One of the staples of press conferences and rallies held by U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020 was his attempts to deflect criticism of his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic by asserting that he imposed a ban on travel from China in February over the objections of nearly everyone else — particularly over the objections of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
For example, during a Fox News Business interview with Maria Bartiromo in May, Trump maintained that, “When I closed the border to China, [Fauci] disagreed with that,” and his decision to restrict travel to the U.S. from China was “criticized by everybody, including Dr. Fauci”:
And during a July interview with Greta Van Susteren, Trump claimed that Fauci and other “experts” had told him, “Don’t close off China. Don’t ban China,” but he imposed a ban over their advice:
I disagree with him. Dr. Fauci said don’t wear masks and now he says wear them. And he said numerous things. Don’t close off China. Don’t ban China. I did it anyway. I didn’t listen to my experts and I banned China. We would have been in much worse shape. You wouldn’t believe the number of deaths more we would have had if we didn’t do the ban.
But comments made by Fauci — and Trump himself — at the time the China travel restriction was implemented (and afterwards) contradict Trump’s later claims.
It is true that after participating in a Jan. 24 briefing on Capitol Hill (when only a small handful of COVID-19 coronavirus disease cases had been reported in the U.S.), Fauci said both he and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield told senators that imposing travel restrictions was “not a good idea at this time” and averred it “would create a lot of disruption economically and otherwise and it wouldn’t necessarily have a positive effect.” He also stated that a travel ban wasn’t something that was being considered at the time:
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has gone further than most, sending a letter to the Trump administration asking whether travel from affected areas in China to the United States should be restricted or banned.
Leaving the briefing, Hawley said officials told senators they don’t think that step is necessary right now but that they had not closed the door on it.
“They don’t think travel restrictions, where we just say we’re not going to allow people in, they don’t think that that’s necessary quite yet, but they’re monitoring it, they’re seeing what the spread is like,” Hawley said.
But Fauci told reporters after the briefing that a travel ban is not on the table.
“It’s not something that I think we’re even considering,” Fauci said.
But by Jan. 31, the day that the travel restrictions were announced, Fauci spoke supportively of them during a press briefing:
There are a number of countries outside of China that have travel-related cases. And now what we’re seeing is that there are secondary cases from them, and, as [CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield] mentioned, we also have that in this country. The WHO has issued, as you know, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern declaration.
If you put all these things together, I underscore what Bob said: We still have a low risk to the American public, but we want to keep it at a low risk. And because there are so many unknowns here, we’re going to take the action that the Secretary [of HHS] will describe, in a temporary way, to make sure we mitigate, as best as we possibly can, this risk. Thank you.
Three days later, during an interview with CNBC, Fauci again spoke supportively of the China travel restrictions, referring to them as part of “good public health measures”:
Fauci credits “good public health measures” in the United States for helping to stop “sustained transmission” of the virus in America.
“As the entry into the United States of potentially infected people is diminished because of the travel restrictions on both sides … I think you are going to see a dampening down” of U.S. cases, he added.
A week after the China travel ban was enacted, The Hill quoted Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar as saying that the travel restrictions were “the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials at HHS” (which includes Fauci’s NIAID) and also quoted Fauci as stating that “the positives [of the travel ban] outweigh the negatives”:
“The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental,” Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told reporters. “These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”
Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious disease division at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said the U.S. restrictions are not a perfect solution, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
“This is a temporary thing. We’re not talking about something that’s permanent, so we recognize the potential negatives of it, but this decision was not made lightly,” he said.
During another press briefing at the end of February, Fauci again spoke of the importance of the travel restrictions in helping to contain the spread of COVID-19:
I hearken back to the original decision that was made by the President of making sure that we knew the scenario that was going on in China. We prevented travel from China to the United States. If we had not done that, we would have had many, many more cases right here that we would have to be dealing with.
In a Feb. 28 appearance on Fox Business’ “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” Fauci again emphasized the importance of the China travel restriction in limiting COVID-19 cases in the U.S.:
We’ve done really quite well thus far, and I think one of the reasons why is that what we did early on was that travel restriction from China, preventing a lot of people who are infected, particularly from Wuhan, from coming into the country. Which really made the total number of cases, starting off, really quite low.
According to a March 2020 Wall Street Journal article, it was HHS health officials (including Fauci) who had to convince Trump to agree to the China travel ban, not the other way around:
The president also spent weeks playing down the disease. On Feb. 26, he told reporters that there were only 15 people infected and the total “within a couple days is going to be down to close to zero.”
He also was reluctant to sign off on the first virus-related travel ban aimed at China, concerned about the signal it would send to markets and his relationship with President Xi Jinping, aides said. He eventually agreed to it on the advice of Mr. Azar, aides said, and now touts it as one of his proudest actions during the crisis.
Similarly, The New York Times reported in March 2020 that Trump had been “skeptical” about imposing travel restrictions, but he was convinced of the necessity for action by public health officials, including Fauci:
By Thursday, Jan. 30, public health officials had come around [to take the step of banning travel from China]. Mr. Azar, Dr. Redfield and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed that a ban on travel from the epidemic’s center could buy some time to put into place prevention and testing measures. “There was so much we didn’t know about this virus,” Dr. Redfield said in an interview. “We were rapidly understanding it was much more transmissible, that it had a great ability to go global.”
The debate moved that afternoon to the Oval Office, where Mr. Azar and others urged the president to approve the ban. “The situation has changed radically,” Mr. Azar told Mr. Trump.
Others in the room urged being more cautious, arguing that a ban could have unforeseen consequences. “This is unprecedented,” warned Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor. Mr. Trump was skeptical, though he would later claim that everyone around him had been against the idea.
The president sided with his more aggressive aides, and announced the ban next day.
During an April 13 Coronavirus Task Force press briefing, Fauci said that he (and others) had recommended the China travel restriction to Trump, and at that same briefing, Trump averred that he and Fauci had been “on the same page” about dealing with the COVID-19 threat “from the beginning”:
FAUCI: The travel [restriction] was another recommendation, when we went in and said, “We probably should be doing that.” And the answer was “yes.” And then another time was, “We should do it with Europe,” and the answer was “yes.” And the next time, “We should do it with the UK,” and the answer was “yes” … There wasn’t anybody saying, “No, you shouldn’t do that.”
Q: To be clear, you and Dr. Fauci are on the same page?
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, we have been from the beginning.
In short, all the available public comments by Fauci about the imposition of China travel restrictions, as well as press reporting on that issue, indicate that the NIAID director was a consistent advocate and supporter of the travel ban from the beginning, not an opponent or critic of it. Moreover, comments from government officials and White House aides referenced in press accounts suggest that it was Trump himself, not Fauci, who initially expressed resistance to imposing the travel restrictions — only several months after the fact did the president begin contradicting his earlier statements and asserting that he had agreed to the ban despite objections and criticism from Fauci and “everybody else.”