At The Fact Checker, we studied the issue closely last year and decided it was a close call. We could see evidence to support either position. We did not end up writing a full report but instead sprinkled the fruits of our research in various articles. But since readers are asking again, here’s a complete chronology, with some occasional analysis. Readers can use this material to make their own assessment.
Jan. 27, 2020
Biden writes an opinion piece in USA Today, titled “Trump is worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak.”
“I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic,” Biden wrote, such as advocating “reactionary travel bans that would only have made things worse.” This comment included a link to a (now removed) Trump tweet from 2014 demanding that President Barack Obama “close down the flights from Ebola infected areas right now.” (At the time, there were no direct flights from Ebola-affected areas to the United States.)
News organizations begin to report that White House officials are considering suspending flights from China.
12:44 p.m.: News of the planned announcement of a “travel ban” is leaked.
3:54 p.m.: The announcement of the travel ban is official. Non-U.S. citizens were barred from traveling from China, but there were exceptions. U.S. citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and possible 14-day quarantine. Some flights were immediately suspended, but others continued for weeks, at the discretion of the airlines.
4:06 p.m.: Biden takes the stage in Iowa.
“You know we have right now a crisis with the coronavirus, emanating from China,” Biden tells supporters. “The national emergency and worldwide alerts. The American people need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it. That he is going to act rationally about it. In moments like this, this is where the credibility of a president is most needed, as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia and fear mongering to lead the way instead of science.”
Biden goes on to criticize Trump for proposing cuts in global health programs and for folding a White House pandemic office into another unit.
Analysis: Biden never explicitly mentions the travel ban, and it’s unclear if he knew it had been announced. His staff insists that his “hysterical xenophobia” comment referred to Trump’s response to the Ebola virus and other actions, such as the travel bans on Muslim-majority countries. But the timing of his remarks certainly is associated with the Trump administration announcement. He called the president xenophobic when talking about the coronavirus response on the same day the travel ban was announced. (At that point, Trump was not yet using expressions critics call racist, like “Chinese virus.”)
A day after the travel-ban announcement, Biden repeats his “xenophobia” criticism, tweeting: “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency.”
Biden still has made no statements for or against the administration’s travel ban. But Ron Klain, the former “Ebola czar” and a campaign adviser (and now White House chief of staff), testifies before Congress. He says the way Trump’s travel restrictions have been implemented is ineffective.
“We don’t have a travel ban,” Klain tells a House Foreign Affairs panel. “We have a travel Band-Aid right now. First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn. Second, what we have restricted is not travel to or from China, but passports to and from China. There’s no restriction on Americans going back and forth. There are warnings. People should abide by those warnings. But today, 30 planes will land in Los Angeles that either originated in Beijing or came here on one-stops, 30 in San Francisco, 25 in New York City. Okay? So, unless we think that the color of the passport someone carries is a meaningful public health restriction, we have not placed a meaningful public health restriction.”
Trump suspends travel to and from some European countries.
Biden tweets: “A wall will not stop the coronavirus. Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it. This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it.”
Biden also releases a plan on combating the coronavirus, but it is silent on travel bans.
In remarks releasing his plan, Biden tells reporters: “The coronavirus does not have a political affiliation. It will infect Republicans, independents and Democrats alike, and will not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender or Zip code. It will touch people in positions of power, as well as the most vulnerable in our society. And it will not stop. Banning all travel from Europe or any other part of the world may slow it, but as we’ve seen, it will not stop it. And travel restrictions based on favoritism and politics rather than a risk will be counterproductive.”
Over a (now-removed) Trump tweet, Biden tweets: “Stop the xenophobic fear-mongering. Be honest. Take responsibility. Do your job.”
Trump’s tweet had said: “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China — against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”
Analysis: Is Biden referencing Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” or the travel restrictions? His staff says “xenophobic fear-mongering” is all about the “Chinese virus” phrasing, not the rest of the tweet. The Trump campaign and its supporters interpret it as a slam on the travel ban — which Biden still has not embraced or rejected.
In a statement to The Fact Checker, the Biden campaign for the first time indicates support for travel bans.
“Vice President Biden was stressing the enormity of the coronavirus threat and the urgent need for a comprehensive response strategy grounded in science and strong government coordination,” said campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “Meanwhile, Donald Trump was disregarding warnings from medical and intelligence experts about the virus. The Vice President has decried Trump’s xenophobia for years, and was saying that it shouldn’t influence the U.S. approach to this outbreak. This was not in reference to coronavirus travel restrictions. Travel restrictions, when supported by science, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy can be warranted. Travel restrictions can buy time; but here, the time they bought for preparation was squandered when Trump used it to downplay, rather than ready the country for, the disease.”
The Biden campaign explicitly expresses support for Trump’s China travel restrictions, more than two months after they were announced.
“Joe Biden supports travel bans that are guided by medical experts, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager (and now White House communications director), told CNN. “Science supported this ban, therefore he did too.”
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