The American people have looked to the president and the federal government for reliable leadership and information during the spread of COVID-19, just as they always have during times of national crisis. They have not gotten it.
President Donald Trump has held regular press briefings, but the promises of action and deliverables that he and his top officials have made have rarely come to fruition. When reporters have challenged him on those unfulfilled promises, he has responded, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” or “I think that’s a very nasty question.” The consensus among experts on pandemics is that accurate information from the government is imperative; however, President Trump and his administration have consistently ignored the facts, making promises that they could never keep in order to paint a rosy political picture.
This column outlines some of the starkest examples of these unkept promises.
A timeline of the Trump administration’s inaction on the coronavirus crisis
- March 21: President Trump said, “You don’t have empty shelves.” However, USA Today reports: “At stores across the U.S., shelves are being picked bare.”
- March 21: In addressing the ventilator shortage, President Trump said: “General Motors, Ford, so many companies — I had three calls yesterday directly. Without having to institute — like, ‘You will do this’ — these companies are making them right now.” But according to The Associated Press, the ability for any carmaker to make supplies such as ventilators remains “months away—if not longer.”
- March 19: Responding to governors’ calls for more federal intervention and aid to deliver supplies and manage the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump said, “[W]e’re not a shipping clerk.” Three weeks before, Trump had boasted of all the medical supplies the federal government was ordering for distribution.
- March 18: Trump told nurses worried about their safety and protection that the government ordered 500 million N95 respirator masks, which are in very short supply across the country. However, he failed to disclose that these masks may not be ready for another 18 months.
- March 18: President Trump said, “We’ll be invoking the Defense Production Act [DPA], just in case we need it.” The order would allow the federal government to mandate that businesses make materials currently in short supply, such as ventilators, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Two days later, Trump promised to “put it into gear.”
But as of March 23, the Trump administration had failed to use the DPA to force companies to manufacture needed supplies despite continued shortages in PPE and ventilators. It did, however, use a narrow DPA allocation authority to require some companies to set aside existing testing supplies in the event of a priority federal order and to allocate those testing supplies. The administration has known about shortages to the national stockpile for at least several weeks: At the end of February, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified before Congress that the N95 mask federal stockpile was hundreds of millions short of where it needed to be.
- March 18: In announcing when the hospital ships will be launched, President Trump said: “We’re sending, upon request, the two hospital ships. … One is called the Mercy and the other is called the Comfort. … So those two ships are being prepared to go, and they can be launched over the next week or so, depending on need.”
At the time of the announcement, however, both ships were undergoing maintenance—although the USNS Mercy did finally leave port on March 23 on its way to Los Angeles. It remains unclear when the USNS Comfort will leave its Norfolk, Virginia, port to head to New York City.
- March 17: In addressing why the United States’ testing process has been so slow, President Trump said: “We have a tremendous testing capacity.”
Contrary to his statement, reports from the same week describe patients across the country unable to receive tests despite showing multiple symptoms consistent with a novel coronavirus infection.
- March 14: President Trump claimed the government is addressing the supply and PPE shortage, saying: “We have a lot of things to tell you, in terms of respirators, in terms of all of the different things. The masks are being made by the millions. Millions and millions. We have plenty now, but we’re ordering for the millions. We’re ordering worst-case scenario. Always — we always say ‘worst-case scenario.’ And that’s where we’re going.”
However, the day before this statement, ProPublica reported that first responders across the country lacked sufficient PPE. Of the first responders the reporters spoke with, not one was “certain they have the staffing and supplies to perform as well as they may need to in the coming months.”
- March 13: President Trump said that testing won’t be an issue, saying: “We therefore expect up to a half a million additional tests will be available early next week. We’ll be announcing locations probably on Sunday night.” He said that the introduction of large-scale commercial laboratory work would bring “1.4 million tests on board next week and 5 million within a month,” in addition to more than 1 million already out in the field. But as of March 22, less than 230,000 American had been tested.
- March 13: President Trump announced: “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. … Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress. Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this.”
This announcement reportedly caught Google by surprise. The tech giant originally had only planned this type of website for health care workers in the San Francisco area. Since the announcement, Google began work on a national website, but it is unclear whether it will include the testing information that the president mentioned.
- March 11: President Trump said, “I met with the leaders of the health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments.”
PolitiFact rated this claim as false and explained that health insurance companies “agreed to waive copayments for coronavirus testing. That’s only one component, and it’s a far cry from waiving copayments for all treatment.”
- March 10: After a meeting with Republican senators, President Trump said: “The testing has gone very well. And when people need a test, they can get a test. When the professionals need a test, when they need tests for people, they can get the test. It’s gone really well.”
On the same day, however, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield told Politico “that he is not confident that U.S. labs have an adequate stock of the supplies used to extract genetic material from any virus in a patient’s sample — a critical step in coronavirus testing.”
- March 7: On test shortages, President Trump said: “They’re making millions more [tests] as we speak.” One week later, less than 20,000 Americans had been tested.
- March 6: During a visit to the CDC, President Trump said, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” On the same day, PolitiFact rated this claim as “Pants on Fire,” saying, “He’s wrong. Current supply of the test is limited, and it is clinicians who decide whether a patient meets criteria to warrant testing.”
- March 4: Vice President Mike Pence addressed the test shortage, saying: “I’m pleased to report that we have more than 2,500 kits that are being distributed around the country this week that will make more than 5 million tests available at hospitals that have requested them and in areas of the country that have been particularly impacted by the coronavirus.” But less than 17,000 Americans had been tested at the end of the following week.
- February 28: In addressing the shortage of medical supplies, President Trump said: “We’re ordering a lot of supplies. We’re ordering a lot of — a lot of elements that, frankly, we wouldn’t be ordering unless it was something like this. But we’re ordering a lot of different elements of medical.”
However, it is still not clear that these supplies have been ordered, and hospitals, doctors, and nurses are criticizing the slow federal response to address the countrywide need for more ventilators and PPE items necessary to keep patients alive and health care workers protected.
It is increasingly clear that the president and his administration failed to take the COVID-19 global pandemic seriously until it was too late. As the virus continues to rapidly spread, Trump is attempting to cover up his mistakes with exaggerations, falsehoods, and unrealistic commitments that are making matters worse on an almost daily basis.
Will Ragland is the research director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund War Room. Jesse Lee is a vice president for Communications at Action Fund.