White House can't get its stories straight on coronavirus

On Wednesday night, with markets tumbling and concern spreading about the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump delivered a prime-time address from the White House to help calm nerves across the globe. On three central issues, however, Trump gave out misinformation that had to be corrected later, spreading panic everywhere from European airports to the financial markets. It was the latest in a series of confusing, misleading or inaccurate statements from administration officials on a matter of life and death to people in the U.S. and around the world.

Trump said the U.S. would “be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” but within hours statements from the White House and Department of Homeland Security clarified that it did not apply to legal permanent residents, or immediate family members of U.S. citizens. The fear of being stranded in Europe resulted in a pre-dawn rush to airports in tourist meccas such as Barcelona by American travelers trying to book flights home.

Donald Trump

Trump also said in his address that the restrictions would apply to “the tremendous amount of trade and cargo” across the Atlantic, but an hour later on Twitter he clarified that “the restriction stops people not goods.” The president also said that insurance companies were waiving co-payments for testing and treatment related to coronavirus, but a hospital and insurance lobbying firm told Politico there would still be costs for treatment

It was not the first time inaccurate coronavirus information came from the White House. Last week, Vice President Pence had to correct Trump about the rules on testing. In a White House briefing, Trump said “anybody that needs a test gets a test” for coronavirus, a misleading statement at the time and still not the case. The Centers for Disease Control has badly lagged other countries in preparing a nationwide testing regime. Yet Trump repeated his claim on Thursday, stating, “Frankly, the testing has been going very smooth.”

Around the same time, across town on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and serves on the White House coronavirus task force, was telling Congress that testing was going anything but smoothly.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” said Fauci. “This is a failing. It is a failing. Let’s admit it. The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

As of Thursday morning, the CDC was testing only 100 people per day, a small fraction of those seeking to be tested. Some additional tests were being administered by state public-health agencies and private laboratories, but still far below the rate of testing in other countries. 

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Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
Vice President Mike Pence points to a question as he speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Tyler Baldwin mops the floor after closing for the night at the Taproom at Pike Place, Sunday, March 15, 2020 where he works as a bartender in Seattle. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday night that he would order all bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities in the state to temporarily close to fight the spread of coronavirus, as Washington state has by far the most deaths in the U.S. from the disease. Baldwin said he closed more than an hour early Sunday after he heard the announcement. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A freeway sign urging people to wash their hands to avoid the COVID-19 virus is seen along the 101 Ventura freeway Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Westlake Village, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Shelves are emptied of paper toilet and product supplies at a Safeway store in Phoenix on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Arizona's governor and school superintendent on Sunday ordered a statewide closure of schools through at least March 27 as authorities rush to contain the outbreak of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
A store vendor wears a face mask as she waits for customers in Chinatown in New York, on Sunday, March 15, 2020. President Donald Trump on Sunday called on Americans to cease hoarding groceries and other supplies, while one of the nation's most senior public health officials called on the nation to act with more urgency to safeguard their health as the coronavirus outbreak continued to spread across the United States.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Workers from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing protective suits and respirators are given supplies as they line up before entering the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., to begin cleaning and disinfecting the facility, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The nursing home is at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
March 11th 2020 - Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. - File Photo by: zz/KGC-11/STAR MAX/IPx 2016 9/9/16 Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson at The 5th Biennial Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). (Los Angeles, CA)
NBA referee Marc Davis, left, takes a phone call as fellow referee Justin Van Duyne stands next to Davis before the basketball game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings was postponed at the last minute in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The league said the decision was made out of an "abundance of caution," because official Courtney Kirkland, who was scheduled to work the game, had worked the Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. A player for the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
NBA referee Marc Davis leaves the court after the the NBA basketball game between the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans was postponed at the last minute in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The postponement was due to what the league said was an "abundance of caution," because official Courtney Kirkland, who was scheduled to work the game, had worked the Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. A player for the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
From left Ellie Unruh, Abbie Unruh, Zoe Yates, and Evi Yates bump elbows instead of high-fives while playing volleyball at a local park Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Gilbert, Ariz. The girls were playing with friends after their respective volleyball clubs and teams practices and games were canceled statewide due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced earlier in the day that all schools and sports throughout Arizona are temporarily closed through March 27th challenging some parents to get creative in keeping their kids active. (AP Photo/Matt York)
A basketball fan walks past a sign on how to decrease the risk of catching the coronavirus outside a restroom at the American Airlines Arena during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
President Donald Trump speaks in an address to the nation from the Oval Office at the White House about the coronavirus Wednesday, March, 11, 2020, in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
FILE PHOTO: Voters cast their ballot in the Democratic primary election in Houston
A trader works on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, New York
Judie Shape, left, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, waves to her daughter, Lori Spencer, right, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, as they visit on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. In-person visits are not allowed at the nursing home. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Judie Shape, center, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, blows a kiss to her son-in-law, Michael Spencer, left, as Shape's daughter, Lori Spencer, right, looks on, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, as they visit on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. In-person visits are not allowed at the nursing home. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
As President Donald Trump listens, Vice President Mike Pence speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 9, 2020, about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Yirmeyahu Gourarie performs a Purim reading from the Book of Esther for residents under self-quarantine due to potential exposure to the new coronavirus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. In Westchester County, student volunteers from a Jewish secondary school were fanning out in teams to read the megillah on Monday evening and during the day Tuesday outside the homes of about 120 families from the community who are quarantined. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
This March 9, 2020, image provided by Carolyn Wright, a passenger aboard the Grand Princess, shows the disembarkation of the passengers from the cruise ship which is docked in Oakland, Ca. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Courtesy of Carolyn Wright via AP)
Tim Killian, center, a spokesman for Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., talks to reporters, Monday, March 9, 2020, at the facility near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A sign stands next to a sanitizing station at the entrance of the Vivint Smart Home Arena before an NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Workers prepare a wharf at the Port of Oakland to receive the Grand Princess in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship, miles off the port Sunday, is expected to dock Monday for novel coronavirus quarantine after multiple people tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
En esta imagen tomada de un video cortesía de la Guardia Nacional de California, un helicóptero del 129no batallón de rescate sobrevuela el crucero Gran Princess frente a las costas de California, el jueves 5 de marzo de 2020. (Guardia Nacional de California vía AP)
In this image from video, provided by the California National Guard, airmen with the 129th Rescue Wing drop virus testing kits down to the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California Thursday, March 5, 2020. Scrambling to keep the coronavirus at bay, officials ordered a cruise ship with 3,500 people aboard to stay back from the California coast Thursday until passengers and crew can be tested, after a traveler from its previous voyage died of the disease and at least two others became infected. The California National Guard 129th Rescue Wing lowered test kits onto the 951-foot (290-meter) Grand Princess by rope as the vessel lay at anchor off Northern California, and authorities said the results would be available on Friday. Princess Cruise Lines said fewer than 100 people aboard had been identified for testing. (California National Guard via AP)
Passengers look out from balconies aboard the Grand Princess as it cruises a holding pattern about 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco on Sunday, March 8, 2020. The ship is expected to dock in Oakland in the east San Francisco Bay on Monday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the mayor of Oakland sought Sunday to reassure the public that none of the passengers from the ship with multiple cases of the new coronavirus will be released into the public before undergoing a 14-day quarantine. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Carrying multiple people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Grand Princess maintains a holding pattern about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship is scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland on Monday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A man wears a mask aboard the Grand Princess as it maintains a holding pattern about 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco on Sunday, March 8, 2020. The cruise ship is scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland on Monday for COVID-19 quarantine after 21 people tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
SPRINGFIELD, VA - MARCH 7: Local Target store in the D.C area depleted of cleaning and sanitizing supplies and left with empty shelves as fear grow of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) reports increasing on March 7, 2020 in Springfield, Virginia. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
SPRINGFIELD, VA - MARCH 7: Local Target store in the D.C area depleted of cleaning and sanitizing supplies and left with empty shelves as fear grow of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) reports increasing on March 7, 2020 in Springfield, Virginia. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX
The headquarters for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shown on Friday, March 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Donald Trump's trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefly scuttled Friday because of unfounded fears that someone there had contracted the coronavirus, was back on, giving the president another chance to calm growing alarm about the spread of the virus in America. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)
An ambulance backs into a parking lot, Friday, March 6, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., which has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. This ambulance left the facility after a short time and did not transport a patient. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ambulance workers move a man on a stretcher from the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash. into an ambulance, Friday, March 6, 2020. The facility is the epicenter of the outbreak of the the COVID-19 coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A woman uses protective gloves as she looks at her phone wrapped in a plastic bag while riding a New York City subway train, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar looks on as President Donald Trump shows a spending bill to combat the Coronavirus, at the White House, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump holds a photograph of coronavirus as Dr. Steve Monroe,right, with CDC speaks to members of the press at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Trump's trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, briefly scuttled Friday because of unfounded fears that someone there had contracted the coronavirus, was back on, giving the president another chance to calm growing alarm about the spread of the virus in America. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 3/6/20 People wear masks to protect themselves from the Corona Virus in New York City.
Photo by: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 3/6/20 People wear masks to protect themselves from the Corona Virus in New York City. Shoppers have cleared store shelves of sanitizing products.
Vice President Mike Pence, left, arrives with Debi Birx, center, White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Robert Redfield, right, director of the CDC, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state for a visit with state officials. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Vice President Mike Pence greets Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, as Pence arrives, Thursday, March 5, 2020 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Officials are avoiding handshakes due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Trump has downplayed the virus since its earliest days. “We have it totally under control,” Trump said in January, adding, “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

On Feb. 24, Trump tweeted, “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!”

The following day, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said on CNBC, “We have contained this, I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”

On Feb. 26, Trump said at a coronavirus briefing, “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

As of Thursday the United States recorded 1,300 cases, with 38 deaths.

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