WASHINGTON — Is he a wartime president or a backup point man? President Donald Trump seems to go back and forth on that, or both ways at once, in responding to the coronavirus pandemic that takes more lives by the hour.
In his recent rhetoric, the president who declared “It’s a war” and invoked wartime powers enabling him to direct the production and shipment of critical medical supplies sought to avoid responsibility for persistent shortages. “The federal government,” he told New York’s governor, “is merely a back-up for state governments.” Meantime the government changed its online description of the national stockpile to put state responsibility more front and center.
And after public-health authorities warned that infection and death are spreading at a needlessly fast rate because Americans are not respecting social-distancing guidelines as they should, Trump incongruously asserted we should all be “thrilled” with how that’s going. Separately, he bragged inaccurately about his Facebook followers.
A look at how some statements over the past week compare with the facts:
TRUMP, on a warning that had just been delivered by Dr. Deborah Birx of the coronavirus task force that more Americans need to heed distancing steps ordered by many states and recommended by Washington: “She wasn’t referring to our country, she was referring to one state.” — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: No, she was talking about more Americans overall needing to keep away from each other. More specifically, Birx said the outbreak would not be spreading by now in areas with low infection rates if everyone were following the guidelines. Instead, officials are now seeing cases of people who were infected after the guidelines took effect.
“This should not be happening any longer in new places if people are doing the social distancing, washing their hands, not getting together in large groups more than 10,” she said at the briefing where Trump then tried to tamp down her warning out of his concern about the “headlines tomorrow.”
Birx said: “We see Spain, we see Italy, we see France, we see Germany. When we see others beginning to bend their curves, we can bend ours. But it means everybody has to take that same responsibility as Americans.” Bending the curve means flattening out the rate of increase in cases.
She added: “Yes. There are states that are dead flat. But, you know, every — what changes the curve is a new Detroit, a new Chicago, a new New Orleans, a new Colorado.”
TRUMP: “Four weeks ago, we had the greatest economy in the history of the world. The greatest in the world — greatest in the history of the world.” — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: Not true. The economy was healthy back then but not the best in U.S. history, much less world history.
Economic gains largely followed along the lines of an expansion that started more than a decade ago under President Barack Obama. And while posting great job and stock market numbers, Trump never managed to achieve the rates of economic growth he promised in the 2016 campaign. The U.S. economy was not the world’s best in history when this started.
TRUMP, going back to that period four weeks ago: “And then, one day, I get a call from Deborah, who’s fantastic, and from Dr. Fauci. And he said and she said, ’We have a problem. I said, ’What’s the problem?’ And they said, ‘We may have to close it up.’ I said, ‘Close what up?’ They said, ‘Close up the country.’ And I said, ‘What’s that all about?’” — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: You’d think that Trump was just learning about the outbreak from Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in the phone call. That’s not the case.
Trump knew the U.S. had “a problem” well before that timeline of roughly early March.
By then the U.S. had restricted travel from abroad, experienced its first coronavirus infections and was told to expect the outbreak to spread in the country. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency Jan. 30.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.” — CNN interview Wednesday.
MITCH McCONNELL, Senate majority leader: The coronavirus crisis “came up while we were tied down in the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything, every day was all about impeachment.” — interview Tuesday with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
THE FACTS: While Pence claims Trump always treated the virus threat seriously, McConnell suggests Trump may not have because he was distracted by impeachment. Neither claim is credible.
Trump says he would not have done anything faster on the virus, absent impeachment. And he actually belittled the coronavirus threat repeatedly from January to mid-March, maintaining his position even after the Senate acquitted him Feb. 5 in his impeachment trial. He dismissed the threat as a small number of U.S. cases that were under “control” and would fall to zero by April.
On Feb. 10, he asserted “we’re in great shape … we have 12 cases” and told Fox Business it will be fine because “in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather. And that’s a beautiful date to look forward to.”
“When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said Feb. 26. A day later he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,”
“It’s got the world aflutter, but it’ll work out,” Trump told the National Association of Counties on March 3. Along the way, he said Democrats who were calling on him to do more were perpetuating a hoax.
On March 9, he tweeted the 546 cases and 22 deaths experienced by then in the U.S. were no reason to take drastic steps: “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”
Trump now acknowledges the U.S. could see 100,000 to 240,000 deaths from the pandemic even if current distancing guidelines are maintained. When asked Tuesday if impeachment proceedings had distracted him from the U.S. coronavirus response, he said, “I don’t think I would have acted any differently or I don’t think I would have acted any faster.”
TRUMP: “I have, you know, hundreds of millions of people. Number one on Facebook. Did you know I was number one on Facebook? I mean, I just found out I’m number one on Facebook. I thought that was very nice for whatever it means.” — news briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It doesn’t mean anything because it’s not true. He’s nowhere close to No. 1.
Trump has 29 million followers on Facebook, far below former President Barack Obama, who has 54 million. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer player, has 126 million.
TRUMP: “We’re a backup. We’re not an ordering clerk. We’re a backup.” — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: He’s not been completely consistent on what he regards the federal responsibility and his own as president to be.
On one hand, he’s called himself “in a sense, a wartime president,” and maximizes every opportunity to take credit for silver linings in the crisis. But he does not want to be blamed for things that go wrong.
He went to Norfolk, Virginia, to give a presidential send-off to the Comfort, the Navy hospital ship, as it set sail for New York City, where its main function is to house non-COVID-19 patients to relieve pressure on city hospitals.
He tapped the rarely invoked Defense Production Act, though so far he has used it more as a tool of persuasion than as a means to order the private sector to manufacture more of what the country needs. But he has resisted calls to issue a national stay-at-home order and says primary responsibility for emergency supplies belongs to the states.
On Friday, the Health and Human Services Department revised its description of the Strategic National Stockpile to play down its utility in the pandemic. The new wording showed up a day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, said the federal stockpile is “supposed to be our stockpile,” meaning the federal government’s. “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
TRUMP: “I stopped some very, very infected, very, very sick people, thousands coming in from China long earlier than anybody thought, including the experts. Nobody thought we should do it except me. And I stopped everybody. We stopped it cold.” — interview Monday with “Fox & Friends.”
PENCE: “The president suspended all travel from China in January.” — interview Wednesday with CNN.
THE FACTS: Trump didn’t “stop cold” all the people infected with coronavirus from entering the U.S. with a ban of all travel from China. There were gaps in containment and initial delays in testing, leading to the U.S. rising to No. 1 globally in the number of people infected by COVID-19.
Nor did Trump decide on his own to impose travel restrictions on China — he followed a consensus recommendation by his public-health advisers.
His order in late January temporarily barred entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, with exceptions for the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Americans returning from China were allowed back for two more weeks. They were given enhanced screenings. But screenings can miss people who are carrying the virus but showing no symptoms.
TRUMP: “So we have more cases than anybody, but we’re doing really well, and we also have a very low — relative to other countries — very low mortality rate. And there are reasons for that.” — interview Monday with “Fox & Friends.”
TRUMP: “We’ve been doing more test — tests than any other country anywhere in the world. It’s one of the reasons that we have more cases than other countries, because we’ve been testing. It’s also one of the reasons that we’re just about the lowest in terms of mortality rate.” — news briefing on March 29.
THE FACTS: His suggestion that the U.S. response is better than other countries’ because its mortality rate is “just about the lowest” is unsupported and misleading.
It’s too early to know the real death rate from COVID-19 in any country. Look at a count kept by Johns Hopkins University, and you can divide the number of reported cases by the number of recorded deaths. But that math provides a completely unreliable measurement of death rates, and the Johns Hopkins tally is not intended to be that.
First, the count changes every day as new infections and deaths are recorded.
More important, every country is testing differently. Knowing the real denominator, the true number of people who become infected, is key to determining what portion of them die. Some countries, the U.S. among them, have had trouble making enough tests available. When there’s a shortage of tests, the sickest get tested first. And even with a good supply of tests, someone who’s otherwise healthy and has mild symptoms may not be tested and thus go uncounted.
The result is a hodgepodge of numbers that get sorted out as the crisis diminishes. Indeed, initial death rates were thought to be as high as 4% in parts of China. But a report published Monday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases calculated that 1.38% actually is the best estimate of deaths among confirmed cases across China and that accounting for unconfirmed cases could drop that rate below 1%.
Early on Fauci estimated that the death rate in the U.S. might hit around 1%, which would be 10 times higher than mortality from a typical flu season.
FEDERAL AID FOR STATES
TRUMP: “I get on calls, and I get on a lot of the governor calls where we’ll have all 50 governors plus where we have some territories also, but we have 50 governors. And I’ll tell you what, if you could listen to those calls, you’d never hear a complaint.” — interview with “Fox & Friends.”
THE FACTS: That’s false, by his own accounting. He’s complained about the complaints of governors. And The Associated Press has heard governors complaining to Trump privately on the phone.
“Some of these governors take, take, take and then they complain,” Trump groused in an interview Thursday on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity.” Of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, he said, “All she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” And he said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, “should be doing more,” adding, “He’s always complaining.”
“You know,” Trump said from the White House, “we don’t like to see the complaints.”
On a private conference call Thursday with governors, Inslee urged Trump to use his full authority to spur production of necessary medical equipment, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by the AP. Trump replied that the federal government is merely the “backup.”
“I don’t want you to be the backup quarterback; we need you to be Tom Brady here,” Inslee replied, invoking the football star.
The nation’s governors have been pressing the president to do more to bolster supplies, despite the perceived risks of speaking out. They have pleaded with him to use the Defense Production Act to force companies to manufacture critical equipment and begged for help in obtaining supplies like masks and testing agents.
Later in the week, Trump revised his complaint about the attitude of governors. He said some say nice things when he talks to them directly and get negative when they’re on TV.
TRUMP, on why he thinks South Korea does more COVID-19 testing per capita than the U.S.: “I know South Korea better than anybody. It’s a — very tight. Do you know how many people are in Seoul? Do you know how big the city of Seoul is? Thirty-eight million people.” — news briefing Monday.
THE FACTS: That’s wrong. The city of Seoul has a population of 10 million. Seoul’s greater metropolitan area is home to 25 million people, still far from Trump’s assertion of 38 million. South Korea’s population is 51 million.
Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard and Matthew Perrone in Washington, Alan Suderman in Richmond, Va., and Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.