The next day, the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the United States. So, with this update through April 3, we’ve added a new category — coronavirus — that already has more than 350 items. Much has changed in the world, with stay-at-home orders, massive economic disruption and topsy-turvy securities markets, but one thing has remained constant — the president’s prolific twisting of the truth.
As of April 3, Trump’s 1,170th day in office, our database shows that he has made 18,000 false or misleading claims. That’s an average of more than 15 claims a day, though since our last update 75 days ago, he’s been averaging just over 23 claims a day. That’s slightly higher than the 22 a day he recorded in 2019.
With millions of Americans suddenly unemployed or facing cuts in pay, the president’s claims of an economic boom are woefully out of date. But that has not stopped him from recalling the pre-coronavirus environment with rose-colored glasses. “Again, we had the strongest economy in the world,” he said at a news conference on April 3. “We had our best ever. We had probably the best economy in the history of the world, bigger than China, bigger than anybody.”
Such economic statistics were a mainstay of the president’s campaign rallies, which were always a rich source of suspect claims. Before the pandemic forced the president to stop holding such events, he held seven rallies between Jan. 30 and March 2. Reading his remarks at those rallies now is like opening a time capsule, as he bragged about job numbers and a soaring stock market while dismissing the coronavirus as a problem akin to the flu that would magically disappear in April.
In a case of counting his chickens before they hatch, Trump repeatedly proclaimed he had the best unemployment numbers of any presidential term. But he was measuring his three-year average against full four- or eight-year terms. Given the swoon in the economy, it’s now doubtful he will have best record once his term is completed.
Grounded at home, the president has replaced the campaign rallies with his near-daily briefings at the White House on the pandemic. These news conferences have also been a rich source of misinformation. The president has over-promised (such as announcing a Google website that did not exist), sought undue credit or tried to pin the blame for the crisis on others.
For many weeks, Trump played down the emerging crisis. He frequently said there were only 15 cases and these patients would soon be better. He often claimed the low figure was the result of travel restrictions he placed on non-U.S. citizens traveling from China. At the time the virus was spreading rapidly through the United States, largely undetected because the Trump administration failed to quickly set up effective testing.
In early March, the case load started to explode. By March 4, there were more than 100 confirmed U.S. cases and six people had died. One week later, there were 800 cases and 27 deaths. By March 30, there were more than 165,000 cases and 3,000 deaths. By mid-April, the death toll in the United States topped 20,000.
Faced with a calamity, Trump suddenly began claiming no one had seen this coming. But there have been repeated warnings that the United States was not prepared for a pandemic, including by Trump’s own administration. Numerous news articles documented how Trump dismissed or played down warnings by experts in his administration that the novel coronavirus could turn into a pandemic.
The intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment said, “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.” Luciana Borio, at the time the National Security Council’s director of medical and biodefense preparedness, said in 2018, “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern. Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”
Under fire for a sluggish response, Trump started to target the Obama administration, especially its handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
“And if you look at swine flu — the whole thing in, I guess it was 2009, and what they did and the mistakes they’ve made, they were terrible,” Trump said on March 17, when the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus was 123. “They were horrific mistakes. Seventeen thousand people died. And I’ll be honest, they shouldn’t be criticizing because we’ve done a fantastic job. The only thing we haven’t done well is to get good press.”
In reality, Obama’s handling was widely praised at the time as the right mix of action and not 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 been recorded of dying from 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 — that is an after-the-fact calculation of the excess mortality possibly caused by the virus — but that was much less than a forecast of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths made in August 2009 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Trump also looked for scapegoats to excuse his administration’s slow efforts to expand testing, so again he targeted Obama, claiming the previous administration had put rules in place that thwarted testing. But 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.
Eventually, Trump turned this talking point into simply saying he had inherited “obsolete” or “broken” tests — when no test existed for the virus until mid-January.
Trump’s top three most-repeated claims have remained the same.
His most repeated claim — 291 times — is that the U.S. economy today is the best in history. He began making this claim in June 2018, and it quickly became one of his favorites. As we noted, he’s trying to update it in the wake of the economic swoon. The president once could brag about the state of the economy, but he ran into trouble when he made a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the pre-coronavirus economy was not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton — or Ulysses S. Grant. Moreover, the economy already was beginning to hit the head winds caused by Trump’s trade wars, with the manufacturing sector in an apparent recession.
In fact, his second-most-repeated claim — 257 times — is that his border wall is being built. Congress balked at funding the concrete barrier he envisioned, so the project evolved into the replacement of smaller, older barriers with steel bollard fencing. The Washington Post has reported the bollard fencing is easily breached, with smugglers sawing through it, despite Trump’s claims it is impossible to get past. Nevertheless, the project has diverted billions in military and counternarcotics funding to become one of the largest infrastructure projects in U.S. history, seizing private land, cutting off wildlife corridors and disrupting Native American cultural sites.
Lately, Trump has once again begun falsely claiming the Mexico is paying for the border barrier, even though he had to raid the federal Treasury and delay military construction projects to obtain funding over Congress’s objections. And he has used the coronavirus outbreak to justify his push for the barrier, even though the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts say they haven’t seen evidence it can stop the virus from spreading.
Trump has falsely said 197 times that he passed the biggest tax cut in history. Even before his tax cut was crafted, he promised it would be the biggest in U.S. history — bigger than President Ronald Reagan’s in 1981. Reagan’s tax cut amounted to 2.9 percent of the gross domestic product, and none of the proposals under consideration came close to that level. Yet Trump persisted in this fiction even when the tax cut was eventually crafted to be the equivalent of 0.9 percent of gross domestic product, making it the eighth-largest tax cut in 100 years. This continues to be an all-purpose applause line at the president’s rallies.
All three of these claims, of course, are on our list of Bottomless Pinocchios. It takes at least 20 repeats of a Three- or Four-Pinocchio claim to merit a Bottomless Pinocchio, and there are now 37 entries.
The president’s constant Twitter barrage also adds to his totals. Nearly 20 percent of the false and misleading statements stemmed from his itchy Twitter finger.
Trump’s penchant for repeating false claims is demonstrated by the fact that the Fact Checker database has recorded more than 450 instances in which he has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.
The award-winning database website, created by graphics reporter Leslie Shapiro, has an extremely fast search engine that will quickly locate suspect statements the president has made. We encourage readers to explore it in detail. For this update, we have added a feature that allows readers to search for claims on a specific date or period of time.
Note: The Fact Checker welcomes academic research of the Trump claims database. Recent examples include work done by Erasmus University of Rotterdam, University College London and the University of California at Santa Barbara. You can request our data files with an explanation of your research plans by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. NEW: We have added a button to the database so you can download a CSV file yourself.
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