The New York Times, August 28, 2020


For four days, the Republican National Convention projected the image of a nation that had beaten the coronavirus, with maskless supporters packed close together and free to carry on with their lives thanks to the quick, powerful and effective response of President Trump, who crushed a pandemic when it reached American shores.

The truth is another story.

With more than 180,000 Americans dead and the economy still mired in recession, no issue threatens Mr. Trump’s re-election like the coronavirus. 

To make the post-pandemic imagery stick, speaker after speaker — especially the president — had to paint a narrative that rewrote history and was resplendent with distortions, exaggerations and outright falsehoods.

From the start of the pandemic, Mr. Trump played down the coronavirus, saying in an interview in January that “we have it totally under control” and speculating in February that it “could maybe go away.” Far from condemning Beijing’s handling of what he would later refer to as the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus,” Mr. Trump initially praised President Xi Jinping’s handling of it.

By March 15, as daily cases continued to increase, Mr. Trump said the virus was “something we have tremendous control of.”

These dismissals, however, did not stop one speaker, a nurse named Amy Ford, from declaring on Monday that “President Trump recognized the threat this virus presented for all Americans early on and made rapid policy changes” or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from claiming that “the president has held China accountable for covering up the China virus.”

Mr. Trump did place restrictions on travel from China on Jan. 31, effective Feb. 2, but they only applied to foreign nationals and included exceptions. The porous “ban” ultimately allowed 40,000 to travel from China to the United States from the end of January to April. It wasn’t until March 13 that similar restrictions were placed on travel from Europe, and by then, a virulent European strain of the virus was already widespread in New York City.

In fact, Mr. Trump’s botched announcement of the European travel ban set off a chaotic exodus of Americans from the continent that overwhelmed U.S. airports and most likely let in thousands of cases.

Addressing the convention on Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence proclaimed that “before the first case of the coronavirus spread in the United States, the president took unprecedented action and suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world.” That is not true.

And in the telling of Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, “President Trump saved lives by shutting down flights from China and Europe.” Another speaker, Natalie Harp, put it more hyperbolically: “Millions would have died” had it not been for the restrictions.

As the virus began to spread in the United States and around the world, the federal government was slow to develop testing at the scale necessary to monitor the pandemic. Myriad failures in testing in the critical early days of the pandemic — a botched kit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, restrictions on who could be tested and delays in monitoring — left the country blind. By the end of March, testing in the United States still lagged behind many other countries as measured by population.

Still, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence celebrated the United States’ testing record, with Mr. Trump boasting that “America has tested more than every country in Europe put together.”

The president was similarly hesitant to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act, a federal law that gives him the authority to mobilize industry in the interest of national security. He signed an executive order on March 18 invoking portions of the law, including the power to essentially direct private businesses to make certain supplies and products.

From March 23 to March 27, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services surveyed hospitals and found serious supply shortages. Some hospitals, the inspector general wrote, “had not received supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, or that the supplies that they had received were not sufficient in quantity or quality.”

Yet the president asserted that the government “shipped hundreds of millions of masks, gloves and gowns to our front line health care workers,” without mention of the shortages.

On March 27, amid a torrent of criticism from governors and public health officials over shortages in ventilators and personal protective equipment, the president finally invoked the Defense Production Act to force General Motors to make ventilators. Still, he maintained that “nationalizing our business is not a good concept.” By July, there was still no widespread use of the law to combat the virus.

Yet according to Mr. Pence, Mr. Trump “marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset.” The president also echoed this when he claimed credit for the “largest national mobilization since World War II,” citing his invocation of the Defense Production Act.

The way Mr. Trump cited the data on virus deaths in the country also presented a false picture. In April, the number of average daily deaths peaked at between 2,000 and 2,200. Cases and deaths fell and plateaued as spring turned into summer, before roaring back as a number of states relaxed social distancing rules and began reopening their economies. Average daily deaths increased from 400 to 500 in July to over 900 today.

Despite the uptick, Mr. Trump celebrated the 80 percent decline in the number of deaths since April — cherry-picking the peak and comparing it to a low point that has since passed — and falsely claimed again that the United States had “among the lowest case fatality rates of any major country anywhere in the world.” (It ranks in the top third around the world.)

Copyright 2020 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.