WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is leveling unfounded attacks on his Food and Drug Administration and distorting the science on effective treatments for COVID-19.
Heading this week into the Republican National Convention, he asserted that the agency is slow-walking vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus in a bid to undermine his November reelection effort. There’s no evidence of that, and one of his former FDA commissioners on Sunday rejected the accusation as groundless.
Trump also suggested anew that hydroxychloroquine is a proven and effective treatment for the coronavirus. It isn’t. And Sunday evening, he announced emergency authorization to treat COVID-19 patients with convalescent plasma, a step he hailed as a historic breakthrough even though the treatment’s value has not been established.
His weekend torrent of false and misleading claims follows a Democratic National Convention in which Joe Biden and his allies spun an assortment of facts to their benefit, omitting inconvenient truths such as Barack Obama’s record of aggressive deportations and swift action by a Republican president to save the auto industry more than a decade ago.
A look at the past week’s rhetoric, also covering the Pledge of Allegiance, the U.S. Postal Service and more:
TRUMP: “The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics. Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3rd. Must focus on speed, and saving lives!” — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: No one has produced evidence that anyone at the FDA is delaying any treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus.
During the pandemic, Trump has frequently contradicted or undercut the guidance of his government health experts, including at the FDA, and has asserted that a vaccine for COVID-19 could become available before the November election. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, has said he is “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine will be ready by early next year and that even then, it would not be widely available right away.
Under White House orders, federal health agencies and the Defense Department are carrying out a plan to deliver 300 million vaccine doses on a compressed timeline. That will happen only after the FDA determines that one or more vaccines are safe and effective. Several candidates are being tested.
The push for a speedy vaccine has drawn concern from some scientists that the White House will put pressure on U.S. regulators to approve a vaccine before it’s ready.
A top FDA official who is overseeing COVID vaccine trials had vowed to resign if the Trump administration approves a vaccine before it is shown to be safe and effective. Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, made his promise during a conference call earlier in the month with pharmaceutical executives, government officials and others, Reuters reported Friday.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has said his agency will not be influenced by any political pressure and will make decisions “based solely on good science and data.”
One of Trump’s former FDA commissioners, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said the president’s charges are unfounded.
“I firmly reject the idea they would slow-walk anything or accelerate anything based on any political consideration or any consideration other than what is best for the public health and a real sense of mission to patients,” Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
TRUMP, announcing the emergency authorization for plasma treatment: “Very historic breakthrough … that will save countless lives.” — statement Sunday.
THE FACTS: That remains to be seen. The treatment’s effectiveness has not been proved. It will take more research to know if it works well enough to merit FDA approval. There have been promising signs but no conclusions.
FDA chief scientist Denise Hinton made that clear, saying “COVID-19 convalescent plasma should not be considered a new standard of care for the treatment of patients with COVID-19. Additional data will be forthcoming from other analyses and ongoing, well-controlled clinical trials in the coming months.”
The announcement on the eve of Trump’s Republican National Convention raised suspicions among some scientists, who recalled Trump’s overeager endorsement of other measures against COVID-19.
“Conspicuous timing,” said Benjamin Corb of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “President Trump is once again putting his political goals ahead of the health and well-being of the American public.”
TRUMP, on the FDA revoking emergency use authorization of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19: “Many doctors and studies disagree with this!” — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s continued promotion of the anti-malaria drug for COVID-19, with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, has been repeatedly dismissed by his own health experts.
Numerous rigorous tests of hydroxychloroquine, including a large one from Britain and one led by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that the anti-malaria drug was ineffective for treating hospitalized coronavirus patients.
Trump’s health agencies as well as Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, have cautioned that taking hydroxychloroquine to stave off the virus could be dangerous due to side effects. If the president is to be believed, he took the drug himself.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration’s lead official on testing, made clear this month he does not recommend the treatment and said people need to “move on” and “talk about what is effective.”
TRUMP on New Zealand and the coronavirus: “They had a massive breakout yesterday.” — remarks Thursday in Old Forge, Pennsylvania.
TRUMP: False. New Zealand has had nothing resembling a massive outbreak or, as he also put it during the week, even a “big surge” or a “big outbreak.”
New Zealand reported five to 13 new cases each day in the past week, as of Friday. The U.S. reported an average of some 46,000 per day during the week.
Trump is unhappy that New Zealand’s success in controlling the virus, through its tight and early rules on distancing and closures, has been used for unfavorable comparisons with his pandemic response. New Zealand went for several months without any new, confirmed cases of locally spread COVID-19 before infection started showing up again in small numbers.
The infection, as of Friday, had killed 22 people in New Zealand and 174,000 in the U.S.
That’s a rate of 4.5 deaths per million in New Zealand and 532 per million in the U.S.
TRUMP: “The Democrats took the word GOD out of the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democrat National Convention. At first, I thought they made a mistake, but it wasn’t. It was done on purpose. Remember Evangelical Christians, and ALL, this is where they are coming from-it’s done. Vote Nov 3!” — tweet Saturday.
THE FACTS: That’s a misleading accusation. The central programming of the convention featured the entire pledge, complete with “under God.”
The first night of the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s grandchildren said the pledge, followed by the convention’s chorus of “The Star Spangled Banner.” On the second night, it’s stated by a diverse group of Americans; same with the third night. On the fourth night, it’s recited by Cedric Richmond Jr., the son of Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana. “Under God” was in each rendering. The convention also devoted a segment to showcasing Biden’s religious faith.
During two caucuses before the evening conventions started, the Muslim Delegates and Allies Assembly and the LGBTQ Caucus meeting, both Tuesday, left out “under God,” from the pledge. The party’s series of caucus meetings was livestreamed but not part of the prime-time convention broadcast.
The pledge was written in 1892 and altered in the 1920s. “Under God” was added in 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower encouraged Congress to do so. Those two words have prompted a debate at times over whether people who do not practice religion should be expected to pledge allegiance to a country under God.
BARACK OBAMA: “We are born of immigrants. That is who we are. Immigration is our origin story.” — convention video Wednesday celebrating immigration, showing historical scenes and one that appeared to be of Trump’s border wall.
BARACK OBAMA: “I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there’s still a place for him here.” — convention speech Wednesday.
THE FACTS: The facts here are not in dispute. But an omission stands out: Obama aggressively enforced border controls and deported nearly 3 million people.
He changed his approach, acting without Congress in 2012 to let people who came to the U.S. illegally as children stay and work legally in the country.
Still, that year was Obama’s high mark for deportations, more than 400,000, far outpacing Trump’s deportations in each of his first three years.
“This whole immigration video was like putting salt on the wound,” tweeted Erika Andiola, an advocate from RAICES, an immigration legal services group in Texas. “Narrated by Obama? Come on.”
She said: “I am angry because it was his administration who almost deported my mother and then Trump came to try to deport her again.”
Immigration activist Julissa Natzely Arce Raya, author of “My (Underground) American Dream,” saw hypocrisy at work, after the video of Estela Juarez, the 11-year-old girl whose mother was deported to Mexico.
“Obama did a lot of things right, but not immigration, he didn’t get that right,” she tweeted. “I promise you, tonight there is a Estela whose mom was deported by Obama.”
MICHELLE OBAMA, on Americans: “They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages.” — Democratic convention on Aug. 17.
THE FACTS: The reference to cages is misleading and a matter that Democrats have persistently distorted.
Trump used facilities that were built during the Obama-Biden administration to house children at the border. They are chain-link enclosures inside border facilities where migrants were temporarily housed, separated by sex and age.
At the height of the controversy over Trump’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, photos that circulated online of children in the enclosures generated great anger. But those photos, by The Associated Press, were taken in 2014 and depicted some of the thousands of unaccompanied children held by Obama.
When that fact came to light, some Democrats and activists who had tweeted the photos deleted their tweets. But prominent Democrats have continued to cite cages for children as a distinctive cruelty of Trump.
The former first lady was correct, however, in addressing the removal of children from parents at the border.
The Obama administration separated migrant children from families under certain limited circumstances, like when the child’s safety appeared at risk or when the parent had a serious criminal history. Family separations as a matter of routine came about because of Trump’s “zero tolerance” enforcement policy, which he eventually suspended because of the uproar. Obama had no such policy.
TRUMP: “Joe Biden has pledged to abolish immigration enforcement.” — rally Tuesday in Yuma, Arizona.
THE FACTS: No he hasn’t.
Biden has been notably outspoken in arguing that crossing the U.S. border illegally is a crime and should remain punished as such in federal court. He did not endorse immigration plans supported by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other former presidential candidates that sought to decriminalize illegal border crossings and make doing so only a civil offense.
In addition to misrepresenting Biden’s agenda, Trump ignored the fact that the Obama-Biden administration vigorously deported people, drawing fierce criticism from some advocates for immigrants.
TRUMP: “They want to take the wall down, they don’t want to have borders.” — Arizona rally.
THE FACTS: No, Biden is not pushing to take down the wall or erase borders.
Biden’s immigration plan does not include money for new border fencing, and he isn’t calling for any new walls. But he hasn’t proposed taking down what’s there.
BIDEN: “Nearly one in six small businesses have closed this year.” — acceptance speech Thursday.
THE FACTS: That appears to be in the ballpark but is misleading. What he didn’t say is that most of those businesses planned to reopen or already have.
In a MetLife and U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey at the end of July, 86% of small businesses reported that they were fully or partially open. Among those that remained shut, most planned to reopen when they could. Overall, small businesses expressed guarded optimism while worrying what would happen if another wave of the coronavirus comes.
GRETCHEN WHITMER, Michigan governor: “In 2009, the Obama-Biden administration inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The auto industry — on the brink of collapse. A million jobs at stake. But President Obama and Vice President Biden didn’t waste time blaming anybody. … They brought together union members, companies and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and they saved the auto industry.” — Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17.
THE FACTS: She’s assigning too much credit to the Obama administration for saving the auto industry. What Obama did was an expansion of the initial, pivotal steps taken by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
In December 2008, General Motors and Chrysler were on the brink of financial collapse. The U.S. was in a deep recession and U.S. auto sales were falling sharply, in part because the 2008-2009 financial crisis made it harder for would-be auto buyers to get a car loan. GM, Chrysler and Ford requested government aid, but Congress voted it down.
With barely a month left in office, Bush authorized $25 billion in loans to GM and Chrysler from the $700 billion bailout fund that was initially intended to save the largest U.S. banks. Ford decided against taking any money. After Obama was inaugurated, he appointed a task force to oversee GM and Chrysler, both of which eventually declared bankruptcy, took an additional roughly $55 billion in loans, and were forced to close many factories and overhaul their operations.
All three companies recovered and eventually started adding jobs again.
Iran Nuclear Deal
TRUMP: “This deal funneled tens of billions of dollars to Iran — $150 billion, to be exact — plus $1.8 billion in cash. … He (Obama) gave $1.8 billion in cash.” — news briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: This is a familiar and hyper-distorted tale. There was no $150 billion payout from the U.S. treasury or other countries.
When Iran signed the multinational deal to restrain its nuclear development in return for being freed from sanctions, it regained access to its own assets, which had been frozen abroad. Iran was allowed to get its own money back. The deal was signed in 2015; Trump has taken the U.S. out of it.
The $1.8 billion is a separate matter. A payout of roughly that amount did come from the U.S. treasury. It was to cover an old IOU.
In the 1970s, Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment that was never delivered because the government was overthrown and diplomatic relations ruptured. After the nuclear deal, the U.S. and Iran announced they had settled the matter, with the U.S. agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with about $1.3 billion in interest.
TRUMP: “And we got nothing, except a short-term, little deal. A short-term, expiring.” — news briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s wrong to suggest the deal had no impact before he withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018.
Iran was thought to be only months away from a bomb when the deal came into effect. But during the 15-year life of most provisions of the accord, Iran’s capabilities are limited to a level where it cannot produce a bomb. The deal also includes a pledge by Iran never to seek a nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and his administration itself had confirmed Iran was complying with the terms before Trump pulled out of the deal.
The pact does gradually lift some restrictions, including limits on centrifuges that were due to expire in 2025.
After the 15 years are up, Iran could have an array of advanced centrifuges ready to work, the limits on its stockpile would be gone and, in theory, it could then throw itself fully into producing highly enriched uranium. But nothing in the deal prevented the West from trying to rein Iran in again with sanctions.
JOHN KERRY, former secretary of state: “We eliminated the threat of an Iran with a nuclear weapon.” — Democratic convention on Tuesday.
THE FACTS: That’s taking it too far. The threat was deferred, not eliminated. That reality was baked into the deal negotiated when Kerry was Obama’s secretary of state. The accord limited Iran’s capabilities to a level where it could not produce a bomb, but most provisions were to expire after 15 years.
TRUMP: “One of the things the Post Office loses so much money on is the delivering packages for Amazon and these others. Every time they deliver a package, they probably lose three or four dollars. That’s not good.” — remarks on Aug. 17 to reporters.
THE FACTS: That’s not true.
While the U.S. Postal Service has lost money for 13 years, package delivery is not the reason.
Boosted by e-commerce, the Postal Service has enjoyed double-digit increases in revenue from delivering packages, but that hasn’t been enough to offset pension and health care costs as well as declines in first-class letters and marketing mail. Together, letters and marketing mail in recent years have comprised up to two-thirds of postal revenue.
In arguing that the Postal Service is losing money on delivering packages for Amazon, Trump appears to be citing some Wall Street analyses that argue the Postal Service’s formula for calculating its costs is outdated. A 2017 analysis by Citigroup did conclude that the service was charging below market rates as a whole on parcels. Still, federal regulators have reviewed the Amazon contract with the Postal Service each year and found it profitable.
To become financially stable, the Postal Service has urged Congress for years to give it relief from the mandate to prefund retiree health benefits. Legislation in 2006 required the Postal Service to fund 75 years’ worth of retiree health benefits, at an estimated cost of $5 billion per year, something that the government and private companies don’t have to do.
In the most recent quarter, for instance, package delivery rose 53% at the Postal Service as people homebound during the pandemic shifted online for their shopping. But the gain in deliveries was offset by the continued declines in first-class mail as well as costs for personal protective equipment and to replace workers who got sick during the pandemic.
The biggest factor was the prepayment of retiree health benefits, which Congress imposed and only Congress can take away.
As a quasi-government agency, the Postal Service also is required under law to provide mail delivery to millions of U.S. residences at affordable and uniform rates. It does not use taxpayer money for its operations and supports operations with the sales of stamps and other mail products.
TRUMP: “We want to make sure that the Post Office runs properly and it hasn’t run properly for many years, for probably 50 years. It’s run very badly. So we want to make sure that the Post Office runs properly and doesn’t lose billions of dollars.”— remarks on Aug. 17 to reporters.
THE FACTS: Trump offered no evidence of broad mismanagement at the Postal Service that dates back 50 years.
The Postal Service started losing “billions,” as Trump put it, after the 2006 law mandating health prefunding took effect. Those billion-dollar payments, which coincided with the 2007-2008 Great Recession and a wider shift toward online bill payments, pushed the Postal Service into the red. Excluding those health payments, it has finished each year with revenue surpluses for most of the past decade.