That’s wrong. This is yet another clear example of how campaign ad-makers twist quotes and images to leave a false impression. The ad suggests Trump’s move to restrict travel by non-U.S. citizens from China is a key factor in the United States avoiding as many as 2 million deaths during the coronavirus outbreak.
Under the Fact Checker’s standards for manipulated video, we have three broad categories: Some video is taken out of context, other content is deceptively edited; in the worst instances, it is deliberately altered. This ad clearly qualifies as deceptive editing.
Let’s unwrap the sausage.
We will examine some of the images in the order they are presented. (The second half of the ad mostly has positive images and quotes from Trump about defeating the coronavirus and making America great again, so we will ignore that.)
“My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”
— President Trump
The ad opens with Trump’s brief mention of the new coronavirus in his Feb. 4 State of the Union address. Then it immediately follows with an image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ripping up the speech.
First of all, the ad does not include the sentence just before: “We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China.”
That’s a notable omission because the rest of the ad tries to make Trump appear tough on China. But at the time, Trump was still tweeting praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his “transparency.” Now, he changed course and tries to make China a scapegoat, arguing that the Chinese government was not transparent.
Second, Pelosi did not rip up the speech because of his coronavirus remarks or during the speech. She said later she tore it because she believed it was a “manifesto of mistruths.”
— Former vice president Joe Biden
This quote from Biden appears under the headline “MOCKED.”
Biden said this, but whether he was specifically speaking about Trump’s travel restrictions on China is open to debate.
“We have, right now, a crisis with the coronavirus, from China,” Biden said during an Iowa campaign appearance on Jan. 31, the same day Trump announced the restrictions. “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” Biden went on to criticize Trump for proposing cuts in global health programs and for folding a White House pandemic office into another unit. But he did not specifically mention the travel restrictions on China.
Biden’s campaign has said he believes travel restrictions can be warranted “when supported by science, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy.”
“Is it accurate that if these steps had not been put in place …”
— CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer
This is the centerpiece of the ad. But it leaves a false impression.
Here is the full exchange between anchor Wolf Blitzer and Sanjay Gupta, a doctor who appears often on CNN, on March 30. We put in bold the snippets used in the ad.
Blitzer: “Well, is it accurate that if these steps had not been put in place, the stay-at-home orders, the social distancing orders, as the president said yesterday, it could have been two million people dead here in the United States?”
Gupta: “I mean, you know, these are all models, Wolf. It’s a little tough to say, but, you know, if you talk about something that is spreading, you know, very robustly throughout a community. You know, two to three times more contagious than flu, and up to 10 times, perhaps even more than that, more deadly than flu, then yes.”
That’s some cut. The ad disguises the fact that it snipped Blitzer’s words making clear that he was asking about social distancing and stay-at-home orders by flashing images of an airport bulletin board with canceled flights and an Air China jet. The clear implication is that Blitzer was referring to the restrictions on travel from China.
But the death estimate he referred to concerned a model that estimated what would happen if Americans ignored the virus and continued to go to work, meet at conferences, attend movies and eat in restaurants. It was issued on March 16, weeks after the travel restrictions were in place. On March 29, the day before this CNN exchange, Trump referenced a study showing the United States could see up to 2.2 million deaths from the coronavirus if there were no mitigation measures.
The ad removes Gupta’s significant caveats about the modeling.
The best that could be said about the travel restrictions is that they could have been used to buy time — but the administration then bungled efforts to rapidly build up testing in the month of February. The New York Times calculated that at least 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China since Jan. 1, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions. Moreover, screening proceedings of travelers from China were uneven and inconsistent, the Times said.
Trump regularly brags about the travel restrictions, but the social-distancing guidelines (imposed by state officials) are not popular with members of his base — presumably another reason the reference was clipped.
This is a clear example of deceptive editing, specifically what we label “omission,” according to our guide. It edits out large portions of a video but still presents it as a complete narrative. Then the images inserted as Blitzer speaks manipulate the viewer into thinking he is referring to the travel restrictions.
“We built the greatest economy the world has ever seen.”
This is a favorite Trump line, but it’s not true. We’ve fact-checked it dozens of times. Trump inherited a rising economy from Barack Obama, and most of the trend lines under Trump continued at the same rate — at least until the coronavirus struck. By most measures, the pre-coronavirus economy was not as good as the 1950s, 1960s and 1990s in the United States. Some key sectors, such as manufacturing, were already under stress even before the virus tanked the economy.
“What the federal government did …”
— New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D)
This comes from an April 19 briefing by Cuomo. Again, there is a snip (disguised by images) that leaves out relevant context. Cuomo was talking about how the predicted death rates in the absence of social distancing had fallen sharply.
Cuomo actually said: “Look, what the federal government did working with states, as I just said, was a phenomenal accomplishment.”
Cuomo went on to praise just about everyone for the outcome: “The federal government stepped up and was a great partner, and I’m the first one to say it. We needed help and they were there. State and local governments were fantastic. The hospital system was fantastic. New Yorkers were fantastic. And that is an undeniable fact.”
“Promise made, promise kept.”
— California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D)
Newsom said this after the federal government sent California 90,000 testing swabs out of a promised initial shipment of 100,000. The Trump campaign loves this clip, for obvious reasons, and no video editing was required.
We asked the Trump campaign for a response and received this statement from Campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh:
“No discussion of efforts to prevent American deaths from the coronavirus can be had without the understanding that President Trump restricted travel from China in January. Based on that alone, the ad is accurate. More importantly, CNN is once again the only outlet to reject a Trump campaign ad, and has now rejected multiple Trump ads that are demonstrably accurate. CNN is using its own rejection of this latest Trump ad to concoct a bogus news story in its continuing effort to campaign against President Trump. CNN hides behind the veil of a news organization, but in reality carries water for Democrats daily and is effectively a Joe Biden Super PAC in itself.”
The Pinocchio Test
Campaigns must be willing to make their case without resorting to video manipulation. The editing of the CNN interview is so deceptive — complete with images to suggest Blitzer and Gupta were discussing restrictions on travel from China — that it is little wonder CNN filed a complaint. The Trump campaign is quick to cry foul when the Biden team makes misleading edits, but this is especially dismaying. Some of the other edits in the video are not in the same league but leave out useful or interesting context.
Given the seriousness of the editing offense involving the CNN clip, we award this ad Four Pinocchios.
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