“The president looks like he was ahead of the curve – as you know, he talks about this all the time – on shutting down travel from China.”
Rick Santorum, April 13, 2020 on CNN

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum on Monday defended President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in an interview with CNN anchor John King.

“The president looks like he was ahead of the curve — as you know, he talks about this all the time — on shutting down travel from China,” said Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania who lost his bid for a third term in 2006.

Santorum’s comments came one day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN anchor Jake Tapper that earlier implementation of social-distancing and stay-at-home orders could have saved lives lost to the coronavirus.

Santorum called Fauci’s remarks “Monday morning quarterbacking” and sought to redirect attention to other coronavirus mitigation strategies he believes the Trump administration embraced early on. Fauci later on Monday said his remarks were hypothetical.

We wondered whether Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China was as prescient as Santorum described.

The administration announced the restrictions on Jan. 31 and they took effect two days later. The policy prohibited non-U.S. citizens who had traveled to China within the preceding two weeks from entering the country.

Trump has repeatedly said he acted to restrict travel — first from China, then from Iran and finally from Europe — despite objections from experts.

“But we closed those borders very early, against the advice of a lot of professionals, and we turned out to be right. I took a lot of heat for that,” Trump said on March 4.

Later that day, Trump spoke about the rationale behind his decision, telling Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, “Everybody said, it’s too early, it’s too soon, and good people, brilliant people, in many ways, doctors and lawyers and, frankly, a lot of people that work on this stuff almost exclusively. And they said, don’t do it.”

Trump repeated the claim again at the Scranton town hall meeting he held on March 5, saying he imposed the travel restrictions “against the advice of almost everybody.”

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The World Health Organization did caution against the overuse of travel restrictions around the time the one imposed by the United States first took effect, but public health officials in this country and many airlines agreed on the policy’s importance.

Several airlines voluntarily halted flights between the U.S. and China a few days before the administration’s travel restrictions took effect. And Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said experts in his department all agreed that restricting travel from countries with coronavirus outbreaks was the right call.

“The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental,” Azar told reporters on Feb. 7. “These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”

What was the rest of the world thinking at the same time? We consulted Think Global Health, an initiative of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations that is tracking travel restrictions on China due to COVID-19.

By the group’s count, about 45 nations restricted travel from China before the U.S. That number covers variations of travel restrictions in effect up to and including Feb. 1.

Think Global Health’s tracker includes partial or total land border closures, suspension of flights to and from China, visa restrictions, such as a pause on visa-on-arrival programs, and entry restrictions (similar to what the U.S. implemented).

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"While the United States was not one of the first countries to impose restrictions against travel from China, nor was it late to do so relative to the actions of others," said Samantha Kiernan, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Rather, the United States acted around the same time that many other countries did."

Our ruling

Santorum said, “The president looks like he was ahead of the curve — as you know, he talks about this all the time — on shutting down travel from China.”

Trump wasn’t “ahead of the curve,” as Santorum said. He was following the advice of experts in his own administration — and the actions of the industry directly affected by the move. And about 45 nations restricted travel from China before the U.S.

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our sources

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Secretary Azar Declares Public Health Emergency for United States for 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” Jan. 31, 2020

The White House, “Press Briefing by Members of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force,” Jan. 31, 2020

The White House, “Remarks by President Trump at Latino Coalition Legislative Summit,” March 4, 2020

Factbase, “Interview: Sean Hannity Interviews Donald Trump Via Telephone,” March 4, 2020

The White House, “Remarks by President Trump at a Fox News Town Hall | Scranton, PA,” March 6, 2020

World Health Organization, “WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the technical briefing on 2019 novel coronavirus,” Feb. 4, 2020

The New York Times, “Trump Administration Restricts Entry Into U.S. From China,” Jan. 31, 2020

The Hill, “Trump health officials defend coronavirus quarantine, travel restrictions,” Feb. 7, 2020

Think Global Health, “Travel Restrictions on China due to COVID-19,” April 6, 2020

PolitiFact’s Miriam Valverde contributed to this report.

PolitiFact is a nonpartisan, fact-checking website operated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.