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Between the end of January and mid March, Trump told the public that the virus was well under control and presented little risk.
He told Bob Woodward that he played down the virus to avoid creating panic.
Confronted with a recording of President Donald Trump from mid March saying that he minimized the coronavirus in public, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the opposite was true.
"The president never downplayed the virus," she said in a White House press briefing Sept. 9.
McEnany was responding to the release of recorded interviews from investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s new book about Trump entitled "Rage." The audio posted by the Washington Post shows Trump explaining to Woodward why his message about the virus shifted between January and March.
"To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down," Trump said March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic."
McEnany said Trump never lied to the American people.
"He was expressing calm, and he was taking early action, and his actions are reflective of how seriously he took it," she said.
We tracked Trump’s responses as the pandemic unfolded. Between January and mid March, Trump consistently minimized the threat posed by the virus. He would talk about the handful of cases in the country and compare them with the more than 25,000 deaths caused by seasonal flu. He said the country had gotten "lucky."
Here are some key moments in the early months of the pandemic that show him downplaying the threat.
On Jan. 24, Trump tweeted his thanks to China for working to contain the virus.
"It will all work out well," he wrote.
On Jan. 30, Trump announced restrictions on travel from China. That night, he told supporters at 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."
On Feb. 2, he told Fox News host Sean Hannity, "We pretty much shut it down coming in from China."
On Feb. 14, in a meeting with members of the Border Patrol Council, he remained reassuring.
"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, Trump asked Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency aid. The same day he tweeted that the virus "is very much under control" and the stock market was "starting to look very good to me!"
As late as March 9, Trump tweeted out blame to the media and the Democrats for trying to "inflame" the situation "far beyond what the facts would warrant." He cited the U.S. surgeon general as saying, "The risk is low to the average American."
Over the next few days, the situation changed rapidly. The World Health Organization officially designated the virus as a pandemic. Trump banned most non-Americans arriving from Europe. He declared a state of emergency.
On 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."
At the news conference, Trump said 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."
We rated that claim Pants on Fire because whatever he may have known at the time, his words up to that point did not reflect the threat of a pandemic.
Two days after that, he spoke to Woodward about why he downplayed the virus earlier and why he wanted to continue to downplay it.
McEnany said Trump never downplayed the virus.
The record shows she’s wrong. During the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump said the country was in very good shape and blamed Democrats and the media for trying to inflame the situation beyond what the facts would warrant.
In the very tape that McEnany was asked about, Trump said he downplayed the virus to avoid creating panic. McEnany spun that as him showing leadership to calm a worried nation.
The reasons Trump said what he said aren’t part of this fact-check. Trump’s words are. And they give zero support to McEnany’s statement.
We rate this claim Pants on Fire.
White House, Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany holds a press briefing, Sept. 9, 2020
Washington Post, Woodward book: Trump says he knew coronavirus was ‘deadly’ and worse than the flu while intentionally misleading Americans, Sept. 9, 2020
PolitiFact, Timeline: How Donald Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic, updated July 23, 2020
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