The Trump administration is under close scrutiny as it scrambles to respond to the threat from the Covid-19 virus.

At time of writing there are 293 confirmed cases in the US, and 14 people have died.

Some critics of President Donald Trump have accused of him of making false and confusing statements about the spread of the virus.

The president has accused his opponents of trying to make political capital out of the coronavirus. What exactly has Mr Trump been saying?

“We’re going very substantially down, not up.”

The president put a positive spin on figures for coronavirus cases in the US in a news conference last week, saying the number was going down and “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero”.

This was in direct contradiction to statements made in the same press conference by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, and the Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Anne Schuchat.

Both officials said they expected to see more cases in the US.

“This is their new hoax.”

The US president used this phrase during a freewheeling speech at a rally in South Carolina last week.

Some journalists seized on the remark as evidence that the president was fuelling conspiracy theories about the virus itself being a hoax.

Mr Trump’s exact words (here at 3.55) were: “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. (…)

“One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. (…)

“And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We’re 15 people in this massive country.”

The president did not state that the virus itself was a hoax, and it seems clear from the reference to the 15 confirmed cases (accurate at the time) that he did not intend to call into question the actual existence of the disease.

Further on in the speech, Mr Trump said the virus could become a threat to life, although he played down the scale of the risk.

He later clarified that he used the word hoax “referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job”.

He added: “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.”

It’s debatable whether the president created confusion by using the inflammatory word “hoax” at a time when some of his supporters apparently believe that the disease does not actually exist.

A vaccine in months?

The president has repeatedly floated the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine being ready within months, despite clear statements from top health officials that this is too optimistic.

Mr Trump told reporters this week: “I don’t know what the time will be. I’ve heard very quick numbers, that of months. And I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number. So I think that’s not a bad range. But if you’re talking about three to four months in a couple of cases, a year in other cases.”

The president has been consistently fact-checked on this point by his officials in real time.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, repeatedly intervened in a meeting between the president, government officials and pharmaceutical company executives, stressing that 12 to 18 months is a realistic timeline for the new vaccine.

“The 3.4 per cent is really a false number.”

“Well, I think the 3.4 per cent is really a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild.”

This unscripted answer to a question from Fox News’s Sean Hannity has angered many critics.

Based on a “hunch”, the president appeared to rubbish statistics quoted by the World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said this week that about 3.4 per cent of Covid-19 cases reported globally have died.

In fairness to Mr Trump, his suggestion that the real death toll could turn out to be much lower, due to large numbers of mild cases going undetected, has been floated by experts too.

While the WHO’s number could accurately be described as partial or provisional, few medical professionals would describe it as “false”.

Medical experts have tended to phrase their doubts more carefully than the US president, stressing our overall lack of knowledge about the true mortality rate, rather than promoting an alternative number based on a hunch.

It’s also worth noting that the optimistic thrust of Mr Trump’s point here – that the threat from the coronavirus is being exaggerated – runs against the spirit of the WHO director-general’s remarks.

Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed the unique characteristics of Covid-19, saying that the new virus causes more severe symptoms than flu, could be more deadly and has no vaccine.

“We have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work.”

This is another quote from Mr Trump’s long answer to the same question from Hannity.

It’s not completely clear from the grammar, but one explanation of the reference to people “going to work” is that the president was expanding on his earlier point that there could be many mild cases of the virus that have gone unreported.

It seems a stretch to read Mr Trump’s remark as a direct suggestion that people should continue to go to work even if they are ill, as some commentators have.

As so often though, the long, unscripted nature of the president’s answer leaves his meaning open to interpretation.