2020 Presidential Race

Fact Check: Trump's Misleading Comments on Biden and the Coronavirus

As he repeatedly does, the president incorrectly describes the action that he took regarding travel from China

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump (right).
AP Images

In July 14 remarks in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump made a series of false, misleading and unsupported statements about the novel coronavirus and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s position on it.

Trump, July 14: [Biden] opposed my very strict travel ban on Chinese nationals to stop the spread of the China virus. He was totally against it. "Xenophobic," he called me. "Xenophobic." A month later, he admitted I was right.

We would’ve had thousands of people additionally die if we let people come in from heavily-infected China. But we stopped it; we did a travel ban in January. Nancy Pelosi was dancing on the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco a month later, and even later than that, and others too. They all thought what I did was a terrible mistake. …

And I was a crowd of one, because even experts didn’t want to do it. They thought it was a mistake. … And we saved tens of thousands of lives, but we actually saved millions of lives by closing — by closing up, we saved millions, potentially millions of lives. Could be — a number that we’re actually working on — but it could be 2- to 3 million lives. …. But if we had listened to Joe Biden, hundreds of thousands of additional lives would have been lost.   

We’ll examine the errors one by one.

Not a "travel ban." First, as he repeatedly does, the president incorrectly describes the action that he took regarding travel from China, where the coronavirus was discovered last December. As we have previously reported, it wasn’t a "travel ban."

On Jan. 31, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that certain non-U.S. citizens who have traveled to China within the last two weeks would be barred from entering the United States. U.S. citizens and permanent residents and their immediate families were exempt from the restrictions.

A New York Times story on April 4 found that nearly 40,000 people had flown on direct flights from China to the United States in the two months after the travel restrictions went into effect on Feb. 2. So this was hardly a ban.

Impact of travel restrictions. As he has before, Trump said that the travel restrictions "saved tens of thousands of lives." But as we reported, there is no evidence to support this, and the White House has provided none.

The few studies that have been done estimate travel restrictions the United States and other countries enacted on China had modest impacts, slowing the initial spread outside of China but not containing the coronavirus pandemic. Past studies also have found travel restrictions could delay the path of the spread of diseases, but do little to contain them.

We found no study that looked only at the U.S. travel restrictions Trump instituted, and we found only one study, which wasn’t peer-reviewed, on Australia, that found an impact on decreasing the number of deaths — but the study had a major limitation. It didn’t consider any impact of cases coming to Australia from other countries besides China.

As we’ve written, it’s possible the U.S. travel restrictions on China had some impact in slowing the importation of cases, but we don’t have evidence of that, or of what the magnitude of the impact would be.

Biden supported China travel restrictions. Trump charged without evidence or elaboration that if he had listened to Biden, "hundreds of thousands of additional lives would have been lost." We asked the White House what he was referring to, but it provided no response, nor did the Trump campaign.

It seems likely the president was referring to the travel restrictions, since he said that Biden "opposed my very strict travel ban." In fact, Biden took no position on the China restrictions when they were implemented.

On March 12, Biden tweeted:

As we have writtenBiden’s campaign said on April 3 that Biden backed Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China.

"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, told CNN. "Science supported this ban, therefore he did too."

Biden called Trump "xenophobic." Trump is right that Biden called him xenophobic. But Biden didn’t make clear why he said that. The Biden campaign has said that was not in connection with the China travel restrictions.

As we have written, on the day the White House announced the restrictions, Biden said at a campaign event in Iowa that as the pandemic unfolds, Americans "need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it, that he is going to act rationally about it." He added, "This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science."

The Biden campaign says Biden’s "reference to xenophobia was about Trump’s long record of scapegoating others at a time when the virus was emerging from China," and that he was not talking about the travel rules.

HHS experts backed restrictions. Trump is also incorrect, as we have written, when he says that when it came to the travel restrictions, "I was a crowd of one, because even experts didn’t want to do it."

HHS Secretary Azar told reporters on Feb. 7, "The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental. These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS."

President Trump is threatening social media companies with the prospect of new regulation after "fact checks" were added to two of his tweets by Twitter. Trump accused Twitter of "interfering in the 2020 presidential election" and "completely stifling free speech," stating "as president, I will not allow it to happen."

"Closing up" saved lives. We don’t know whether Trump is on target when he says that the lockdowns imposed by many states may have saved "millions" of lives. A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published on June 8 in the journal Nature found that lockdowns had prevented 60 million infections in the United States.

The study didn’t say how many lives were saved, but the lead researcher, Solomon Hsiang, did say the benefits of the lockdown are in a sense invisible because they reflect "infections that never occurred and deaths that did not happen." A study by researchers at the Imperial College London estimated lockdowns saved about 3.1 million lives in 11 European countries.

Columbia University researchers concluded that 36,000 fewer deaths from the coronavirus would have occurred if the U.S. had imposed social distancing one week earlier in March.

Pelosi in Chinatown. Finally, Trump is wrong when he once again says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was "dancing on the streets of Chinatown" well after he imposed his travel restrictions. Trump has repeatedly falsely described Pelosi’s trip to Chinatown.

As we have written, Pelosi traveled to Chinatown on Feb. 24 in an effort to bolster the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops. Their business had fallen sharply in the wake of the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which as we said originated in China.

The visit came three weeks before six Bay Area counties implemented shelter-in-place restrictions. On the day of Pelosi’s visit, Trump tweeted this about the virus: "The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!"

For a time Pelosi’s visit became a staple in Trump’s remarks. He variously described her as holding a "rally" in Chinatown, having or wanting to have "parties" or a "street party" there, and encouraging people to go to a "big parade." In May, Trump shifted to references to Pelosi "dancing in the streets of San Francisco in Chinatown." None of these things ever happened. She was interviewed as she shopped. 

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