“The coronavirus … and this is their new hoax.”

— Biden ad quoting Trump, posted on Twitter, Sept. 15, 2020

A new video ad published by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign makes the case that President Trump played down the novel coronavirus to the American public, while he was taking it seriously in private. There is evidence to support this narrative as Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward’s recent book, “Rage,” revealed that Trump said in private conversations he believed the coronavirus pandemic was a far more dire situation than what he had admitted publicly.

However, the examples the Biden ad uses to illustrate this point are questionable. One includes the use of manipulated video. The other two examples use Trump quotes from later on in the pandemic — after Trump had shifted his tone publicly on the threat of the virus.

It is worth noting that Trump and his campaign share manipulated video of Biden on a regular basis, which has been documented by The Fact Checker in recent months. However, that doesn’t excuse the Biden campaign from scrutiny for choosing poor examples for their argument. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

First, the ad shows Trump at a Feb. 28 campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C., saying, “The coronavirus … and this is their new hoax.” However, that quote removes an important middle section of the remark. Here is the president’s full quote:

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs, you say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing.’ They have no clue, they don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa, they can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since he got in. It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.”

The Biden campaign has used this same misleading clip job before, which we fact-checked at the time. The context of the full quote shows Trump criticized Democratic talking points and media’s coverage of his response to the coronavirus, but does not call the virus itself a hoax. Indeed, at a news conference Feb. 29, the day after the rally, Trump was asked about the “hoax” comment. He clarified, “ ‘Hoax’ referring to the action that [Democrats] take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job."

This is an example of omission, editing out a large portion from a video and presenting it as a complete narrative, which can change the meaning or interpretation of the quote.

The Biden campaign said this is still an example of Trump playing down the virus at the time, so it is not misleading.

Trump certainly played down the virus and played up his administration’s response. On Thursday, one of Vice President Pence’s top aides on the coronavirus task force said Trump called the virus a hoax in a video ad, in which she also said Trump’s response to the pandemic showed a “flat-out disregard for human life.”

However, putting the words “coronavirus” and “hoax” together from video in February leaves the viewer to assume Trump called the new virus itself a hoax in public, which he did not do.

Next, the ad shows Trump at a June 20 rally in Tulsa, saying, “Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu, what difference?”

The full quote shows he was talking about the many different names for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Here’s the full quote:

“It’s a disease, without question, has more names than any disease in history. I can name Kung Flu. I can name 19 different versions of names. Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu. What difference? I think we have 19 or 20 different versions of the name.”

Trump has on many other occasions compared the virus to the flu, which makes the Biden campaign’s use of this example puzzling. Aside from comparing the coronavirus to the flu, Trump has also consistently played down the threat of the virus in other ways. The Washington Post is keeping an updated list of these instances.

The Biden campaign said the part of his comment, “what difference,” indicates he was still comparing covid-19 to the flu. They also reiterated how many other times Trump had made this comparison, further bolstering the point of the ad. This is a valid point, as the quote in the ad is open to interpretation. But it also raises the question why the Biden campaign wouldn’t choose a more direct example of Trump talking about the flu.

Lastly, the ad quotes Trump’s conversation with Woodward on April 13. “This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person you don’t have a chance,” Trump said. “It’s the plague.”

Yet when Trump said this to Woodward, it wasn’t such a secret. Trump had used these same phrases publicly, before his conversation with Woodward.

On March 21, Trump said at a coronavirus task force briefing: “And we’re going to win with as few lives lost as possible. That’s the game: Win with as few lives lost as possible. It’s a tough enemy. It’s a tough killer. Far bigger, far more vicious than ever before.” On April 6, at another task force meeting Trump said: “Patients that were affected with this horrible disease or whatever — the plague — because, frankly, it’s a plague. That’s exactly what it is. You’d read about it in the old days. The plague. And that’s exactly what it is.”

On April 14, the day after the Woodward call, Trump said to a group of recovered covid-19 patients: “This is a rough — a rough plague. I call it the ‘plague.’ I call it the ‘scourge.’ I call it whatever you want to call it. It’s rough. It’s bad.”

There are numerous other examples.

The Biden campaign said the nature of Trump’s comments to Woodward were referring to the virus’s deadly impact on individuals, whereas his public comments calling the virus “killer” and “plague” were about its general impact on society at large and were contradicted by many other statements Trump made at the time.

However, by end of March, Trump had changed his tone on the virus and took some action to address the situation. It is certainly a contradictory record, however. Trump has waxed and waned in his response to the crisis, deciding to press states to reopen earlier than scientists recommended. One also can find statements in April in which Trump asserted the crisis was nearly over. (On April 9, for instance, he said: “Pretty sure we’re at the top of the hill, and now we’re going downward.”) Trump also regularly promotes false statements about the virus; our database of Trump’s false or misleading claims contains more than 1,000 examples related to the coronavirus.

But the Biden ad makes it sound as if Trump never acknowledged the threat of the virus in April, when in fact he did.

“We know that Donald Trump intentionally downplayed the virus because he told us explicitly so, on the record and on tape,” said the Biden campaign’s deputy rapid response director, Michael Gwin, in response to our concerns about the ad. “We know that Trump compared this deadly disease to the flu instead of being honest about its severity, because he did it over and over. Trump refused to take the virus seriously, and now almost 200,0000 Americans are dead. It’s utterly astounding at this point that anyone, or any media outlet, would try to argue that Trump didn’t relentlessly deceive the American people about this virus with devastating results.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Biden ad uses three examples of misleading material. Trump has played down the virus, compared it to the flu on many occasions, and presented a different perspective to Woodward in private, so there was no need for the Biden campaign to use isolated or clipped video.

In a political climate that is increasingly using manipulated video and information to change the narrative, the Biden campaign should be more careful to use truthful information to make their points. Trump and his campaign are also avid offenders of using manipulated video to target Biden and misrepresent his public statements. But that’s no excuse for the Biden campaign to use similar tactics. The Biden campaign’s overall argument can be defended, but the message is marred on a technicality.

The Biden campaign earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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