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AP FACT CHECK: Trump's viral spin on virus; Dem oversteps

Posted: 8:05 AM, Feb 29, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-29 19:06:07-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump has not proved to be the bearer of reliable information when calamity threatens and people want straight answers about it. That's happening again as he addresses the prospect of a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

With numbers still low, but the first death in the U.S. now reported, the infectious disease risks not only public health but the economy he holds up to voters for his reelection. To date, his comments have largely seemed intended to put a positive spin on hard information from the scientists, as if he were wishing the problem away.

Trump's comment Friday night, characterizing Democratic criticism of the administration's response to the virus as a “hoax,” lent weight to the perception that he's minimizing the potential for harm in search of political gain. He emphasized Saturday that he does not consider the coronavirus threat a hoax — only the pushback from Democrats.

Trump has a record of unreliability on this front. In one hurricane episode, he displayed a map doctored to reflect his personal and ill-founded theory that Alabama would take it on the chin. In another, he dismissed the Puerto Rico death toll as a concoction by Democrats.

He was fast off the mark to describe the injuries suffered by U.S. service members from an Iranian missile attack as little more than headaches, when it turned out scores suffered traumatic brain injury.

For their part, Democrats have been quick to criticize the Trump administration — at times too quick. Several presidential candidates described the federal response as hampered by Trump budget cuts, which have not happened, and by a decimated public-health bureaucracy, despite the top-of-class scientists steering the effort.

Here are the facts behind some of the political rhetoric of the past week, on the virus and more.

VIRUS OUTBREAK

TRUMP: “We are rapidly developing a vaccine. ... The vaccine is coming along well, and in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop very rapidly.” — news conference Wednesday.

THE FACTS: No vaccine is imminent for the coronavirus.

A candidate vaccine for the virus causing COVID-19 is approaching first-step safety tests, but federal experts say anything widely usable is probably more than a year away.

“We can't rely on a vaccine over the next several months,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

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TRUMP: “The level of death with Ebola — you know, at the time, it was a virtual 100%. ... There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die. It’s very much the opposite. You're talking about 1 or 2%, whereas in the other case, it was a virtual 100%. Now they have it; they have studied it. They know very much. In fact, we're very close to a vaccine.” — news conference Tuesday in New Delhi.

THE FACTS: “Close” is not correct. A vaccine has already been developed for Ebola. The FDA approved an Ebola vaccine in December. Even before its U.S. approval, it was being used in Congo to help stem the current outbreak.

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TRUMP, on U.S. coronavirus cases: “We're going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up.” — news conference Wednesday.

THE FACTS: That was false assurance. He was referring to the fact that most of the people he cited as having COVID-19 in the U.S. are getting better. But that is not indicative of the spread or containment of the disease since most victims, by far, recover.

Cases in the U.S. are almost certain to increase, his own officials have said repeatedly, and he acknowledged as much Saturday.

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TRUMP: “Unfortunately, one person passed away overnight. She was a wonderful woman, a medically high-risk patient in her late 50s.” — news conference Saturday.

THE FACTS: The patient who died of the disease was a man. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC mistakenly told Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that the victim was female.

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TRUMP: “The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year; that was shocking to me. And so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people, and they are recovering.”

THE FACTS: His remarks on the coronavirus risks are misleading. Scientists don’t know enough about how deadly the new virus actually is, and so far it hasn’t infected nearly as many people as the flu. Of the cases cited by Trump, they are not “all recovering.” One died and four others are “very ill,” he said Saturday.

Flu deaths fluctuate depending on which strain is circulating and how well each year’s vaccine is working, but Trump's cited range is in the ballpark. Two flu seasons ago, the CDC estimated there were 80,000 U.S. deaths, the highest death toll in at least four decades. This year’s flu season isn’t as deadly; so far this season, the CDC estimates there have been 16,000 to 41,000 deaths from the flu.

As to COVID-19, an illness characterized by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, there are now at least 60 cases in the U.S. In addition to the ones Trump cited, 45 were among groups the U.S. government evacuated and quarantined either from China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

In the hardest-hit part of China, the death rate from the new coronavirus was between 2% and 4%, while in other parts of China it was 0.7%. In contrast, the death rate from seasonal flu on average is about 0.1%, said Fauci, of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. That's far lower than what has been calculated so far for COVID-19. But millions of people get the flu every year around the world, leading to a global annual death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

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MIKE BLOOMBERG: “There's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he's defunded — he's defunded Centers for Disease Control, CDC, so we don't have the organization we need. This is a very serious thing.” — Democratic presidential debate Tuesday.

JOE BIDEN, comparing the Obama-Biden administration with now: “We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget. ... He's wiped all that out. ... He cut the funding for the entire effort."

THE FACTS: They're both wrong to say the agencies have seen their money cut. Bloomberg is repeating the false allegation in a new ad that states the U.S. is unprepared for the virus because of “reckless cuts" to the CDC. Trump's budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there's strong bipartisan support for agencies such as the CDC and NIH. Instead, financing has increased.

Indeed, the money that government disease detectives first tapped to fight the latest outbreak was a congressional fund created for health emergencies.

Some public health experts say a bigger concern than White House budgets is the steady erosion of a CDC grant program for state and local public health emergency preparedness — the front lines in detecting and battling new disease. But that decline was set in motion by a congressional budget measure that predates Trump.

The broader point about there being “nobody here” to coordinate the response sells short what's in place to handle an outbreak.

The public health system has a playbook to follow for pandemic preparation — regardless of who's president or whether specific instructions are coming from the White House. Public-health experts outside government have praised the CDC's work so far and noted that its top scientific ranks have remained stable during the past three years.

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HEALTH CARE

BERNIE SANDERS: “What every study out there — conservative or progressive — says, ‘Medicare for All’ will save money." — Democratic debate.

THE FACTS: Not true. Some studies say that, some don't.

Sanders, a Vermont senator, cites a recent medical journal article in The Lancet, which estimated “Medicare for All” would save more than $450 billion annually, or about 13%.

But other studies have found a Sanders-like single-payer plan would cost more, partly because free health care would increase the demand for services.

A study last fall from the Commonwealth Fund and the Urban Institute estimated that such a plan would increase national health spending by about $720 billion. A Rand study estimated spending would increase 1.8% under a national single-payer plan.

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GUN CONTROL

JOE BIDEN: “A hundred and fifty million people have been killed since 2007, when Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability.” — Democratic debate.

THE FACTS: Biden vastly overstated gun deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 413,000 gun deaths from 2007 to 2018, a far cry from 150 million, which equates to close to half the U.S. population. More than half of the gun deaths in 2018 were from suicide, says the CDC. His campaign acknowledged he misspoke.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: “I am the author of the bill to close the boyfriend loophole that says that domestic abusers can’t go out and get an AK-47.”

BIDEN: “I wrote that law.”

KLOBUCHAR: “You didn’t write that bill, I wrote that bill.”

BIDEN: “I wrote the bill, the Violence Against Women Act, that took (guns) out of the hands of people who abused their wife.”

KLOUBCHAR: “OK we’ll have a fact check look at this." — Democratic debate.

BIDEN: “No, let’s look at the fact check. The only thing (is) that that boyfriend loophole was not covered, I couldn’t get that covered. You, in fact, as a senator tried to get it covered and Mitch McConnell is holding it up on his desk right now.”

THE FACTS: Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator, correctly called out the former vice president for seeming to take credit for legislation closing the “boyfriend loophole.” Biden conceded the point, then correctly pointed out that the loophole has not been eliminated in law.

In short, Biden did write the legislation that became the Violence Against Women Act, one of his most prominent achievements. The 1994 law sets out services and specific protections for victims of domestic violence.

Klobuchar took the lead in the Senate on legislation passed by the House that would extend the law’s protections to help women who are threatened by abusive partners who are not a spouse, ex-spouse or parent of a common child — in other words, boyfriends or dating partners. But that effort, opposed by the National Rifle Association, has been hung up in the Senate.

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WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE

BLOOMBERG, responding to Elizabeth Warren’s demand that he lift non-disclosure agreements for all women who signed them: “We are doing that, senator.” — Democratic debate.

THE FACTS: He hasn’t done that.

Bloomberg agreed to release three women from non-disclosure agreements in situations where they specifically identified an issue with him. But many more former Bloomberg employees have signed such agreements, having to do with the culture and work environment at his company. He hasn’t freed them from their obligation to stay quiet about their complaints.

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WARREN: “At least I didn't have a boss who said to me ‘kill it’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.”

BLOOMBERG: “I never said that.” — Democratic debate.

THE FACTS: The woman who made the allegation against Bloomberg recounted it in a legal filing.

Former Bloomberg employee Sekiko Sekai Garrison, 55, filed a complaint against Bloomberg and his company with the New York Division of Human Rights in 1995. In Garrison’s written complaint, she recounted several personal interactions with Bloomberg when she worked at the company.

In one incident, Garrison said Bloomberg approached her near the office coffee machines and asked if she was still married, according to the complaint.

Garrison says she responded that her marriage was great and that she was pregnant with her first child, and alleged that Bloomberg replied: “Kill it.” Bloomberg has denied that the exchange happened, but in her complaint, she transcribed a voicemail she says Bloomberg later left on her voicemail, apologizing and saying he meant the “kill it” remark as a joke. Her complaint was eventually settled as part of a lawsuit with no admission of guilt, and she resigned from the company.

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INDIA

TRUMP: “Now, India has more people than any country, a little bit more than China." — news conference Tuesday in New Delhi.

THE FACTS: He's getting ahead of population projections.

India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country around 2027, according to the U.N.'s World Population Prospects report.

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TRUMP, on India's leader, Narendra Modi: “Under Prime Minister Modi, for the first time in history, every village in India now has access to electricity.” — rally Monday in Ahmedabad, India.

THE FACTS: That's false. The Indian government says a village is considered electrified if at least 10% of homes and public buildings have electricity. According to the World Bank, about 99 million people, or 7% of India's population, still live in the dark.

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TRUMP: “Six hundred million more people have access to basic sanitation.” — rally Monday.

THE FACTS: It’s true that India has built more than 110 million new toilets since Modi's government came to power in 2014, leading to increased access to basic sanitation. But implementation has been spotty in a country where venturing into the fields to defecate has been widespread and accepted.

More than 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people live in more than 600,000 villages. Poor villagers who couldn’t build toilets in their homes chose open fields, forests, ditches and other open spaces for defecation — and that cultural practice has been slow to change.

A 2018 study conducted by the non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, for instance, found 44% of the rural population across four large states still defecate in the open. Nearly one-quarter of people in households with toilets also continued to defecate in the open, a figure unchanged from 2014, according to the study.

After becoming India’s prime minister, Modi promised to make India free of open defecation. He’s acknowledged the task is not over.

The World Bank previously said about 1 in every 10 deaths in India is linked to poor sanitation.

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CHINA

BLOOMBERG, on China’s president, Xi Jinping: “In terms of whether he’s a dictator, he does serve at the behest of the Politburo, their group of people. There’s no question he has an enormous amount of power. But he does play to his constituency.” — Democratic debate.

THE FACTS: He’s minimizing Xi’s broad powers in China.

Xi serves as the head of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and is also head of state and leader of the party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army. The Politburo and its standing committee aren’t generally viewed as a check on his power. Although Xi’s moves to accumulate power have been criticized by some non-party intellectuals, he faces no clear rivals or constraints on his power.

However, a faltering economy and the knock-on effects of the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China are seen as placing him under greater pressure than he has previously faced.

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Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Matthew Daly in Washington, Alexandra Jaffe in Charleston, South Carolina, Amanda Seitz in Chicago, and Emily Schmall in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.