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As health officials push increased testing as key to managing COVID-19, Trump has increasingly questioned the need for testing.
The president has called testing “overrated” and repeatedly said the high number of confirmed cases makes the U.S. look bad.
He went a step farther at a rally in Oklahoma, saying the U.S. should slow testing as a result. Aides insisted he was joking, while Trump at one point said he wasn’t joking, and at another said he wasn’t serious about slowing testing.
The attack ad in question lays out these quotes in chronological order in a way that is fair to the context where Trump used them.
Months into the coronavirus pandemic, much remains unknown about the virus’ origins, transmission and longevity.
But the need for more testing is a point of near unanimous agreement among health officials, scientists and members of both political parties. It’s the pathway to better understanding how far the disease has spread, how common severe cases are and how best to address it.
So is the president pushing to limit testing?
A new attack ad from Priorities USA targeting Wisconsin and other battleground states makes that claim with a series of quotes from President Donald Trump. Over the mandatory ominous music, the ad plays four Trump quotes asserting testing is making America look bad, so we should slow it down.
Ads in this style have been known to pull quotes out of context or rearrange them chronologically to create a more compelling narrative.
That didn’t happen here.
America has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the world — with 2.3 million as of June 24, 2020 — and has also done the most testing in the world, in terms of raw numbers. Across the nation we are conducting about 500,000 tests per day now, double where we were in early May, according to covidtracking.com.
That said, many countries have done more testing on a per-capita basis, as detailed by Johns Hopkins University. Throughout the pandemic the U.S. has averaged about 56 tests per day per 100,000 people. Germany, Canada, Spain and Australia have all tested at a higher rate, and Russia and Qatar are among a handful of countries that have topped 100 daily tests per 100,000 people.
But since May, the president has also increasingly pushed back against testing, calling it "overrated" and noting the bad optics associated with the higher case counts. He took that line of reasoning a step farther in his latest comments, as detailed in the ad.
Here are the four quotes in context.
Trump said this May 6, 2020, during a meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
"The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad."
Reynolds — a Republican — responded to Trump by highlighting the importance of testing: "That really provides us the data we need to understand the virus activity better." Trump, meanwhile, has made numerous similar comments, including a June 19, 2020, Wall Street Journal interview where he called testing "overrated" and said "in many ways, it makes us look bad."
Trump said this May 14, 2020, during an appearance in Pennsylvania.
"Don’t forget, we have more cases than anyone in the world, but why? Because we do more testing. When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases."
Trump asserts there would be fewer cases if there were less testing. Of course, less testing would simply mean officials are aware of less cases, or there would be fewer identified cases — it wouldn’t mean fewer cases exist.
But this line of thinking is consistent with other comments from the president, including a May 15, 2020, event where Trump said, "If we didn't do any testing, we would have very few cases," and "Maybe it (testing) is overrated."
These statements, used separately in the ad, are both from a June 20, 2020, rally in Oklahoma.
"You know, testing is a double-edged sword. We’ve tested now 25 million people. It’s probably 20 million people more than anybody else. German’s done a lot. South Korea’s done a lot. They called me, they said the job you’re doing (trails off). Here’s the bad part. When you’re testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’"
(Note: The U.S. has conducted more tests than any other country in terms of raw numbers, but the "20 million … more than anybody else" is wrong. Russia has conducted more than 17 million tests, according to tallies from Our World in Data)
Various White House officials claimed Trump was speaking in "jest", was "obviously kidding" or was speaking "tongue in cheek" about slowing down testing. Trump himself has responded to this assertion multiple ways.
On June 23, 2020, he was asked specifically if he was kidding about slowing down testing. He responded, "I don’t kid. Let me just tell you. Let me make it clear," then went on to talk about America having "the greatest testing program anywhere."
But in an interview that day with FOX News, Trump responded to a question — "But you don’t mean, do you mean slow down testing?" — by backing away from the statement and reiterating the idea that the U.S. would look better if it tested less.
"No I don’t mean slow down, but if we did slow down … let’s say instead of 25 million tests we did 5 million tests, we’d be very low in cases right now, and everyone would say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful,’" Trump told "Fox & Friends."
Dr. Anthony Fauci — part of the national coronavirus task force — said that day in testimony before Congress the federal government is trying to expand coronavirus testing, not slow it down. Fauci told the House Energy and Commerce Committee, "None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing."
An attack ad targeting various battleground states quotes Trump as saying testing makes the U.S. look bad, "so I said to my people slow the testing down."
Video recordings show he did indeed say these lines, and in the order presented. And the overall impression created by the ad is consistent with Trump’s messaging over the preceding month and a half.
As health officials and politicians alike have pushed for more testing, Trump has expressed increasing doubts as to its importance, progressing from calling it "overrated" to calling for the slow down. Though White House officials defended that as a joke, Trump at one point contradicted that, while at another saying he didn’t mean it.
We rate this claim True.
Priorities USA, "Testing," June 22, 2020
Priorities USA, PUSA Digital "Testing" (:15) Backup, June 23, 2020
The White House YouTube channel, President Trump Meets with the Governor of Iowa, May 6, 2020
Factbase Videos YouTube channel, Remarks: Donald Trump Visits Owens & Minor Distribution Center in Allentown, PA, May 14, 2020
Donald J. Trump YouTube channel, LIVE: President Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20, 2020
Johns Hopkins University, Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed June 24, 2020
The COVID Tracking Project, US Historical Data, accessed June 24, 2020
Johns Hopkins University, How Does Testing in the U.S. Compare to Other Countries?, June 24, 2020
The White House YouTube channel, President Trump Meets with the Governor of Texas, May 7, 2020
USA TODAY, Trump calls high number of coronavirus cases in the USA a 'badge of honor,' attributes it to testing, May 19, 2020
Wall Street Journal, Trump Talks Juneteenth, John Bolton, Economy in WSJ Interview, June 19, 2020
USA TODAY, Trump describes coronavirus testing as 'overrated' and calls for less if virus reemerges, June 18, 2020
Our World in Data, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Testing, updated June 23, 2020
ABC News, White House claims Trump just joking when he said he ordered COVID testing slowdown, June 22, 2020
Washington Post, Trump gives grievance-filled speech to unfilled arena as protests stay mostly peaceful, June 20, 2020
USA TODAY, White House adviser says Trump's call for less coronavirus testing was 'tongue in cheek', June 21, 2020
Weijia Jiang, tweet, June 23, 2020
FOX News, Trump explains rally remark about slowing down COVID-19 testing in Fox News interview, June 23, 2020
NBC News, Breaking with Trump, Fauci says U.S. will do 'more testing, not less,' June 23, 2020
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