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A Timeline of Trump’s Press Briefing Lies

The president's nightly briefings are about as accurate as his rallies.
April 2, 2020
A Timeline of Trump’s Press Briefing Lies
Trump speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, in the press briefing room of the White House on March 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. Cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, with New York's case count doubling every three days according to Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

After months of ignoring and downplaying the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump addressed the nation on March 11 from the Oval Office. It was the first in what was to become a series of briefings. These all-consuming almost daily events have been marked by happy talk, exaggeration, misinformation, and outright lies by President Trump.

Trump’s lies have ranged far and wide. In part, this pattern is based on his general ignorance and the lack of seriousness with which he approached the crisis during the only period America had to mitigate it.

Other lies are standard Trumpian hyperbole meeting a moment that calls for brutal truth-telling.

Still others are deliberate attempts to hide his failures or to make the American people believe something that is untrue in order to make himself look better.

Daniel Dale at CNN has done yeoman’s work cataloguing the lies big and small. What this timeline provides is an overarching look at three weeks worth of public statements to give a sense of the breadth and scope of his mendacity over the course of the crisis and how it has irreparably undermined the public trust.

March 10, 2020: Tests 

Trump: And when people need a test, they can get a test.

This remark came at the Senate Republican lunch on the eve of Trump’s Oval Office address. It marked the original sin of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response: the failure to produce and stockpile tests for the virus. In addition to failing on the actual production of tests, Trump has lied about them, repeatedly—and continues to do so.

At many points after this lunch, Trump promised the American people if they’d like a test, they can have one. This was, and remains, very untrue. At the beginning of March, Trump promised a capacity of 4 million tests. Mike Pence promised that we’d reach 5 million by March 13. A White House official promised 27 million by months end. When we reached March 31, the U.S. had finally reached the 1 million test mark, far short of what is required for the country to return to anything near normalcy.

It is important that people understand this foundational fact about COVID-19:

There is no path to rebuilding the American economy and protecting people from this virus at this level of testing. And that’s why the lies about tests will be the alpha and omega of Trump’s slow, disastrous response.

March 11, 2020: Coronavirus Insurance 

Trump: Earlier this week, I met with the leaders of [the] health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.

In reality the insurance companies present did agree to no copays for coronavirus tests, but they did not say there would be no copays for coronavirus treatments. This is, obviously, an extremely critical distinction. There are millions of uninsured Americans or insured Americans with high deductibles or spotty coverage whose finances could be ruined by treatment for the virus.

This lack of guaranteed coverage remains the case today. (The CARES Act passed by Congress did not include funding for treatment of the virus, only tests.)

Since President Trump’s statement that all COVID-19 treatments would be covered, a teen in California without insurance went to an urgent care facility with respiratory issues presumed to be COVID-19, was denied care and later died. (Note: There are conflicting reports over whether or not he tested positive for COVID-19 post-mortem, but that doesn’t really have any bearing on the question of being denied treatment for suspected coronavirus in the first place.)

March 13, 2020:Google and Drive Thru Testing 

Trump: At the same time, we’ve been in discussions with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-thru tests available in the critical locations identified by public health professionals. The goal is for individuals to be able to drive up and be swabbed without having to leave your car.

I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location. We have many, many locations behind us, by the way.

We cover the—this country in large part.

So the world, by the way—we’re not going to be talking about the world right now. But we cover very, very strongly our country. Stores in virtually every location. Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress.

Every sentence in that segment of Trump’s prepared remarks was either a lie, an extreme exaggeration, or unintelligible.

  • Google was not building a website, an Alphabet subsidiary named Verily was.
  • No one knows where the “1,700 engineers” working on the project came from. No one has substantiated this claim and Verily only has 1,000 employees, total. It seems to have been pulled from an announcement that 1,700 Google employees had said that they would volunteer to help, if needed.
  • Weeks later, the Verily site that they claimed would allow every American to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate where to get one is live for people living in just four counties in California.
  • Despite that limited scope, the site quickly went down for hitting capacity.
  • As it stands today nothing from Google has been “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.” The only website the company has put up is a page with links to resources such as “Tips and Tricks to effectively work from home” and links to the CDC website. (Two weeks later a different tech company, Apple, launched a COVID 19 app and website that helps people screen for whether they need a test but does not “facilitate testing” as Trump promised.)

So, not “tremendous progress.”

And then there’s the drive-thru testing:

  • The drive-thru tests that Trump announced in order to give the impression that he was not far behind the ball on testing, were nowhere near ready.
  • As of March 27 a total of five drive thru testing facilities have come online. That’s for the entire country. Walgreens, CVS, and Rite-Aid have each opened one. Wal-Mart has opened two.
  • These five testing centers do not cover “the country in large part.” Nor do they “cover very, very strongly our country.”

March 14, 2020: Paid Sick Leave

Trump:It also provides paid sick and family medical leave for those who need it, including for those who have the virus, for caregivers, and those looking after children affected by school closures. So that’s all taken care of also. And we’ll continue all of these different actions. We have other things planned.

Here Trump is claiming that Americans who have to take leave due to the virus will be able to receive pay. This was not the case at the time and is still not the case for tens of millions of Americans. The stimulus bill he later signed exempts companies with 500 or more employees—which, all told, means about half of America’s total workforce.

It also only provides two weeks of paid sick leave—which will clearly be insufficient for those who have the virus or are caregivers for those with the virus.

In states, like Virginia, where schools are already cancelled until the end of the year, two weeks of paid leave also covers only a portion of that time.

March 17, 2020: Pandemic

Trump:I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic,” Trump said. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.

Asked and answered.

March 18, 2020: The Ships 

Trump: We’re sending, upon request, the two hospital ships; they’re being prepared right now. They’re massive ships. They’re the big white ships with the red cross on the sides. One is called the Mercy and the other is called the Comfort. And they are in tiptop shape. They soon will be. They’re getting ready to come up to New York.

The Comfort was, not, in tiptop shape and required maintenance and repairs in order to be deployed. The maintenance was still unfinished when the ship departed on Saturday as part of a presidential photo op. The Comfort was set to begin helping with the non-COVID cases being crowded out by the high volume in NYC hospitals two weeks after the initial announcement.

Mercy accepted its first patient on March 29.

Comfort arrived in NYC on March 30. 

March 19, 2020: Chloroquine

Trump: Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like [chloroquine], and it’s—it was approved very, very quickly and it’s now approved by prescription.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, who was at this briefing, quickly clarified that the drug still had to be tested in a clinical setting. The FDA subsequently put out a lengthy statement saying “there are no FDA approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure, or prevent COVID-19.”

Putting the result of whether the President’s “gut feeling” about chloroquine turns out to be correct aside, presidential statements about whether or not a drug has been approved for use amidst a pandemic ought to be, at the very least, factually correct.

Shooting from the hip has downstream effects on the drug supply, individual use cases, and load management for doctors at a critical time.

March 20, 2020: Defense Production Act 

Trump:I invoked the Defense Production Act, and last night, we put it into gear. . . . We invoked it, I think, the day before we signed it—the evening of the day before—and invoked it yesterday. We have a lot of people working very hard to do ventilators and various other things. Yes.

The Defense Production Act is a Korean War–era law that enables the federal government to order private industry to produce certain items and materials for national use. Despite making this claim very explicitly on March 20, Trump had not in fact invoked it.

On March 24, Trump expanded on this lie, insisting that the DPA had “already been activated, actually, a long time ago—quite a long time ago.”

Again: This was not true.

Trump did end up invoking the DPA a week later, on March 27. Though he did it not as part of a systematic ramp-up of ventilator production, but in order to force one company—General Motors—to produce ventilators.

By total coincidence, on the same day he invoked the DPA, Trump had been feuding on Twitter with GM CEO Mary Barra.

March 21, 2020: Ventilators

Trump:But there’s tremendous amounts of—not only masks—of ventilators and respirators and everything you can think of. It’s all being—much of it and almost, I could say, all of it is being manufactured right now. . . . I had three calls yesterday directly. Without having to institute—like, “You will do this”—these companies are making them right now. But to think of these numbers, it’s pretty—it’s pretty mind boggling.

This is the classic Trump playbook:

  • Pick an action you should have taken months ago,
  • Hype up how it’s actually happening right now,
  • And hide the ball, because it still isn’t happening.

The production of ventilators could have been ready by April had the government focused on getting them produced in February when it was that clear shortages were coming.

But they didn’t. So instead Trump exaggerates, lies, and obfuscates.

The reality is that as Trump was talking on March 21, these companies were not manufacturing ventilators and had not yet come to an agreement with the administration on the scope.

Trump, himself, admitted this was a lie six days later when he rage tweeted in all caps at the CEO of GM demanding her company start manufacturing the ventilators that he had claimed they were already working on.

March 23rd, 2020: Open For Business 

Trump: America will again, and soon, be open for business—very soon—a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.

Without getting inside Trump’s head it is hard to know if this constitutes an outright lie he told to buy time or mere wishcasting. The very next day, Trump told a Fox audience that he was aiming to have the country open on Easter (April 12) and that “You’ll have packed churches all over our country.”

Five days later, on March 29, Trump abandoned this story and said that social distancing measures would stay in effect until April 30.

Once again, at a time of extreme disruption for business and individuals, where success requires individuals to trust the government and listen to the expert advice about distancing, offering false hope might sound nice, but it is wildly counterproductive.

March 25, 2020: Widespread Testing

Question: Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the head of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, says the key to getting this economy open as soon as possible is to test everyone who needs testing so we can quarantine all infected individuals and allow everyone else to go back to work immediately. Would you subscribe to that strategy?

Trump: Look, I saw him. I saw his statement. We have tested, by far, more than anybody. We’re testing more than anybody right now. There’s nobody even close. And our tests are the best tests.

Of all Trump’s testing lies, this was the most egregious.

The question Trump was asked is not about the number of tests completed, but about the Harvard Global Health Institute’s contention that the only way to reopen the economy is to have a sustained regime of widespread testing.

Rather than publicly admitting that this contention is true and will require a massive scale-up in U.S. capabilities, Trump continued to claim that America is already the world standard on testing. This claim is both manifestly untrue and an active danger to the public.

March 26, 2020: China Travel Ban 

Trump: We got very lucky when we made a decision not to allow people in from China at a very early date. I say that because some people don’t want to accept it.

People “don’t want to accept” this assertion for the simple reason that it isn’t true.

What Trump did ban in late January was travel from “foreign nationals who had been in China in the last 14 days.”

This was not a “ban.” Daily flights from China have arrived in the United States nearly every day since then.

Dozens of flights from China to America continued throughout February. They’re even happening today. If you want, so long as you’re not a foreign national, you can get on a direct flight from Beijing to Los Angeles on Saturday, even though—this may surprise you—people who are not foreign nationals can also carry the coronavirus.

Also, even the limited ban Trump initiated was basically superfluous, because the major U.S. carriers had already drastically scaling back flights out of concern for employee safety. A report from late January noted that Delta, American, and United’s move “all but rendered White House action moot” with regards to travel on those airlines.

There is a certain dark irony to the fact that the one time instituting a real travel ban would have been helpful, our nativist, isolationist, America First president was slow off the mark and couldn’t get himself to go far enough.

That’s right: 45 countries actually banned travel from China before Trump did.

March 27, 2020: 22 Days Ago, Nobody Saw This Coming 

Trump: Even 22 days to be exact—right?—when we first started seeing some real signs of problems. . . . They were—I don’t want to say unprepared, but nobody was prepared for this. What we’ve done, nobody can even imagine. . . . Well, they say I had classified briefings a long time ago, which wasn’t true. But we’ve had briefings.

As is often the case, it’s hard to tell what Trump is talking about here. Ostensibly, his answer is about the economy, but it’s also—maybe?—about the virus. Not that it matters. Because either way, it’s flatly untrue. The stock market decline began February 24. We know that Trump knows this, because he tweeted a lie about how the market was “looking good to me” on that day in a blind effort to stave off a panic.

As for the contention that “nobody was prepared for this”? The evidence certainly suggests that Donald Trump was not prepared for this. It’s possible that no one at senior levels in his administration was prepared for this. But in 2017, members of his administration were handed an actual “playbook”—literally, the document was called a playbook!—for dealing with a global pandemic.

And then there is the question of whether or not Trump received “classified briefings” on the pandemic “a long time ago.”

We know for certain that Congress received classified briefings in the first week of February. So it stands to reason that president did as well. Though, in fairness to him, it’s possible he was watching The Five while the eggheads were talking. I mean, if those Deep State bureaucrats are so smart, then why aren’t they worth billions of dollars!

March 30, 2020: Nobody Had Any Idea

Trump: A month ago nobody ever heard of this—nobody had any idea.

Part of Trump’s modus operandi is to take whatever he’s guilty of and project it onto other people. In a weird way, you can often treat his attacks on others as confessions of his own wrongdoing.

And that’s exactly the case here. In mid-January, medical experts were deeply concerned about the coronavirus. By early February, most people who pay attention to the world around them had an eye on the outbreak. By March 1, the only person in America who didn’t understand that something very dangerous was happening was Donald Trump.

March 31, 2020: Other People Were Downplaying The Virus

Trump:A lot of people have said, ride it out, don’t do anything, think of it as the flu. But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious.

As George Constanza—or maybe it was Art Vandelay—once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” I wonder whether this is true for the President, whether he has wired his brain in such a way that it no longer recognizes the dissonance.

Because the person Donald Trump is talking about in this quote is, of course, Donald Trump. And yet, he’s convinced himself that it was someone else. That he’s the hero of the story, because that is how he’s wired.

The grim truth is that this kind of gaslighting doesn’t work on the virus. It doesn’t care about your feelings, or your media bubble, or the size of your rallies. It is the first force Donald Trump has ever met that is completely and totally immune to his bullshit. It can’t be bullied or cajoled or placated or bought off.

It simply is.

And the reason this terrifies Trump isn’t because it is going to kill—has already killed—thousands of his fellow Americans.

No, Trump is terrified because the virus exerts a gravitational reality that he cannot alter, disguise, hide, or control.

In the face of this terrible power, all that Trump has left is to convince himself that he was the one who took it seriously from the start and that it was everyone else who was irresponsible.

The problem for him, is that there’s a record.

And the problem for us, is that we have a president who has made, and is still making, this crisis worse, not better.

Priya Gada contributed to this article.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.