U.S. President Donald Trump is falsely assigning blame to governors and the Obama administration for shortages in coronavirus testing. As a result, Trump's exchanges with reporters challenging his claims during his briefings are becoming more and more tense.
On Sunday evening Trump spared with reporters telling one "You're CNN. You're fake news... you don't have the brains you were born with" and another to "keep your voice down."
For much of the week, he was pretender to a throne that didn’t exist as he claimed king-like powers over the pandemic response and Congress. But by the weekend, he was again saying governors called the shots and they are the ones to blame — not the federal government, not him — for any testing problems.
He says governors aren’t using all the testing capacity that the federal government has created. It’s not true.
Meanwhile, Trump denied praising China’s openness in the pandemic, when he’s on record doing so repeatedly, and declared victory over what he calls relatively low death rates in the U.S. But that’s too soon to tell.
A look at his recent rhetoric and its relationship with reality.
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TRUMP, on governors urging wider availability of virus tests: “They don’t want to use all of the capacity that we’ve created. We have tremendous capacity. ...They know that. The governors know that. The Democrat governors know that; they’re the ones that are complaining.” — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s assertion that governors are not using already available testing capacity is contradicted by one of his top health advisers. He’s also wrong that Democrats are the only ones expressing concerns about the adequacy of COVID-19 testing; several Republican governors also point to problems.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press that the U.S. does not yet have the critical testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the nation’s economy.
“We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet,” Fauci, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said Tuesday.
Among Fauci’s top concerns: that there will be new outbreaks in locations where social distancing has eased, and that public health officials don’t yet have the capabilities to rapidly test for the virus, isolate any new cases and track down everyone that an infected person came into contact with.
His concerns are echoed by several Republicans.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, on Friday said his state’s testing capacity was inadequate and urged a larger role for the federal government.
He said states have been competing with each other to try to get more testing supplies, a process he described as “a slog.”
“It’s a perilous set of circumstances trying to figure out how to make this work, and until we’ve got the testing up to speed — which has got to be part of the federal government stepping in and helping — we’re just not going to be there.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, plans to keep applying pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to address the rationing of a key component that is necessary to produce tests. He said full testing capacity can’t be reached unless it is more widely distributed.
Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Sunday called the lack of virus testing “probably the No. 1 problem in America, and has been from the beginning of this crisis.”
“And I can tell you, I talk to governors on both sides of the aisle nearly every single day,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The administration, I think, is trying to ramp up testing, and trying — they are doing some things with respect to private labs. But to try to push this off to say that the governors have plenty of testing, and they should just get to work on testing, somehow we aren’t doing our job, is just absolutely false. ”
TRUMP: “Some partisan voices are attempting to politicize the issue of testing, which they shouldn’t be doing, because I inherited broken junk.” — news briefing Saturday.
TRUMP: “We inherited a broken, terrible system.” — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: His repeated insistence that the Obama administration is to blame for initial delays in testing is wrong. The novel coronavirus did not exist until late last year, so there was no test to inherit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instead struggled to develop its own test for the coronavirus in January, later discovering problems in its kits sent to state and county public health labs in early February.
It took the CDC more than two weeks to come up with a fix to the test kits, leading to delays in diagnoses through February, a critical month when the virus took root in the U.S. Not until Feb. 29 did the FDA decide to allow labs to develop and use their own coronavirus diagnostic tests before the agency reviews them, speeding up the supply. Previously, the FDA had only authorized use of a government test developed by the CDC.
Meantime the U.S. bypassed a test that the World Health Organization quickly made available internationally. Trump has said that test was flawed; it wasn’t.
TRUMP: “The United States has produced dramatically better health outcomes than any other country. ... On a per capita basis, our mortality rate is far lower than other nations of Western Europe, with the lone exception of possibly Germany. ... You hear we have more death. But we’re a much bigger country than any of those countries by far.“ — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: His suggestion that the U.S. response to the coronavirus has been better than many other countries’ because its mortality rate is “far lower” is unsupported and misleading.
In each country, for instance, the age and overall health of the population are important factors. Many countries in western Europe such as Italy have an older population than the U.S., and seniors are at an especially high risk of death from COVID-19.
Beyond age, underlying health conditions increase risk, too. Indeed, an AP analysis of available state and local data found nearly one-third of U.S. deaths are among African Americans, with black people representing about 14% of the population in the areas covered in the analysis. Health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and asthma are more common in the black community.
But more broadly, 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 recorded deaths with the number of reported cases. The math nevertheless 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. 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 only way to tell how many went uncounted early on is to do a completely different kind of testing — blood tests of the population to find how many people bear immune system antibodies to the virus, something only now starting in selected places.
TRUMP: “China has just announced a doubling in the number of their deaths from the Invisible Enemy. It is far higher than that and far higher than the U.S., not even close!” — tweet Friday.
THE FACTS: It’s the reverse, more than 4,600 recorded deaths in China compared with more than 36,000 in the United States. And the notion that China can overtake the U.S. in a final accounting of the dead is a long shot right now.
Even with the upward revision Friday of Chinese deaths — which was not a doubling, as Trump claimed — the recorded U.S. death toll is about seven times higher than China’s, according to the count by Johns Hopkins University as of Friday night. And China has more than four times more people.
The full picture is not known in either country. Trump routinely manipulates information to make the U.S response to the coronavirus pandemic look better than it is. China’s secretive leadership obscured the severity of the crisis for crucial weeks, and its numbers remain in question.
As well, deaths from the virus have not been fully reported in either country because the pandemic is still raging in the U.S. and still being accounted for in China.
But for China to surpass the U.S. in this count, it would have to be underreporting deaths by the tens of thousands, and deaths in the U.S. would have to nosedive from the current trend and projections.
CHINA vs. U.S.
TRUMP: “China was supposed to catch us. ... For years, I’ve heard, ‘By 2019, China will catch us.’ There’s only one problem: Trump got elected in 2016. That was a big difference. And we were going leaps and bounds above China.” — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: No matter who got elected in 2016 — Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton — China’s economy could not have caught up to America’s.
Even if the U.S. economy had not grown at all since 2016, China’s gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — would have had to have surged by 79% in three years to pull even with America’s. That comes to growth of more than 21% a year — something even China’s super-charged economy has never approached.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese economy had been slowly narrowing the gap because every year it grows much faster than America’s. In 2019, for example, the International Monetary Fund predicted Chinese GDP to increase 6.2%, more than double the 2.6% growth it expects for the United States. The global pandemic isn’t expected to change that trend line: last week, the IMF said the U.S economy will fall 5.9% this year and China’s will manage to grow 1.2%.
That means China has got a long way to go to surpass the U.S., whether Trump is president or not.
TRUMP: “Some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect ... It is the decision of the President.” — tweets on April 13.
TRUMP, asked about his level of authority to reopen the country: “I have the ultimate authority.... They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.” — news briefing on April 13.
THE FACTS: The federal government did not close down the country and won’t be reopening it. Restrictions on public gatherings, workplaces, mobility, store operations, schools and more were ordered by states and communities, not Washington. The federal government has imposed border controls; otherwise its social distancing actions are mostly recommendations, not mandates.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, knocking down a series of false rumors about the coronavirus, makes clear that “states and cities are responsible for announcing curfews, shelters in place, or other restrictions and safety measures.”
Trump has argued that states and communities imposed restrictions because he let them and that he can overrule their decisions. Constitutional experts disagree.
“The president can un-declare his national emergency declarations, which freed up federal funds and provided assistance to state and local governments,” said Walter Dellinger, a former acting U.S. solicitor general. “But he has no federal statutory or constitutional power to override steps taken by governors and mayors under state law. He has never understood that he lacks a general power to rule by decree.”
The federal government does have broad constitutional authority over states on things that cross state lines and involve the entire nation, such as regulating interstate commerce and immigration, levying taxes or declaring war. What Trump is proposing, however, is different. He is wading into states’ sharply defined powers to protect public health.
Asked what authority he had to make such an assertion of presidential power, Trump promised earlier in the week that he would provide a legal memorandum supporting his view. By Thursday, he hadn’t and he told governors that day they could reopen states when they deem appropriate.
TRUMP: “If the House will not agree to that adjournment, I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress.” — news briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: His power to adjourn Congress is highly questionable.
The Constitution does not spell out a unilateral power for the president to adjourn Congress. It states only that he can decide on adjournment if there is a dispute over that matter between the House and Senate. Such a disagreement does not exist, nor is it likely to arise.
Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley said on Twitter the Constitution gives a president authority in “extraordinary occasions” to convene or adjourn Congress. But, he said, “This power has never been used and should not be used now.”
Trump is unhappy that Congress has refused to fully adjourn during most breaks. Because Congress is still formally in session, Trump can’t circumvent Congress and unilaterally put his nominees for various positions to work in the jobs he wants them to have. Lawmakers also used the tactic of holding off on adjournment to thwart some of President Barack Obama’s nominees.
Doug Andres, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said McConnell will find ways to confirm nominees essential to the pandemic response but Senate rules will require that the Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, give consent to move forward on them.
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
TRUMP, explaining in part why he is freezing money to the World Health Organization: “The WHO willingly took China’s assurances to face value, and they took it just at face value and defended the actions of the Chinese government, even praising China for its so-called transparency. I don’t think so.” — news briefing Tuesday.
TRUMP, asked about his past praise of China: “I don’t talk about China’s transparency.” — news briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He did praise China’s transparency as well as its overall performance in the pandemic.
While it’s true that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus complimented China’s response, Trump early on similarly took China’s assurances at face value.
In a CNBC interview on Jan. 22, Trump was asked if he trusted information from China about the coronavirus. “I do,” Trump said. “I have a great relationship with President Xi.”
Two days later, he was even more effusive. “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” he tweeted. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. ...I want to thank President Xi!”
Trump kept up the compliments when asked several times in February about whether data from China can be trusted,. He called Xi “extremely capable” and said he’s “doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation.”
Such praise faded as the pandemic hit hard in the U.S. and the federal response stumbled. The time was ripe for scapegoats. It also become clearer that China had not been forthcoming at the start.
On March 21, Trump said of his earlier remarks: “China was transparent at that time, but when we saw what happened, they could have been transparent much earlier than they were.” In any event, his denial that he ever praised China’s openness is false.