“Let’s talk about coronavirus,” host Ainsley Earhardt said to Trump. “What is your response? What’s the status of our country right now?”
After praising the “invisible enemy” that is the virus — an enemy much smarter than the people investigating Russian interference, he said — Trump began to rehash a number of his favorite justifications for and defenses of his administration’s actions. As we wrote last month, this is what Trump does. Perhaps as an artifact of a career focused on branding, the president seizes upon data points that he thinks bolster his case and repeats them over and over. Often, he does so while ignoring important context.
With that in mind, we walked through the points Trump raised Friday on Fox News, a smattering of rhetoric that captures most of his most common claims about the virus and his administration’s handling of the pandemic. In each case, we have included additional context that might offer a different perspective on Trump’s hyperbole.
“I think we’re doing really, really well. We have a ventilator system of production. That’s been incredible. Now we’re giving ventilators to other countries. We have many, many countries that are asking us for ventilators. And when I started, we had no — essentially we had no ventilators.”
It’s important to remember at the outset that the coronavirus emerged in China late last year and likely arrived in the United States in January. Not much was known about the virus, in part because China was reticent to share information it learned. But, in large part, little was known because the virus was new and its effects were still being discovered.
When the virus began to spread quickly in the United States, it was understood that it often led to respiratory issues and to a need for machines that could assist breathing: ventilators. Experts suggested that ventilators would be an important tool in treating those with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and states soon scrambled to figure out where they could obtain the devices.
As we wrote last month, states didn’t need as many ventilators as expected. Stay-at-home orders helped, as did the discovery of treatments that obviated the need for as many of the devices. It was also the case that people were dying of complications other than breathing issues, reducing the number of necessary ventilators in the grimmest way possible. As the virus emerged, states also developed an ad hoc distribution system to share the devices.
What didn’t happen was the federal government moving quickly to produce a lot of ventilators. Trump downplayed the threat of the virus well into February, and his administration didn’t exercise its power to force production of ventilators until a month later.
There are corollaries to Trump’s bragging about the number of ventilators being made. He has disparaged the state of New York for asking for 40,000 ventilators, a figure that it happily didn’t need. He has also criticized that state for not buying thousands of ventilators several years ago, before the virus emerged.
You’ll also note that he claims the country had “essentially … no ventilators” before this year. That’s a backhanded route into one of his favorite other claims: that the administration of President Barack Obama left the United States unprepared for the moment, thanks to an empty stockpile of supplies. There is some truth to claims that the national stockpile was low. That Trump let the stockpile remain depleted for the first three years of his presidency, though, is not generally a point he raises.
Trump boasted to Fox about the number of ventilators being produced now. But he cannot brag about how many ventilators he was responsible for producing a month ago, as cases were peaking in New York.
That's a natural segue into Trump's next claim.
“I just learned that yesterday we did 300,000 tests in one day. That’s our record, and we’re over 8 million tests. The next country is Germany with 2.5 million tests. And our tests are the best tests.”
Again, that the United States is conducting hundreds of thousands of tests a day now is better than what we were doing two months ago. But had we been testing broadly in February and March, as South Korea was, the outbreak could have been better contained. We have more tests now, but we could have used them to better effect earlier in the pandemic, perhaps better containing its reach.
What’s more, experts suggest that even now we’re not doing enough testing to be able to contain outbreaks. That we’ve done more than twice as many tests as Germany — a country with a quarter of the U.S. population — doesn’t mean much if we don’t have enough testing capacity to meet our needs.
Even if our tests were the best tests, it doesn't mean much if we aren't conducting enough to meet our needs. This claim also ignores that America's initial response to the virus was crippled by a flawed test produced by the federal government.
“It should never have happened. It should have been stopped at the source by China. I did a very early — a very, very early stoppage of Chinese people coming in when I saw what was going on.”
It's true that the virus emerged in China and that the Chinese government attempted to downplay or obscure the risk the virus posed. Trump's repeated insistence that he had a “very early stoppage” of travel from China, though, isn't as clear a victory as he suggests.
On Jan. 31, the ban on some travel from China was announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. It was broad but not comprehensive. A subsequent analysis by the New York Times determined that almost 40,000 people traveled from China to the United States after it went into effect.
Trump often uses this ban to highlight how early he was on top of the issue. What it obscures is how little his administration did over the next month.
“I was very early, and I saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Studies suggested that a failure to implement efforts to slow the spread of the virus could have resulted in more than 2 million deaths in America. Trump and his team used that figure in March when introducing recommendations for limiting social gatherings and urging people to stay at home. With such measures in place, the toll might be as low as 150,000 to 240,000.
Trump now uses the comparison between the two figures as a way to defend his actions. Had he done nothing, millions could have died, he argues, compared to the tens or hundreds of thousands who have and will. Setting aside the question of how “early” he was (see above), it is nonetheless true that authorities implementing stay-at-home and other recommendations helped push the death toll lower.
What isn't considered in that calculus, of course, is whether the death toll could have been pushed even lower with different decisions.
“It’s 184 countries and growing fast. Okay? Most people don’t even know there are that many countries, but it’s 184 and it’s growing.”
Trump has repeatedly noted how many countries are affected by the virus as a way of illustrating that its spread in the United States is not a function of his own failures. Again, there’s a distinction between having a problem and the scale of the problem, one that his 184-country figure glosses over.
As for his claim that the number of countries affected by the virus is “growing fast,” that’s not true. There are only 195 countries in the world. What’s more, Trump has been using the “184 countries” figure for about a month.
“The World Health Organization is, you know, we pay them almost $500 million a year. I’m going to be making an announcement on that soon because they are like a puppet for China. They’re a puppet for China!”
As he blames China for not containing the virus, Trump similarly blames the WHO for not taking stronger steps in its containment. To a degree, this is a function of legitimate frustration with the organization. To a degree, it’s also a way to shift blame away from his administration.
Last month he announced that he would be putting a hold on funding to the organization, a shift meant to highlight his frustrations with how the situation was handled.
“These people want to get back to work. We know they’ve — everybody’s done what they have done, and you can only do that so long. And that causes death, also, if you look at all of the problems that people have with drugs and suicide, and they lose their jobs and anxiety and all of the things that are caused by that; that’s a big problem, too.”
To repeat: There’s a distinction between having a problem and the scale of the problem.
Here, the scale should be obvious. More than 75,000 people are confirmed to have died of the virus, a figure that is almost certainly an undercount, given that it excludes people who weren’t tested for the virus. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generates an estimate of the death toll from the flu that is far larger than the number of confirmed cases. It’s very safe to assume that a similar estimate will show far more than 75,000 deaths.
It should go without saying that the number of suicides that result from stay-at-home orders, however tragic, will fall far short of that toll. As for related problems — anxiety, depression, drug abuse — it's fair to note that the shift in American life will spur increases of those negative effects.
But those aren’t comparable solely to the death toll from the virus. Instead, we should consider those effects in relation to the 1.2 million infections with the virus (itself an undercount) and to the long-term effects of infection. The thousands of people who are intubated and live. Those in intensive care. The stress felt by the families of those who die or those who are close to death. The frustration and concern that come with having a family member who is at risk from the virus.
The threat the virus poses forms its own anxieties, as many of us can attest. Losing work is a stressor. Having a loved one fall ill is, as well.
The throughline to Trump’s arguments on Fox News is clear. He did everything he could and everything is going as well as could be, given the forces that made the problems worse. There are obvious responses to the claims he made, as illustrated above. The “Fox & Friends” hosts didn’t offer any.
Which, of course, is why he watches the show religiously.