Analysis: Dissecting WaPo's Weak, Incomplete Fact Check of Dan Crenshaw’s Coronavirus Arguments

Posted: Apr 22, 2020 10:25 AM

Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw has emerged as an effective defender of the Trump administration's coronavirus response, particularly as it pertains to puncturing many critics' self-serving and partisan efforts at historical revisionism. Two recent videos featuring Crenshaw have circulated widely online in recent days; one, a 'fact check'-style segment Crenshaw produced himself, and the other, Crenshaw's appearance on "Real Time" with liberal comedian Bill Maher.

After the clips began gaining significant traction and attention, including an enthusiastic tweet from the president, The Washington Post's Aaron Blake produced an analysis entitled, "Dan Crenshaw’s viral defense of Trump’s coronavirus response isn’t all it’s cracked up to be." While the piece includes some useful context and raises some fair issues, if it's meant to discredit Crenshaw's overall argument, it doesn't come close to succeeding. Before I address Blake's objections point by point, take a few minutes and watch the videos for yourself:

The Post story flags six Crenshaw claims as including "misrepresentations, incorrect and context-free claims [or] false choices." Let's explore them:

(1) Blake writes that the Texan mischaracterizes the World Health Organization's criticism of President Trump's travel restrictions against China:

This is an incorrect summary of the WHO’s comments on travel bans. The headline shown on the screen comes from Reuters on Feb. 3 and says, “WHO chief says widespread travel bans not needed to beat China virus.” In the story, the WHO’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, doesn’t say there is “no need” for travel bans at all; he instead says there was no need to “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.” He is quoted saying, “We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.” That’s not saying there should be no bans but instead that countries should be judicious with them. Crenshaw also repeated Trump’s claim that the WHO “largely criticized” the president’s travel restrictions; STAT News has found no evidence to bolster that claim.

But here's a POLITICO story from early February, entitled, "Coronavirus quarantine, travel ban could backfire, experts fear." I'll just quote directly from the piece:

The Trump administration’s quarantine and travel ban in response to the Wuhan coronavirus could undercut international efforts to fight the outbreak by antagonizing Chinese leaders, as well as stigmatizing people of Asian descent, according to a growing chorus of public health experts and lawmakers. The World Health Organization’s top official on Tuesday repeated concern that moves that interfere with transportation and trade could harm efforts to address the crisis...and some members of Congress say they're concerned the efforts could stoke racial discrimination...World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that widespread travel bans and restrictions weren’t needed to stop the outbreak and could "have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit." 

The xenophobia and discrimination concerns (which are certainly valid within China) echoed critiques from Congressional Democrats -- as well as the Biden campaign, which is now unpersuasively pretending that they supported the restrictions all along. WHO's chief said widespread bans "weren't needed" to stymie the disease's outbreak (false), instead raising the specter of the restrictions stoking "fear and stigma, with little public health benefit." If that doesn't qualify as a clear criticism, I'm not sure what would. Dr. Anthony Fauci has asserted that the president's January 31 travel restrictions on China "absolutely" made a positive difference.

(2) Crenshaw knocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for taking up the No Ban Act on the same day Trump announced his China restrictions. Blake contends that this was, essentially, very unfortunate political timing by House Democrats because the bill in question related to totally separate categories of travel bans, and that Pelosi had announced a vote on it days prior. Beyond that, the legislation would have effectively carved out a public health and safety exemption that would appear to permit actions such as Trump's China restrictions:

The No Ban Act wouldn’t “stop President Trump from implementing the lifesaving travel restrictions.” In fact, while the act requires more significant and documented justification for travel bans, it affirms a president’s authority in such cases. Per the language of the bill, if the administration “determines … that the entry of any aliens or any class of aliens into the United States would undermine the security or public safety of the United States or the preservation of human rights, democratic processes or institutions, or international stability, the President may temporarily … suspend the entry of such aliens or class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants or … impose any restrictions on the entry of such aliens that the President deems appropriate."

This fact check seems fair. The timing may have been bad politics for Pelosi, but she certainly has a more plausible case than the Biden campaign does for their "xenophobia" airbrushing. Nevertheless, Crenshaw cites tweets published by Pelosi on the very night of Trump's China travel restrictions, telling Townhall that it "strains credulity" to believe that Pelosi's messaging "had nothing to do with Trump's travel restrictions," adding that the timing is "quite the coincidence."

"On the day POTUS announced China travel restrictions, Pelosi was promoting a bill to limit his authority to impose travel restrictions. Plain and simple," Crenshaw added. I can understand partisan cynicism about the timing of these messages, but I don't believe they are inconsistent with the substantive defense raised in Blake's article.

(3) Blake tackles Crenshaw's point that President Trump mentioned coronavirus in his State of the Union Address on February 4 (famously, literally torn to pieces by Pelosi) with this assessment:

Crenshaw notably doesn’t relay what Trump actually said about the virus in his State of the Union. In the speech, Trump said, “We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” It was among comments around that time in which Trump played up the coordination between the two countries, even as figures within his administration were privately bemoaning the lack of cooperation from China. It’s also worth noting that just about all of Trump’s other comments around this time downplayed the actual threat.

It seems to me that Crenshaw's point here was that the administration was not ignoring the threat at that time, as evidenced by the fact that the president devoted valuable rhetorical real estate in a major national address to the subject. Also, it's not exactly a "gotcha" that Trump was touting coordination with the Chinese government at the time. The nature of the disease was not known nearly as fully by the US and other nations back then, nor was the full extent of China's deceit and culpability (despite some worrisome early signs). It's also undeniably true that Trump frequently downplayed the severity of the threat "around this time," but so did almost everyone in American politics and media.

Trump's cavalier attitude and mixed messaging carried on for far too long, in my opinion, but early February was still very early days. To help illustrate this reality, search your favorite political commentators' tweets from early February and see how laser-focused they were on coronavirus. Some people were more ahead of the curve than others -- but the vast majority of the commentariat, myself included, mostly ignored or downplayed the story into March. It's entirely fair to ask how well the administration used the time they bought for America's preparations with the travel restrictions, and Trump obviously has a higher responsibility (and access to much more information) than columnists and talking heads. Still, it is accurate and relevant to note that the president's team was prioritizing coronavirus sufficiently enough as to insert it into the president's high-profile speech.

(4) Returning to Speaker Pelosi, Crenshaw notes that for days after the White House requested "phase one" anti-coronavirus funding, the House calendar was focused on other priorities. Blake cites left-leaning PolitiFact, writing:

As PolitiFact has noted, there were ongoing negotiations about the funding package until early March. The Trump administration also asked for the funding on Feb. 24, when the bill on flavored tobacco and vaping products already was on the agenda. The GOP-controlled Senate at the time was taking up antiabortion-rights bills.

All this demonstrates is that Congress took more than a week to get its collective act together and fulfill (and in fact exceed) the White House's request. On one hand, this could underscore Crenshaw's broader point that America's political and media classes still weren't treating the coronavirus with the urgency that many are now pretending that they were all along -- while faulting others for not sharing their prudent foresight. On the other hand, given Congressional Democrats' multiple subsequent rounds of delays and obstruction on very urgently-needed coronavirus relief funds, perhaps this initial foot-dragging was par for the course. Also, the fact that a flavored tobacco bill was already on the schedule isn't terribly compelling. Pelosi could have wiped the calendar to accommodate an overwhelming and urgent national health crisis. She didn't. Because she didn't view it as one.

(5) On the subject of Trump's European travel ban announced March 11, Crenshaw again cites criticisms -- and Blake again says the Congressman is misconstruing the nature of those criticisms:

In making this point, Crenshaw showed headlines raising questions about the Europe ban Trump announced. Most of those headlines weren’t questioning the need for the ban. Instead, they pointed to the selective nature of the countries involved — i.e. exempting some countries in which Trump has businesses interests — or simply reported that the European Union objected to the ban, rather than journalists taking positions themselves.

Let's set aside whether journalists are supposed to be "taking positions themselves" on such matters. It's true that some articles merely reported the EU's objections, while others focused on particular elements of the restrictions. But let's not pretend there wasn't broader opposition and criticism, too. For instance, here is a news piece in The Hill, helpfully headlined, "Trump coronavirus travel ban comes under criticism." The lead paragraphs:

President Trump’s announcement of a ban on travel from Europe is coming under criticism from experts who say that the focus on travel is misdirected and much more urgent domestic measures are needed to fight the virus. The centerpiece of Trump’s high-profile address to the nation on Wednesday night was announcing a ban on travel from Europe for foreign nationals as a way to try to slow the spread of the virus. But experts noted that the virus is already spreading across the United States, meaning that stopping travel from Europe, while possibly marginally helpful, is far from the most urgent need.

Vox, which can always be counted on in moments such as these, published an "explainer" about how the European restrictions were pointless, too late, and "make no sense." That's a pretty comprehensive critique. By contrast, here's Dr. Fauci, who noted that Europe was becoming a global epicenter of the virus around that time:

I think that was a prudent choice. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, discussing it about whether we should do it, and it was the right public health call, and here's the numerical reason why. If you look back early on, Chinese travelers who were infected seeded not only the United States, but countries in Europe, including Italy.

(6) Finally, Blake refers to a Trumpian "false choice" echoed by Crenshaw:

It pretends as if the decision was between the little that the federal government did in February and a total shutdown of the country. In fact, there were few calls for a shutdown in February — when, as Crenshaw notes, even countries that were hit harder at the time than the United States hadn’t taken that step. Trump has sought to suggest critics wanted things shut down in January, despite there being very few cases at the time.

As I mentioned earlier, pressing the administration on potentially-squandered weeks in February is fair game, as are questions about some chaotic elements of the response as things got bad. But it is absolutely true that many critics of the White House have made all sorts of pronouncements about when Trump should have done much more than he did. To wit, the top morning show host on MSNBC recently intoned that "everyone saw this coming in early January." Crenshaw has also tangled with a stridently anti-Trump opinion writer at Blake's newspaper, who recently wrote that the president should have imposed serious restrictions around March 3. As suggested earlier, I reviewed her Twitter footprint for the 48 hours surrounding that date, searching for the terms "virus," "Coronavirus," "Wuhan" and "China." Zero results turned up, but there were plenty of tweets about Joe Biden's potential running mate.

Does anyone believe that the politicians and pundits who reacted unenthusiastically or harshly to several of Trump's other (arguably belated) steps would have calmly assented to far harsher measures before the scope of the crisis was widely understood and accepted? Also on this score, let me remind you that Dr. Fauci stated just law week that the very first time he and Dr. Deborah Birx presented the president with a recommendation on severe distancing guidance, he accepted and implemented it -- and has done so ever since. Fauci said this in the context of swatting down second-guessery like this, explaining that such decisions were extremely complex, and using after-the-fact projections on hypothetically saved lives is simplistic and unfair. That is Fauci's analysis, not Trump's.

Finally, I would not invoke or embrace some of the defenses of Trump that Crenshaw has advanced during this crisis. I don't think the president's communications strategy about the coronavirus has been great, and I'd argue that partisan tirades and all-caps tweet storms do not reflect the "calm breeds calm" aphorism Crenshaw mentions to Maher in response to a question about the president's various outbursts and shoot-from-the-hip style. I also think the administration wasted precious time in February and has still not gotten its arms around the crucial issue of testing, too often spinning on related questions (even though some of the obstacles Crenshaw and others have raised on this front are valid). In short, my assessment of the administration's crisis management and messaging is less sanguine and generous than Crenshaw's.

That said, consider this: The clips above run more than 11 minutes in length and contain a significant litany of rapid-fire claims and assertions by the Congressman. The Washington Post, setting out to poke holes or discredit in his comments, reviewed it with a fine-tooth comb, producing the six objections I've addressed above. Now go back and watch both videos again, and take mental note of the great many facts Crenshaw relayed that Blake didn't even attempt to challenge. That observation, coupled with the points I've raised in this piece, suggests that Crenshaw's case is actually quite factually robust and informationally potent.

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