“Trump gave China more than praise. He shipped China 17 tons of American masks and medical supplies. Our masks and supplies. Supplies we need now.”

— voice-over of ad via American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, released April 17, 2020

For weeks into the coronavirus crisis, President Trump expressed support for China’s handling of the epidemic that first emerged in the city of Wuhan and the country’s “transparency” on the situation. Now that the death toll in the United States has soared, Trump and his aides have started to blame China, accusing it of not quickly sharing information that might have stemmed the pandemic.

This attack ad opens with a reminder of how long Trump kept praising China and its president, Xi Jinping. Then it makes the charge above — that Trump shipped medical equipment to China now desperately needed in the United States.

It’s certainly fair game to highlight that the president played down the emerging crisis for weeks. The Washington Post reported on April 18 that “U.S. manufacturers shipped millions of dollars’ worth of face masks and other protective medical equipment to China in January and February with encouragement from the federal government [which] underscores the Trump administration’s failure to recognize and prepare for the growing pandemic threat.”

But the specific instance highlighted in the ad is framed in a misleading way.

The Facts

The ad says that “Trump … shipped 17 tons of American masks and medical supplies. Our masks and supplies.” The impression left by the ad is that these were U.S. government goods, shipped on Trump’s order.

But these were actually donations by private charities and public companies for Project HOPE, an international health-care organization that has been operating in Wuhan for a quarter-century and helped establish a nursing school there. Usually, donors to Project HOPE arrange for charter aircraft to take their donations overseas.

For instance, as these shipments arrived in Wuhan, another shipment — 2 million respirator masks, 11,000 protective suits and 280,000 pairs of nitrile gloves donated by MAP International and MedShare — was sent to Project HOPE via UPS, which provided the transportation as an in-kind donation.

In the case highlighted in the ad, the State Department’s role was providing the aircraft. The department sent chartered planes to Wuhan to pick up some 800 consulate workers, their families and other Americans. The planes otherwise were going to be empty on the way to China, so officials decided to fill the jets with goods donated by Samaritan’s Purse, the Boeing Company, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Intermountain Healthcare. Money to help underwrite the effort was provided by Kenneth Griffin, a hedge fund manager who is chief executive of the investment firm Citadel. (It’s unclear whether he helped defray the State Department’s transportation costs. A Citadel spokesman would not clarify.)

“We have evacuated more than 800 people from Wuhan,” Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told reporters on Feb. 7. “The first charter flight departed Wuhan on January 28th. Two subsequent flights departed on February 5th. Yesterday, on February 6th two additional evacuation flights departed Wuhan, carrying 800 passengers. The State Department, working closely with our partners in China, has loaded the holds of those arriving 747s with 18 tons of privately donated medical supplies and humanitarian assistance for the Chinese people. This includes urgently needed masks, gowns, gauze, respirators and other vital materials.”

Project HOPE said the shipment would have been made with or without the State Department’s help.

“Countless flights carrying protective gear from all over the world arrived in China as our team worked to help doctors and nurses on the front lines,” Rabih Torbay, Project HOPE’s president and chief executive, told The Fact Checker. “Particularly with increasing caseloads like we were starting to see toward the end of January in and around Wuhan, it is hard to imagine transport would be the limiting factor to helping contain a deadly outbreak before it becomes a pandemic.”

Indeed, Boeing’s announcement on the donation made no mention of the State Department, simply saying it had made “a donation of 250,000 medical-grade respiratory masks to address medical supply shortages in China.” Similarly, a news report on the Mormon Church’s donations referred only to planes being chartered for the trip, carrying 220,000 face masks, 870 pairs of protective goggles and more than 6,500 pairs of protective coveralls.

On top of the donations delivered by the State Department flights, Project HOPE spokeswoman Rebecca Gustafson said the organization delivered protective gear and equipment to more than 25 hospitals in China, including more than 4.7 million face masks, 87,000 isolation gowns, 20,000 protective coveralls, 273,000 pairs of examination gloves, 20 defibrillators and 20 patient monitors, 15 ventilators, 12 medical air compressors and 10 disinfection machines.

At the time of the State Department flights, the World Health Organization was pleading for help to stem the crisis in China. “Front-line health workers in China require the bulk of PPE supplies,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Feb. 7, when 12 cases had been confirmed in the United States. “There is limited stock of PPE and we need to make sure we get it to the people who need it most in the places that need it most. … WHO discourages stockpiling of PPE in countries and areas where transmission is low.”

(Santa Clara county announced April 21 that a person who died at home on Feb. 6 tested positive for covid-19, several weeks before the first recorded death in the United States.)

It was also a one-off event for the State Department, which has not assisted or supported the delivery of additional aid to China, beyond the nearly-18-ton shipment highlighted in the ad. For context, that’s a relatively small amount considering the numbers cited for Project Airbridge, the U.S. government effort to deliver medical supplies across the United States, such as 80 tons shipped on March 29 and 83 tons shipped on April 2.

Jeb Fain, a spokesman for American Bridge, defended the line in the ad. He noted that the ad merely used the word “shipped.”

He also said it was appropriate to pin the shipment on Trump because a top official from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in late March had said: “Under the direction of President Trump, the United States Government is responding rapidly. The U.S. was among the first nations to offer help to the Chinese people, and we are the largest financial backers of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. In early February, the United States delivered more than 17 tons of medical supplies to China donated by the American people. These supplies included masks, gowns, gauze, respirators, and other vital materials.”

“As The Washington Post’s own reporting and multiple fact-checking organizations have already verified, the president’s own State Department, as they said themselves, shipped 17 tons of American masks and medical supplies to China in February under the president’s own direction,” Fain said. “Those are the facts and they’re not up for debate. This president doesn’t get to avoid accountability now that he finds it politically inconvenient.”

The Pinocchio Test

Thirty-second attack ads are not often known for nuance. But this one goes awry when it suggests that Trump shipped to China protective gear that belonged to Americans. These were donations by private charities and public companies at a time when the U.S. case count was still low. All the State Department did was supply planes that would have been empty anyway. Nevertheless, the State Department touted the shipment and attributed it to Trump’s leadership.

The line in the ad is carefully, even cleverly, worded, keeping it just shy of the Three Pinocchio mark. But it’s misleading enough to earn Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Washington Post Fact Checker is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the covid-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.