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Fact Squad | John James skips details in ad claiming Peters ‘downplayed’ COVID

LANSING — A new attack ad from Republican challenger John James accuses Michigan Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of “downplaying” the coronavirus pandemic.

The 30-second ad, which began airing across the state on Tuesday, uses Peters’ own words against him, but it takes his comments out of context, inflates his role in pandemic oversight and makes other claims without supporting evidence. 

It’s the latest salvo in what is expected to be a fierce race as James, a Farmington Hills business owner who lost to Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018, faces Peters, a first-term incumbent from Bloomfield Hills.

The claims 

The James campaign ad repeats a short clip of Peters during a Fox News interview saying, “The risk right now to the United States is very low.”

“That’s Sen. Gary Peters in February downplaying the pandemic,” a narrator says. 

“Worse, Peters leads the committee that oversees the pandemic response,” the narrator continues, referencing the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, a Republican-led panel on which Peters serves as the ranking Democrat. 

“It’s his job to be on top of this.”

The commercial also claims Peters “skipped hearings” and “ignored reports” without providing any details or footnotes.

The Facts

The ad uses two seconds of footage from a three-minute Fox News interview on Feb. 12. At the time, the United States had confirmed 13 cases of COVID-19, and the virus was battering parts of Asia. Peters noted that escalating case counts in Singapore undermined early hopes that warm weather would slow the spread and “may mean we’re in for a bigger threat.”

“We think the risk right now to the United States is very low, but we need to keep our eye on it,” Peters said in the unedited interview. “But really, the focus is trying to contain the infection as much as possible.”

While hindsight shows the virus did pose a grave risk to the United States, which now leads the world in cases and deaths, Peters’ comments were consistent with expert testimony he’d heard that same day in the Homeland Security Committee.

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding told lawmakers: “I don’t think we’re alarmed at this point, but we need to be leaning in to what will the next step be if we can’t contain it.”

Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked Peters whether fears of a COVID-19 explosion in the United States were “unfounded,” but the senator replied: “I don’t think we can get to that conclusion just yet. We still need to know more about the virus.”

Peters had expressed concern about the virus weeks earlier, saying in a Jan. 25 interview on CNN that “protecting folks” from COVID-19 was a Homeland Security issue. 

By claiming Peters “skipped hearings, ignored reports, downplayed the risk” in an ad focused on the pandemic, the commercial leaves the impression he missed hearings and reports on COVID-19.

That is not the case. 

In defending the ad, the James campaign pointed to committee attendance records and reports on pandemic preparedness from 2015 and 2016 — years before the novel coronavirus was discovered — arguing Peters should have done more to prepare the country for the current outbreak.

The ad also inflates Peters’ role, and therefore his responsibility for pandemic oversight, by claiming he “leads” the Homeland Security Committee. That’s actually Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Peters is the top Democrat on the GOP-led panel.

Johnson and Peters in January co-wrote a letter asking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to explain its strategy for containing the spread of COVID-19.

The conclusion

Knowing what we know now, Peters was clearly wrong in February when he said the virus posed a low risk to the United States. 

But the James ad plucks that clip from a longer interview in which Peters noted how little was known about the virus at the time and echoed comments from public health officials about the importance of containment. 

The ad also appears to suggest Peters skipped hearings and ignored reports on COVID-19, which is false. 

Clearly, federal officials like Peters could have applied lessons from Ebola and past viral outbreaks to better prepare for COVID-19, but the ad doesn’t make that claim clear.

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