlier this week, I met with the leaders of the health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing," Trump said March 11.

The co-payment part was wrong.

Insurance companies had promised to waive co-pays on testing, not treatment.

And even testing came with pitfalls. Some patients who followed their doctor’s advice and went to an emergency room for testing ended up getting bills well over $1,000. The test might be covered, but emergency room fees were another matter.

We rated this claim False.

Multiple statements that minimized the threat of the virus

This September, we learned about the gap between what Trump knew and what he told the public in the early phase of the pandemic.

During that period, Trump had a couple of key interviews with Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward.

On Feb. 7, Trump told Woodward, "This is deadly stuff."

"You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed," Trump said. "That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus."

But a week later, Trump told Americans "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."

On Feb. 24, he tweeted "The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA."

Events quickly overwhelmed those reassuring words.

On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency. Four days after that, he called on "everyone to work at home, if possible, postpone unnecessary travel, and limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people."

By April 1, over 5,000 people had died, and cases topped 200,000.

In a March 19 interview, Trump explained himself to Woodward. 

"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."

Hydroxychloroquine is "having some very good results."

Trump was quick to focus on the promise of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used for treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

"I hope they use it, because I'll tell you what: What do you have to lose?" he said April 4, one of many times he spoke of the drug.

The problem has been twofold: The drug can trigger heart problems for people with underlying conditions. And it doesn’t help against COVID-19.

Trump continued to tout hydroxychloroquine through August.

But as assistant secretary of health Adm. Brett Giroir, put it, "There have been five randomized controlled, placebo-controlled trials that do not show any benefit to hydroxychloroquine."

Using disinfectants and sunlight to treat COVID-19

During the April 23 White House coronavirus briefing, William Bryan, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, outlined a new DHS study that found sunlight and household disinfectants adversely affect the coronavirus on surfaces and in the air.

Trump focused on that.

"Supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too," he said to Bryan. "Then I see the disinfectant knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?"

Trump’s comments echoed online hoaxes about how to prevent and treat the virus. Health experts say ingesting disinfectants and exposing oneself to ultraviolet light is not only ineffective, but also dangerous.

"We inherited a broken test" for COVID-19

The lack of widespread testing put the country at a disadvantage as the virus took hold in cities from coast to coast. Countries such as South Korea and Germany quickly distributed tests that made it possible to spot outbreaks and isolate infected people.

In contrast, the first tests from the federal government were flawed and had to be retooled, costing many valuable weeks.

Trump deflected blame for the slow start of testing for the new coronavirus in the United States.

"We inherited a broken test," he said on Fox News’ "Fox and Friends" March 30, pointing a finger at the previous administration. 

That could not be.

There could be no test for the virus that causes COVID-19 until the virus emerged. It wasn’t identified until the end of December 2019. The genetic sequence, the basis for any test, was circulated around Jan. 10, 2020.

We rated that claim Pants on Fire.

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