President Donald Trump littered Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing with another procession of false and misleading claims.
He inaccurately declared, again, that he has absolute power over state coronavirus restrictions. He falsely claimed “nobody needs” ventilators anymore. He exaggerated the number of federal judges confirmed during his presidency. He repeated some of his standard false claims about trade with China.
Trump also accused the World Health Organization of perpetrating a “cover-up” without providing evidence of deliberate malfeasance. And he threatened to invoke a never-before-used constitutional authority to unilaterally adjourn Congress in order to confirm more of his appointees.
Below, we explain that authority and fact check his multiple misstatements.
Shutting down Congress
On Wednesday, President Trump threatened to invoke a never-before-used constitutional authority to unilaterally adjourn Congress in order to confirm more of his appointees.
Trump claimed that key nominations, including the Director of National Intelligence, Federal Reserve governors and a Treasury assistant secretary, would be helpful to the overall response effort to the coronavirus.
Specifically, Trump claimed that the Senate’s practice of “gaveling into so-called pro forma sessions when no one is even there” has prevented him from making recess appointments.
Said Trump: “The Senate should either fulfill its duty and vote on my nominees or it should formally adjourn so that I can make recess appointments.”
So does the Constitution allow the president to unilaterally adjourn both houses of Congress?
Facts First: Technically, yes, under certain conditions, though no president has ever invoked the power before and the exact process by which it could be done is murky at best.
In Article 2, Section 3, the Constitution states the president “may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper.”
The process of determining whether the House and Senate are in “disagreement” over adjournment is unclear, and may actually require lawmakers to come back to Washington to vote to clear it up.
Both the House and Senate would need to vote on resolutions to adjourn. It’s exceedingly unlikely the Democratic-controlled House would agree to such a vote. It also would likely force Senate Republicans to return to Washington to vote for something that would create just the latest separation of powers battle between Capitol Hill and this White House.
What was Trump’s point here?
Trump was voicing frustration about the Senate’s use of pro forma sessions, which in layman’s terms is the practice of the chamber gaveling in and out every three days to technically convene, while blocking the president’s ability to make “recess appointments.”
This is not a new Democratic tactic to frustrate Trump specifically. In fact, in 2014, when then-President Barack Obama tried to make recess appointments during pro forma sessions, the Supreme Court sided with Senate Republicans on the validity of the practice – the same practice Trump referred to on Wednesday as “phony.”
Have Democrats blocked Trump nominees?
Senate Democrats have certainly slowed the process to a crawl, by design. So much so that McConnell changed the Senate rules to limit time consideration in order to speed the process for certain nominees.
But it’s not black and white. Republicans blocked and slowed the process for nominees of President Obama. The Trump administration has also been slow, at times, to fill positions, with Trump himself noting that he prefers the flexibility of having “acting” appointees instead of confirmed nominees.
Who determines when the Senate is in session?
That would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. McConnell announced this week the Senate wouldn’t return for votes until at least May 4.
What’s McConnell’s view on this idea?
A McConnell spokesperson released the following statement on Wednesday evening:
“Leader McConnell had a conversation today with the president to discuss Senate Democrats’ unprecedented obstruction of the president’s well-qualified nominees and shared his continued frustration with the process. The Leader pledged to find ways to confirm nominees considered mission-critical to the COVID-19 pandemic, but under Senate rules that will take consent from Leader Schumer.”
Read that statement closely. McConnell is very intentional in his word choice here. He certainly shares Trump’s frustration, but making clear he needs agreement from Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to move forward on the administration’s nominees for the pandemic response is purposeful.
A World Health Organization “cover-up”
Trump accused the World Health Organization on Wednesday of perpetrating a cover-up of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Trump said his administration would review the WHO’s role in “covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” His language got tougher on Wednesday, when he said the administration is reviewing “the organization’s cover-up and mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Facts First: There are legitimate questions about the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and its willingness to accept and repeat information provided by the Chinese government. However, Trump has presented no evidence of a deliberate effort by the WHO to conceal the truth.
Trump’s complaints about the WHO are numerous, and include that it uncritically parroted inaccurate claims from the Chinese government, failed to investigate credible contrary reports, praised China’s supposed transparency, opposed travel restrictions on China, and took too long to declare a public health emergency.
It is possible that damning evidence will emerge at some point. But up to now, Trump’s complaints have not included proof that the WHO intentionally hid or mischaracterized information it knew to be true.
In January and February, Trump himself repeatedly praised China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and its supposed transparency.
Trump also praised the WHO, saying in a February 24 tweet that “CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart” and in a Fox Business interview on February 10: “China, I can tell you, is working very hard. We’re working with them. You know, we just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organization, and a lot of them are composed of our people. They’re fantastic.”
The “cupboard” of medical supplies
At Wednesday’s briefing, the President repeated his claim that he inherited a “bare cupboard” of medical supplies to fight coronavirus from the Obama administration.
Facts First: Trump’s argument has some truth to it, but it’s also somewhat misleading. While Trump isn’t wrong to suggest he inherited a depleted stockpile of some medical supplies – the stockpile of masks, for example, was depleted and not replenished by the Obama administration – the cupboards were not completely “bare”; he inherited significant quantities of other supplies. And Trump had three years in office to build depleted stockpiles back up.
The Strategic National Stockpile was not empty before the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the stockpile contains enough smallpox vaccines for every American, among other medical resources. However, critical supplies that could be used to combat coronavirus were drained and not replenished.
Ultimately, both Trump and former President Barack Obama ignored the warnings of experts and failed to restock masks and prepare other supplies to fight a potential pandemic.
Here’s the backstory:
A 2010 report from a federally-sponsored task force recommended that national stockpiles of masks and other medical equipment be replenished after the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, and identified potential supply chain issues in the event of a pandemic.
Additionally, a 2012 HHS study reported that 75% of the strategic national stockpile’s N95 masks were used during the H1N1 outbreak, and said an “ample supply” should be made available for use during a pandemic. The HHS study also warned of potential future ventilator shortages.
The supply of N95 masks in the strategic national stockpile was never replenished. In a spending bill signed by then-President Barack Obama in December 2011, after the swine flu outbreak had passed, spending for the national stockpile actually decreased. The Obama administration had initially requested increased funding for the national stockpile but made concessions and ultimately, funding for the stockpile was cut for years after.
This February, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress that the national stockpile contained over 10 million N95 masks. That’s far short of the billion-plus masks that the government projected in 2015 would be needed in the event of a flu-like pandemic – and well short of the 7 billion needed in a worst-case scenario.
In 2010, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials wrote a report sponsored by the CDC, titled “Assessing Policy Barriers To Effective Public Health Response In The H1N1 Influenza Pandemic.” The report concluded that in the aftermath of the Swine Flu outbreak, “there should be a central repository of N95s which is replenished for future events,” and that “various healthcare providers, including EMS, should enhance their current PPE stockpiles, including N95s.”
The group also recommended that “supplies should be purchased in advance of an emergency, rather than essentially limiting the national supply chain in the midst of an emergency.”
In addition, a 2012 HHS study on the H1N1 response reported that “75 percent of the SNS’s N95 respirators… were deployed for use in healthcare settings” during the Swine Flu outbreak. Critically, the report also identified risks of future ventilator shortages. In the report, titled “2009 H1N1 Influenza Improvement Plan,” HHS issued this prescient warning:
“If a large proportion of the U.S. population were to become severely ill during a pandemic and required mechanical ventilation, the healthcare system would quickly become overwhelmed. The number of respiratory-compromised patients is likely to easily surpass the number of available ventilators and trained personnel by severalfold.”
President Trump claimed during Wednesday’s press conference that “nobody needs” ventilators anymore, suggesting that ventilator shortages around the country – the result of increased hospitalizations of coronavirus patients – have been fully resolved.
“At this moment, nobody needs them. We have to remember, during the surge, nobody’s needed them for weeks now. But we’ll have them for stockpiles,” Trump said.
The President also suggested that there would be an abundance of ventilators to go around once companies delivered the new ventilators they’ve been commissioned to produce.
Facts First: Trump’s statement is inaccurate. Some state leaders are no longer concerned about imminent ventilator shortages, but others say they need more ventilators to deal with the current onslaught of coronavirus patients. Meanwhile, other states bracing for their “peak” in coronavirus diagnoses in the coming weeks and months are preparing for future shortages of their own.
Trump’s statement Wednesday follows his own announcement a day earlier of a new partnership to establish the “Dynamic Ventilator Reserve,” which would facilitate the transfer of ventilators from hospitals with surpluses to other hospitals with immediate needs.
In a meeting with health care executives Tuesday, Trump noted that “hospitals throughout the country currently have more than 60,000 unused ventilators,” and touted the initiative as a way to distribute unused, surplus ventilators to hospitals “if they have an immediate need.”
But Trump later acknowledged in the meeting that there is a “need” for ventilators: “We’re preparing ventilator capacity for any and all scenarios. Initiatives like the Dynamic Ventilator Reserve will help us to achieve that goal. We need ventilators, but now we’re pretty well stocked. We really needed them.”
What states have said
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, have said in recent weeks that their concerns for ventilator shortages have begun to ease, but health care executives in the state told Politico they are still planning for worst-case scenarios – with one saying his hospital is still short of what they need and another saying earlier this week that they still need more ventilators. Others said they have distributed guidance on how to ration the life-saving devices.
In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that his state is struggling to maintain its ventilator supply.
“We’re fighting to stay ahead on bed capacity, ventilators that are constantly running thin, the medicine you need for those ventilators, the personal protective equipment, and the relief from the bullpen for our health care workers,” he said.
Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan also told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, “I think to say that everybody’s completely happy and that we have everything we need is – is not quite accurate.”
“I mean everybody still has tremendous needs on personal protective equipment and ventilators and all of these things that you keep hearing about. Everybody’s fighting to find these things all over the – all over the nation and all over the world,” he added.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, healthcare systems in New Mexico are preparing for a shortage of ventilators. Projections released by the state’s Department of Health indicate that when cases hit a peak in late April or early May, New Mexico will face shortages of hospital beds, intensive care beds and ventilators.
Presidential powers over state restrictions
For the third day in a row, Trump made a claim Wednesday about presidential powers to override state governors’ decisions on pandemic-related restrictions.
On Monday, Trump falsely claimed that a president has “total” authority to override governors’ restrictions. On Tuesday, Trump said he was “authorizing” the governors to lift their restrictions as they pleased – though, again, legal scholars and some Republican lawmakers said it was governors’ power in the first place.
On Wednesday, Trump said, “If we’re not happy, we’ll take very strong action against a state or a governor if we’re not happy with the job a governor is doing. We’ll let them know about it. And as you know, we have very strong action we can take, including a close-down.”
Asked what he meant by “a close-down,” he said, “We have the right to do whatever we want, but we wouldn’t do that, but no – we would have the right to close down what they’re doing if we want to do that. But we don’t want to do that. And I don’t think there’ll be any reason to do that. But we have the right to do that.”
Facts First: The President and his administration do not have the right to do whatever they want with regard to states’ coronavirus restrictions. Legal scholars say states have a well-established constitutional authority to address public health matters.
There is no law that gives the President the right to override governors’ decisions about this crisis – neither to lift restrictions because the President believes a governor is being too strict nor to impose restrictions because the President believes a governor is being too lenient.
You can read a longer fact check on this here.
After Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue spoke at the press briefing on the American food supply chain and its workers – including farmers – President Trump touched on his tariffs with China.
He repeated his claim that China “never gave us 10 cents” until he imposed tariffs on the country. “Nobody can take advantage of our farmers. We have a lot of money we’ve taken in from China, we’re going to be distributing that money from Sonny (Perdue) to the farmers,” Trump said. “And there’s tremendous money, over and above that, that money was paid directly into the Treasury of the United States. This has never happened to China before. They never gave us 10 cents. Now they’re paying us billions of dollars and we appreciate it.”
Facts First: This is false. Several studies show that Americans (not China) pay most of the cost of Trump’s tariffs. It’s also not true that China “never gave us 10 cents” – the US has had tariffs on China for more than two centuries. According to FactCheck.org, the US generated an “average of $12.3 billion in custom duties a year from 2007 to 2016, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission DataWeb.”
Early in Wednesday’s press conference, Trump lamented that he could not staff certain administration positions due to hold-ups in the Senate. He then took credit for how many federal judges have been confirmed in the Senate, but gave two conflicting counts – first saying 448 judges and later “close to” 250 judges.
Trump further complained that the judicial confirmation process “leaves no time left for others” and called it a “very unfair system.”
Facts First: Both numbers are wrong. Under the Trump administration, 193 judges have been confirmed as of April 1, 2020. That includes two Supreme Court justices, 51 circuit judges, 138 district judges and two judges for the U.S. Court of International Trade, according to Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies the courts.