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AP FACT CHECK: Trump's virus revisionism; Biden on the hoax

WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of mass death and sickness, what could possibly count as a success story against the pandemic? President Donald Trump would have you believe Americans are already living that success story, even as the death toll approaches 200,000 and infections spread by the tens of thousands a day.

Trump's latest revisionism on the pandemic came during a week when he unleashed a torrent of misbegotten claims about mail-in voting, a monthslong preoccupation growing more intense with the approach of the Nov. 3 election.

While Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden laid out a broad and largely supported case that Trump has underplayed the severity of the pandemic, the devil was in the details: No, Trump did not call the coronavirus a hoax.

A review: PANDEMIC TRUMP: “If you look at what we’ve done and all of the lives that we’ve saved ... this was our prediction, that if we do a really good job, we’ll be at about a hundred and — 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. And we’re below that substantially, and we’ll see what comes out. But that would be if we did the good job. If the not-so-good job was done, you’d be between 1.5 million — I remember these numbers so well — and 2.2 million.” — news conference Wednesday.

THE FACTS: He's glossing over grim numbers and wrongly describing the scientific projections. First and most notably, the U.S. is not running “substantially” below projections that 100,000 to 240,000 would die from COVID-19. The death toll is close to 200,000 and the pandemic is far from over. Tens of thousands of new infections are being reported each day.

The White House and federal public health authorities have often pointed to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington as a source for their pandemic projections. The institute now forecasts more than 378,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 by Jan. 1.

In early April, U.S. officials estimated at least 100,000 would die from the pandemic even if all conceivable steps were taken against it — a thorough and enduring lockdown, full use of masks and more. A death toll up to 240,000 assumed aggressive mitigation.

Trump has often cited a potential death toll of 2.2 million or so — a number that puts the reality of several hundred thousand deaths in a better light. He uses it to claim to have saved many lives. But such an extreme projection was merely a baseline if nothing at all were done to fight the pandemic. It was never, as he claimed, an expected death toll if “the not-so-good job was done.”

At an April 1 briefing, when Trump and his officials discussed the projection of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, the president held out hope of keeping deaths under 100,000. “I think we’re doing better than that.”

Now he's trying to move the goal posts and have the public consider anything under 240,000 deaths a success.

TRUMP

“We’ll have manufactured at least 100 million vaccine doses before the end of the year.” — news conference Friday.

TRUMP: “We expect to have enough vaccine for every American by April.” — news conference Friday.

THE FACTS: Don’t count on this.

Even if one or more vaccines is authorized for emergency use by the end of this year, those numbers stretch credulity.

Public authorities are so certain there will be only limited doses at first that they’re developing plans to triage them for people who need it the most, such as health workers. In a distribution plan released this past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best-case option was that 35 million to 45 million doses would be available by the end of December if two of the leading candidates both proved safe and effective. And those candidates require two doses, three weeks to four weeks apart.

Having enough vaccine for everyone —- whenever that may be — is different from getting it into people’s arms. Plans for how to accomplish that are still being worked out.

Trump is pushing hard to have a vaccine announced before the election or at least to convince people that such an outcome is possible. But federal health officials and scientists have signaled or outright stated that that is unlikely.

BIDEN VIDEO

“Trump in public: ‘Hoax.’ Trump in private: ‘Killer.’” — video tweeted by Biden on Tuesday.

BIDEN VIDEO, showing Trump saying at a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina: “The coronavirus — and this is their new hoax.”

THE FACTS: The accusation is misleading. So is the selective video editing that made it appear Trump was calling the coronavirus a “new hoax.”

At the rally featured in the video, Trump actually said the phrases “the coronavirus” and “this is their new hoax” at separate points. Although his meaning is difficult to discern, the broader context of his words shows he was railing against Democrats for their denunciations of his administration’s coronavirus response.

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said. “You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it.” He meandered briefly to the subject of the messy Democratic primary in Iowa, then the Russia investigation before returning to the pandemic. “They tried the impeachment hoax. ... And this is their new hoax.”

Asked at a news conference the next day to clarify his remarks, Trump made clear he was not referring to the coronavirus itself as a hoax.

“No, no, no.” he said. ”‘Hoax’ referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them, not -- I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax.”

He continued: “Certainly not referring to this. How could anybody refer to this? This is very serious stuff.”

The video’s reference to “Trump in private” calling the virus a “killer” comes from the president’s interview in April with author and journalist Bob Woodward, whose new book “Rage” contains Trump’s acknowledgment that he was playing down the virus threat in public, so as to avoid panic.

But it is incorrect for Biden to suggest, as the video does, that Trump insisted the virus was a hoax before ultimately acknowledging to the author in April that it was deadly and serious.

Trump on several occasions before that did refer publicly to the virus as a “plague” and a “killer,” while also falsely dismissing it as something that would go away on its own, in hot weather or otherwise.

VOTING

TRUMP: “There's going to be fraud. It's a disaster. This is going to be the scam of all time.” — news conference Friday.

TRUMP: “The big Unsolicited Ballot States should give it up NOW, before it is too late, and ask people to go to the Polling Booths and, like always before, VOTE. Otherwise, MAYHEM!!! Solicited Ballots (absentee) are OK.” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump is overstating the potential for “mayhem” and fraud in “big unsolicited ballot states.”

There is no such thing as an “unsolicited” ballot. Five states routinely send ballots to all registered voters so they can choose to vote through the mail or in person. Four other states and the District of Columbia will be adopting that system in November, as will almost every county in Montana. Election officials note that, by registering to vote, people are effectively requesting a ballot, so it makes no sense to call the materials sent to them “unsolicited.”

More broadly speaking, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.

In the five states that regularly send ballots to all voters who have registered, there have been no major cases of fraud or difficulty counting the votes.

TRUMP

“Because of the new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots which will be sent to ‘voters’, or wherever, this year, the Nov 3rd Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want.” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: It’s highly unlikely that any chaos in states with universal mail-in voting will cause the election result to “never be accurately determined.”

The five states that already have such balloting have had time to strengthen their systems, while four new states adopting it — California, New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont — have not. Of those nine states, only Nevada is a battleground, worth six electoral votes and only likely to be pivotal in a national presidential deadlock. The others, including the District of Columbia, are overwhelmingly Democratic.

The main states that are being contested — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — only send mail ballots to voters who request them. Trump said Thursday that such “solicited” ballots are absolutely “OK.”

Trump frequently blasts mail-in voting as flawed and fraudulent while insisting that mail ballots in certain states such as Florida, a must-win state for him, are fine. But mail-in ballots are cast in the same way as what Trump refers to as “absentee” mail ballots, with the same level of scrutiny such as signature verification in many states. In court filings, the Trump campaign has acknowledged that mail-in and absentee ballots are legally interchangeable terms.

States nationwide expect a surge in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus threat.

TRUMP

“Unsolicited Ballots are uncontrollable, totally open to ELECTION INTERFERENCE by foreign countries, and will lead to massive chaos and confusion!” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Mail-in ballots aren’t the biggest risk for foreign interference.

Trying to influence a federal election through mail-in ballots would probably mean paying thousands of U.S. citizens, carefully selected in pivotal states, who are willing to conspire with a foreign government and risk detection and prosecution.

Far easier and cheaper would be a social media campaign seeking to discourage certain groups of people from voting, which is something the FBI has warned about. Or a cyberattack on voter registration data that would eliminate certain voters from the rolls. That could cause havoc at polling places or election offices as officials attempt to count ballots from people who are “missing” from their voter databases.

Attorney General Bill Barr has raised the possibility that a “foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots.” He argued they would be hard to detect, but that’s been disputed by election experts.

Mail-in ballots are printed on special paper and must be formatted correctly in order to be processed and counted. Ballots are specific to each precinct, often with a long list of local races, and would be identified as fraudulent if everything didn’t match precisely.

TRUMP

“The Governor of Nevada worked very hard to cancel all of our venues. Despite the fact that he controls the state, he failed, but would have rather done rally outside. Can you imagine this man is in charge ... of the Ballots in Nevada!? Not fair, Rigged Election!” — tweets Monday.

THE FACTS: You don't have to imagine that man being in charge of the election because he isn't.

Whatever his beef with Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, the governor isn't running the state's new all-mail election in November. That responsibility falls to Nevada's secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske. She is a Republican.

ABORTION

TRUMP, on Virginia’s governor: “He is in favor of executing babies after birth - this isn’t late-term abortion, this is a step way beyond!” — tweet Friday, when advance voting opened in Virginia.

THE FACTS: This a gross distortion of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s position on late-term abortion. Northam brought trouble on himself with ambiguous comments on the subject but he has certainly not called for executing babies, which is a crime.

It is not necessarily a crime to forgo sophisticated medical intervention in cases where severe fetal abnormalities leave a newborn with no chance of survival. This has happened on rare occasions in the course of a late-term abortion. The U.S. government recorded 143 deaths between 2003 and 2014 involving infants born alive during attempted abortions.

This is the subject Northam addressed more than a year ago in a radio interview when he expressed support for state legislation that would allow late-term abortions. He said if a woman were to want an abortion as she’s going into labor, the baby would be delivered and “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue” between doctors and the mother. He did not elaborate on the circumstances or what the discussion would be.

Organizations representing obstetricians and gynecologists say laws already provide protections to every healthy newborn, whether born during a failed abortion or under other circumstances.

But when anomalies are so severe that a newborn would die soon after birth, a family may choose what’s known as palliative care or comfort care. This might involve allowing the baby to die naturally without medical intervention.

Similar decisions about whether to extend life support in hopeless cases are faced by the families of patients of any age. When families decide not to continue medical intervention in such a case, they are not “executing” the patient.

OBAMA’S NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

TRUMP: “You know, Obama came into office, they gave him the Nobel Prize, like almost immediately, right? In fact, he didn’t even know why he got it. He didn’t even know. He had no idea why he got it and he was right about that because nobody else does either. They still don’t know.” -- rally in Minden, Nevada, Sept. 12.

TRUMP: “But it’s true, Obama got it for no reason whatsoever.” -- rally in Henderson, Nevada, Sept. 13.

Neither of Trump’s oft-stated assertions about Obama and his Nobel Peace Prize is true. The Nobel committee announced Obama as recipient of the prize on Oct. 9, 2009, nearly nine months after his inauguration -- that's not “almost immediately.”

As far as the reason for awarding the prize to Obama, the committee was quite clear in its 258-word statement issued 11 years ago, which focused on “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and noted in particular “Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in its statement.

To be sure, the prize reflected aspirations more than accomplishments. When Obama was asked later why he got the prize, he did say: “To be honest, I don’t know.” He said they give those prizes “to just about anybody these days.” He was making self-deprecating jokes, which Trump turned against him at his rally.

But agree or disagree with the committee’s decision, it gave its reasons for honoring Obama.

Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Lauran Neergaard, Eric Tucker and Douglass K. Daniel in Washington contributed to this report.

EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.

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