From AIDS to Covid-19: Trump’s decades of spreading dangerous misinformation about disease outbreaks
Donald Trump has spent decades spreading and sowing dangerous misinformation about disease outbreaks — from falsely suggesting AIDS can be transmitted through kissing to warning Americans not to get vaccinated and falsely suggesting vaccines can cause autism.
Long before advising Americans to ingest disinfectant to treat the coronavirus as President, Trump demonstrated a pattern of spreading unsupported medical claims that preyed on the public’s fears of getting sick, a CNN KFile review of the President’s statements on past epidemics and pandemics found.
In 1993, Trump promoted the widely-debunked claims that AIDS could be spread by kissing and that AIDS patients intentionally spread the virus. As the swine flu pandemic began in 2009, he warned Americans against taking flu vaccines. When the Ebola virus outbreak devastated West Africa in 2014, he disputed guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how it spreads.
Today as the nation’s chief executive overseeing his own public health crisis, Trump continues to comprehensively misinform the public about the coronavirus, offering remarks riddled with false, misleading or scientifically questionable claims.
While Trump, the White House and his supporters often defend his outlandish coronavirus remarks by claiming the President is acting as the nation’s cheerleader, his optimism does not square with medical science or his long history of sowing disinformation.
White House spokesman Judd Deere told CNN that Trump remained focused on protecting the health of the American people and safely reopening our economy. “Any suggestion that the President does not value scientific data or the important work of scientists and medical professionals is patently false. The President will continue to offer bold leadership, and a consistent message of hope, comfort, and optimism as he leads America out of this unprecedented pandemic,” Deere said.
Trump spread misinformation on how HIV/AIDS is transmitted
Trump’s long history of spreading medical misinformation about disease outbreaks stretches back as far as 1993 during the HIV/AIDS crisis when he suggested the virus could be spread through kissing.
While discussing his sex life on an episode of The Howard Stern Show, Trump said, “I saw a report the other day, you may get AIDS by kissing.” He repeated the claim two more times, agreeing with false assertions made by Stern and co-host Robin Quivers.
HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted via saliva, and it is unclear which report Trump was referring to at the time. Many archived newspaper reports were dedicated to debunking HIV/AIDS myths, including one from Dr. Anthony Fauci, long considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on HIV/AIDS as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In one syndicated column from December 1992, Fauci carefully noted it was “extraordinarily unlikely” that healthy individuals can transmit the disease through kissing, echoing language the CDC currently uses today.
“There are no well-documented cases of transmission of HIV by exchange of saliva,” Fauci said. “It is extraordinarily unlikely that a healthy person can be infected by HIV through French kissing.”
Trump’s misinformed comments on HIV/AIDS did not end there.
In the same 1993 Howard Stern Show appearance, Trump, a notorious germaphobe who has disparaged the practice of shaking hands, said during a discussion on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and testing his sexual partners that people who test positive for AIDS went out and intentionally spread the virus.
“The problem is people that get the test, that test positive, they go out on a rampage on purpose,” Trump said, without providing evidence. “There’s anger, there’s hatred. I know and what’s happening is true. There’s anger, there’s hatred and it’s really dangerous.”
Now, almost three decades after Trump pushed debunked AIDS myths, the President works closely with Fauci to inform the public on the coronavirus pandemic, though Fauci’s calm, precise style has caused friction in a White House known for its mixed and muddled messaging.
Warned against vaccines and falsely said they cause autism in 2009
A decade and a half after his HIV/AIDS comments, at the beginning of the swine flu outbreak in 2009, Trump warned Americans against overreacting to the new H1N1 virus, comparing it to a bad flu season during a Fox News appearance.
“This is the flu. And it’s a bad flu season perhaps, although it hasn’t even started yet. But it’s a bad flu season, perhaps. And maybe it won’t be. But I do think we shouldn’t be over-reacting,” he said.
Later, after the Fox News host asked if Americans risked getting an unnecessary vaccine, Trump responded that “vaccines can be very dangerous.”
“I think the vaccines can be very dangerous. And obviously, you know, a lot of people are talking about vaccines for children with respect to autism. And every report comes out like, you know, that doesn’t happen. But a lot of people feel that the vaccines are what causes autism in children,” Trump said.
There is no evidence that vaccines cause or are linked to autism, according to the CDC.
Trump added that he wouldn’t let his children get the swine flu vaccine.
“I don’t think I’d inject them with all sorts of vaccines that really nobody right now knows if it works with respect to what they’re, what they’re looking at right now, Neil,” he said.
Wrongly disputed CDC’s medical advice on 2014 Ebola outbreak
In the fall of 2014, when the global medical community was responding to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, Trump was one of the most prominent US figures wrongly disputing scientific consensus about the virus and sowing disinformation.
On October 2, 2014, Trump tweeted that “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights.”
In total, only two cases of Ebola were contracted in the United States: after a Liberian man traveled to Texas while infected, two nurses who treated him contracted the virus.
Despite the limited outbreak of the virus in the United States, Trump routinely predicted disaster in America would occur unless then-President Barack Obama banned all travel to West Africa. The Obama administration never instituted a travel ban, in accordance with public health experts who said such a ban would be ineffectual and would make the outbreak worse.
In an October 6, 2014, appearance on Fox & Friends, a clip of Fauci was played, expressing his opposition to closing travel with West Africa and saying, “If you just isolate them completely importantly, you can’t get supplies in and out. They need help. They need equipment and they need healthcare workers to come in.”
Trump dismissed Fauci’s comment as “ridiculous” and said doctors who traveled to West Africa to help would have to suffer consequences.
“Well, I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said. “But as far as you know, giving supplies and providing medical supplies, I’m all for that. And even if doctors want to go there and help, I think I’m all for that too. But you know, they do have to suffer consequences.”
On an October 27, 2014, appearance on Fox & Friends, Trump again stoked people’s fears of the virus and dismissed the medical consensus that the Ebola virus wasn’t easily spread.
“Nobody’s seen anything like this for hundreds of years and it can happen over here and it’s, you know, when they talk about: ‘it’s very hard to catch,’ ‘it’s not very contagious.'” Trump said. “I think it’s probably, maybe just the opposite.”
As President, Trump offers questionable scientific claims on the novel coronavirus
During his own administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has continued to offer questionable scientific claims and dangerous medical advice to Americans during the pandemic.
At a campaign rally in New Hampshire on February 10, 2020, Trump claimed, without evidence, that the coronavirus would “miraculously” go away in the spring as the weather warmed and predicted that the virus would “all work out fine.”
A month later on March 11, Trump claimed that “the risk is very, very low” for the vast majority of Americans. That claim contrasted to the one Fauci and other federal health experts testified to Congress that same day, stating “the potential global public health threat posed by this virus is high, but right now, the immediate risk to most Americans is low.”
In a tweet from March 22, Trump argued the “cure” of locally-mandated social distancing measures –which studies show mitigate the spread of the virus — could be worse than the virus itself. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!,” he wrote in all-caps.
In April during a coronavirus briefing, Trump latched onto the promise of new, preliminary research that suggested the coronavirus does not fare well under sunlight or heat, and dangerously suggested that sunlight could be used to kill the virus.
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too. It sounds interesting,” Trump said, asking Dr. Deborah Birx to see if medical doctors could look into the treatment.
Trump then suggested that infected Americans could kill the coronavirus by ingesting disinfectant, which he later tried to backtrack by claiming he was being “sarcastic.”
The remarks were widely condemned and deemed dangerous by the medical community, who warned Americans not to ingest disinfectants. The company that produces the disinfectant Lysol even urged customers to not drink their product.
In mid-May, after Trump’s participation in the coronavirus briefings were scaled back after his sunlight and disinfectant comment, Trump dropped the bombshell that he was taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, a drug he has long championed in the coronavirus fight despite research that shows it doesn’t work against Covid-19.
“You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers before you catch it, the frontline workers, many, many are taking it,” he told reporters on May 18. “I happen to be taking it.”
When asked what was his evidence of hydroxychloroquine’s positive benefits, Trump pointed to “positive calls” he received about it.
Trump, who has not tested positive for the coronavirus, admitted he doesn’t know if the drug works, and he claimed, “If it doesn’t, you’re not going to get sick and die.”
The US Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, noting the drug should only be used in hospitals or clinical trials because it can cause serious and potentially fatal side effects. The CDC removed guidance for doctors to prescribe the drug on its website in April.