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Donald Trump has been lying his whole life. As president, he has told thousands of lies, documented by multiple fact-checkers. But now, through his regular coronavirus briefings, you can see how he does it. By talking on camera for hours every day, he has made it possible to reconstruct, through a kind of time-lapse photography, how he develops, embellishes, and markets his lies. One such fabrication is a useful case study: Trump’s claim that when the virus struck, he promptly banned travel to the United States from Europe.
The Europe lie is important because of how the virus got here. On Jan. 31, Trump announced restrictions on travel to the United States from China, where the virus had originated. The restrictions were porous and came too late, but Trump assured Americans that our country was safe. That assurance collapsed as infections spread within the United States. It turned out that the virus had come in part through Europe. So Trump changed his story. He said that shortly after cutting off travel from China, he had cut off travel from Europe too.
Trump’s story was false. Here’s what actually happened. The first European country swamped by the virus was Italy. On Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands issued advisories against travel to Italy. Then, on Feb. 27, Israel banned incoming travel from Italy. Over the next several days, Singapore, Indonesia, and other countries followed suit.
Trump was invited to do what these governments were doing. He refused. On Feb. 26, a reporter asked him whether he planned to restrict travel from Italy. “I’m not the president of other countries,” Trump replied. “We have to focus on this country. I don’t think it’s right to impose our self on others.” He added, “At a right time, we may do that. Right now, it’s not the right time.” On Feb. 29, the administration issued a travel advisory, but it was voluntary. It applied to only a small fraction of Italy, and it didn’t directly address travel from Italy at all.
Not until March 11, about six weeks after his move against China, did Trump announce an order “suspending all travel from Europe” as of March 14. He was two weeks behind Israel and a week behind the other countries. He blamed Europe for the outbreak in America, essentially conceding that his ban came too late. “The European Union failed to … restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” said Trump. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
The next morning, March 12, Trump began to rewrite history. “We closed very early with China,” he declared, referring to his Jan. 31 travel restrictions. “That helped us save thousands of lives. And we went very early with Europe.” On March 13, he repeated the new story, this time as common knowledge. “As you know,” he told reporters, “Europe was just designated as the hot spot right now, and we closed that border a while ago.” By any definition, this was false: As Trump was speaking, the restrictions on Europe had yet to take effect.
To back up his fake narrative, Trump altered a quote from one of his scientific advisers, Anthony Fauci. He claimed that “as Dr. Fauci said … one of the most important things, when you write the history of this, was the fact that we closed it down to China and Europe.” Fauci had said that banning European travel was a good idea, not that Trump had “closed it down.” He was endorsing Trump’s new policy, not Trump’s revisionist history. But Trump blustered on, repeating over and over that he had “cut off Europe very early.”
As weeks passed, it became more difficult to remember exactly what had happened when. And that made it easier for Trump to compress the timeline, pretending he had moved against China and Europe around the same time. “We stopped China” and “stopped Europe very shortly thereafter,” he boasted.
At press briefings, Trump’s subordinates tried to rephrase his false claims to make them defensible. But they also tried not to lie. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that the Feb. 29 travel warning was just an advisory. Pence consistently distinguished the advisory—as well as temperature checks on passengers leaving Italy—from a travel ban. Trump had no such scruples. In his evolving narrative, the advisory and the temperature checks became a ban. “You remember, we did also a ban very, very early from Italy,” he told Sean Hannity on March 26. Five days later, he repeated that falsehood.
According to Trump, America was the first country to block travelers from Europe. He said he had taken this step “long before it was considered acceptable” and “a long time before people started stopping anyone.” In this version of history, prior travel warnings and bans by other countries were erased. So were Trump’s scientific advisers. Trump said he had banned travel from Europe “because I saw what was happening” on the continent. In reality, Trump’s advisers had brought the proposal to him.
By now, Trump’s lie is so well entrenched—in his own mind, and possibly in the minds of his supporters—that he thinks he can invoke it as an established fact. On Monday, PBS NewsHour reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked him whether he regretted downplaying the virus before mid-March. Trump said she had the chronology wrong. “Before March, we put on a ban on Europe, where Europe can’t come in,” he told her. “So how could you say I wasn’t taking it seriously?”
Many of Trump’s lies at the virus briefings have been spectacular. He told Alcindor that he hadn’t “left the White House in months,” even though, as she pointed out, he held a rally in North Carolina last month. On Wednesday, he said the Washington Post had “totally misquoted” Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though Redfield admitted he was quoted correctly. But the Europe lie took longer to construct and play out. It shows how Trump invents a story, distorts the past to fit it, and sells it to the public. He’s a builder. And what he builds are lies.