The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has confronted President Trump with a public health and economic crisis that requires consistent, accurate messaging to guide Americans. But the president often has played down the threats, offering false, misleading or ignorant statements.
Last updated: March 17
“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. 21, 2020 (interview)
Trump was asked during an interview with CNBC whether he had any concerns about a pandemic after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had identified a case of coronavirus in Washington state. That was the first sign that the virus might eventually spread via community transmission, but Trump dismissed any concern. Within weeks, Washington state would become the center of the outbreak in the United States.
“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
— Feb. 2 (interview)
Trump made this comment in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, who noted that there were now eight cases in the United States. The Trump administration had imposed an entry ban on all foreign nationals who were in the People’s Republic of China, excluding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, in the previous 14 days, effective Feb. 2. Trump reportedly had been reluctant to impose the ban, citing his relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but the action was urged by his top health advisers. The virus was already spreading through the United States. But the testing criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were extremely narrow: Only those with recent travel to China or those who had come into contact with a confirmed infection would be tested.
Ron Klain, the White House Ebola response coordinator under the Obama administration, told Congress on Feb. 5 that it was a misnomer to describe the administration’s action as a travel ban. “We don’t have a travel ban,” Klain said. “We have a travel Band-Aid right now. First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn.”
“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
Trump repeatedly predicted the virus’s quick demise around the time the World Health Organization said the virus had infected more than 46,000 people, had killed at least 1,116 and was on a path to spread vastly more widely. Administration public health officials disputed Trump’s prediction, which appeared to be rooted in the idea that flu season in the United States generally ends in the spring. The virus was already spreading in Singapore, where temperatures are akin to summer in the United States.
Asked whether he agreed that the new coronavirus would be gone by April, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told Congress he did not. “Prudent to assume this pathogen will be with us for some time to come,” he said.
Trump repeated a version of this claim two more times on Feb. 10, as well as on Feb. 13, Feb. 14 and Feb. 19.
“The level of death with Ebola — you know, at the time, it was a virtual 100 percent.”
— Feb. 25 (news conference)
The death rate for people with Ebola is not and was not “a virtual 100 percent.” The case fatality rate (or the percentage of known infected people who die) of the virus does vary dramatically — from 25 percent to 90 percent — depending on the outbreak. In general, it averages around 50 percent. It’s hard to know the case fatality rate of the coronavirus yet, but estimates put it below 3 percent.
Trump repeated a version of this claim on Feb. 26.
“We're very close to a vaccine.”
— Feb. 25 (news conference)
Health experts say a vaccine for this coronavirus is at least a year away from mass distribution, if not longer.
“When you have 15 [cases in the United States], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
Trump apparently was not listening to his own news conference. He made this remark moments after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that “the degree of risk has the potential to change quickly. And we can expect to see more cases in the United States.” Within three days, 12 more cases were identified in the United States, and one person had died. Within five days, there were more than 100 confirmed U.S. cases, and six people had died. Two weeks later, there were 1,000 cases and 28 deaths.
“This is a flu. This is like a flu.”
The new coronavirus appears to have a much higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, possibly 20 times higher, but the outbreak was too new for a firm death rate to be determined. Moreover, it’s a new virus, not yet a seasonal one, although it’s possible covid-19 will become seasonal in the future.
“The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me. And so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is, one is pretty sick, but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape.”
Trump appeared nonplussed at learning some basic public health information. The precise number of deaths caused by the flu is not known, but the CDC offers estimates that in the past decade range from a low of 12,000 in the 2011-2012 season to a high of 61,000 in the 2017-2018 season (though that is a preliminary estimate).
But Trump misleadingly compared those numbers with the known cases of covid-19 in the United States. Tens of millions of people each year come down with the flu — possibly as many as 58 million in 2017-2018. The fatality rate of the seasonal flu in the United States is 0.1 percent. The new coronavirus appears to have a much higher fatality rate.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level, or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared.”
Here, Trump contradicted Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who a day earlier had said: “Ultimately, we will see community spread in this country. It’s not a question of if but rather a question of when and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
“But the same vaccine could not work? You take a solid flu vaccine — you don’t think that would have an impact or much of an impact on corona?”
— March 2 (remarks)
“No,” replied Leonard Schleifer, chief executive of Regeneron, which develops and makes vaccines. The executives meeting with Trump explained that the coronavirus was new and therefore could not be protected against by vaccines developed to immunize people against other viruses. The drug company executives repeatedly explained to Trump that it would take more than a year to develop, test and bring to market a coronavirus vaccine. But moments later, the president told reporters that the scientists’ timetable could be much shorter: “I don’t think they know what the time will be. I’ve heard very quick numbers, matter of months.”
“I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this.”
— March 4 (interview)
Trump’s “hunch” is not in line with current World Health Organization estimates, which found a crude mortality rate of between 3 and 4 percent. The WHO reports, “While the true mortality of covid-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between three to four percent, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1 percent.”
In other words, while Trump’s “hunch” may eventually prove correct, it will take time to know the true fatality rate for covid-19. During this interview, Trump also suggested the mortality rate was high because many people did not know they were affected and did not report an illness: “So, if we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better.”
“I will say, though, the H1N1, that was swine flu, commonly referred to as swine flu. And that went from around April of '09 to April of '10, where there were 60 million cases of swine flu. And over — actually, it's over 13,000. I think you might have said 17,000. I had heard it was 13,000, but a lot of deaths. And they didn't do anything about it.”
— March 4 (interview)
Under fire for a sluggish response, Trump started to target the Obama administration, especially its handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak. But it’s false to say Obama “didn’t do anything about it.” In fact, Obama’s handling was widely praised at the time as the right mix of action and no overreaction.
On April 26, 2009, when only 20 cases of H1N1 — and no deaths — around the country had been confirmed, the Obama administration declared H1N1 a public health emergency. The administration quickly sought funding from Congress, receiving almost $8 billion. Six weeks later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
On Oct. 24, after more than 1,000 Americans had died of H1N1, Obama declared a national emergency. The estimated death toll in the United States during the H1N1 epidemic was 12,469 from April 2009 to April 2010, but that was much less than a forecast of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths made in August of 2009 by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. (This link will take you to the official CDC history on the outbreak.)
“The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing. And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion. That was a decision we disagreed with. I don’t think we would have made it, but for some reason it was made. But we’ve undone that decision.”
— March 4 (remarks)
Trump earned Four Pinocchios for this claim. Trump was looking for scapegoats to excuse his administration’s slow efforts to expand testing. But he cannot blame Obama.
There was no Obama rule, simply “guidance” documents concerning laboratory-developed tests from 2014 that never took effect and were withdrawn before Trump took office. The administration suggested, without evidence, that labs were confused because of previous regulatory actions by the Obama administration. But Trump had been president for three years and his administration already had been working with Congress on legislation concerning lab tests. If there was confusion by labs, the administration could have easily taken the action on allowing emergency authorization to create coronavirus tests sooner than it did.
Trump repeated a version of this claim on March 11.
“I don’t want any deaths, right? But over the last long period of time, when people have the flu, you have an average of 36,000 people dying. I’ve never heard those numbers. I would — I would’ve been shocked. I would’ve said, ‘Does anybody die from the flu?’ I didn’t know people died from the flu — 36,000 people died.”
— March 6 (remarks)
Trump said he did not know that people died of the flu. But his paternal grandfather was a victim of the first wave of the Spanish flu pandemic.
“Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
— March 6 (remarks)
The day after these remarks, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, “You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test.” Reports from across the country have documented the scarcity of tests.
Moreover, the United States has lagged far behind other major countries in providing tests for possible cases. The CDC initially distributed flawed tests to state and local health departments. The lack of tests in the United States, compared with countries such as South Korea that have tested tens of thousands of people, has meant the possible spread of the virus in the United States may not be fully known. The Washington Post reported a number of mishaps that led to testing delays.
Trump made a variation of this claim on March 10.
“This blindsided the world. And I think we've handled it very, very well.”
— March 9 (news conference)
On Jan. 30, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
“I met with the leaders of health insurance industry, who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments.”
This is wrong. Insurance companies have agreed to waive co-payments for testing but not for treatment if it turns out a person has been diagnosed with covid-19.
“And taking early intense action, we have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe.”
Once a country reaches 100 cases, the number of cases appears to increase 33 percent a day. The United States reached the threshold a little later than some European countries but appears to be following the same trajectory. Moreover, inadequate testing appears to be obscuring the number of cases in the United States.
“Don’t believe the numbers when you see, even on our Johns Hopkins website, that 1,600 Americans have the virus,” Marty Makary, a medical professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Yahoo News. “No, that means 1,600 got the test, tested positive. There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed.”
Trump repeated this claim on March 13.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.”
Beyond the unverifiable claim about his administration’s efforts, there is no such thing as a “foreign virus.” Viruses can emerge anywhere on Earth. The Spanish flu that emerged in 1918, killing 20 million to 50 million people, is believed to have started in the United States — the first case was reported here — though no one knows for sure, except that it almost certainly did not start in Spain.
“I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”
— March 13 (news conference)
With a not-so-subtle jab at the Obamacare website rollout, Trump boasted that the website he tasked Google with developing will “be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” He falsely claimed that “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now” and adding that “they’ve made tremendous progress.”
However, Trump oversold what was still only the germ of an idea. Around the time of Trump’s announcement, Google communications tweeted a statement from Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent company Alphabet that focuses on research and development concerning health issues: “We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.”
The New York Times reported that “the 1,700 engineers Mr. Trump mentioned were actually just Google employees who said a day earlier that they would be happy to volunteer their time on the project if needed.”
“As you know, Europe was just designated as the hot spot right now, and we closed that border a while ago.”
— March 13 (news conference)
Trump did not close the border with Europe. Only two days earlier, he announced a bar on the entry of foreign nationals who have been to any of the 26 countries in the Schengen area, the European Union’s border-free travel zone — which does not include Britain, the Republic of Ireland and 21 other European countries. It did not take effect until midnight on the day of this news conference. On March 14, Trump extended the travel restrictions to the Britain and Ireland.
“We have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about.”
— March 16 (news conference)
This is a ridiculous claim. There were plenty of warnings if Trump has been paying attention. The Chinese government sealed off the city of Wuhan on Jan. 23 to halt the spread of the virus. And on Jan. 28, two former Trump administration officials published an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic.” The article identified a number of steps that needed to be taken immediately, such as partnering with the private sector before the CDC was overwhelmed with testing requests — but it took the administration another month to issue the guidance that would encourage private-sector tests.
“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
— March 17 (news conference)
Trump is rewriting history. Just eight days earlier he had tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” By the time he made the statement at the news conference, the number of confirmed cases had risen to nearly 6,000, with almost 100 deaths.
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