On February 5 2022, a popular post to Reddit’s r/worldnews suggested that a Chinese spy balloon controversy was not the first of its sort — positing that “at least” three similar incidents occurred during the Trump administration:
A post submitted to Imgur on the same day featured a February 5 2023 TheHill.com headline, “Chinese balloons flew over US three times during Trump administration: officials”:
The phrase “Chinese spy balloon” rapidly entered the news cycle in early February 2023. On February 3 2023, the New York Times explained when the device began drawing widespread interest:
NBC News reported on [the afternoon of February 2 2023] that U.S. military officials had been monitoring for several days what they had determined to be a Chinese-made spy balloon floating over Montana. The Pentagon held a news briefing hours later.
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement that confirmed the balloon’s origin but that disputed its alleged purpose.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” a statement on the ministry’s website said. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.”
It appeared the reporting was updated as the story developed. The first paragraph noted that the balloon had been shot down on February 4 2023:
The Biden administration shot down a Chinese spy balloon on Saturday [February 4 2023], prompting a diplomatic drama and raising questions about the next stage of an already tense relationship between the world’s two superpowers.
The ordeal captured the attention of the nation on Thursday [February 2 2023] when U.S. military officials said they had detected a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” launched by China floating in the skies of Montana. The discovery prompted Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing.
In large part, news about the Chinese spy balloon detailed partisan bickering about the incident:
Republican lawmakers on Sunday [February 5 2023] accused China of deliberately surveilling sensitive U.S. military sites with a suspected spy balloon and said the Biden administration had given Beijing an intelligence opening by not downing the balloon during its high-altitude drift through American airspace …
“Clearly this was an attempt by China to gather information, to defeat our command and control of our sensitive missile defense and nuclear weapon sites,” said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, among the members of Congress on the Sunday [February 5 2023] news shows. “And that certainly is an urgency that this administration does not recognize.”
A popular February 5 2023 tweet by filmmaker Rob Reiner referenced what was becoming a common detail in the story — claims that three similar incidents (at least) had occurred during the administration of former United States President Donald Trump:
Both the Reddit and Imgur posts above linked to or depicted a February 5 2022 TheHill.com article, with a similar assertion in its headline. It reported:
As Republicans spent the past few days criticizing the Biden administration over its response to the suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew across the country, an official revealed during a briefing on Saturday [February 4 2023] that the U.S. was aware of three other instances during the prior administration and one instance earlier in the Biden administration that such an apparatus “transited” the country.
“PRC [People’s Republic of China] government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior [Trump] administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration but never for this duration of time,” said a senior defense official. “We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.”
TheHill.com quoted a social media post by Trump on February 5 2023, in which he flatly denied the claims:
The Chinese Balloon situation is a disgrace, just like the Afghanistan horror show, and everything else surrounding the grossly incompetent Biden Administration. They are only good at cheating in elections, and disinformation — and now they are putting out that a Balloon was put up by China during the Trump Administration, in order to take the “heat” off the slow moving Biden fools. China had too much respect for “TRUMP” for this to have happened, and it NEVER did. JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION!
The claim about three prior incidents, attributed to an always-unnamed “senior defense official,” appeared to originate with a February 4 2023 news release issued by the United States Department of Defense, via defense.gov. It quoted a senior defense official on the condition of anonymity (“on background”) and read in part:
U.S. officials first detected the balloon and its payload on January 28  when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands. The balloon traversed Alaska, Canada and re-entered U.S. airspace over Idaho. “President Biden asked the military to present options and on Wednesday [February 1 2023] President Biden gave his authorization to take down the Chinese surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to us civilians under the balloon’s path,” said a senior defense official speaking on background. “Military commanders determined that there was undue risk of debris causing harm to civilians while the balloon was overland.”
Long before the shoot down, U.S. officials took steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the Chinese. The senior defense official said the recovery of the balloon will enable U.S. analysts to examine sensitive Chinese equipment. “I would also note that while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us,” the official said. “I can’t go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”
The balloon did not pose a military or physical threat. Still its intrusion into American airspace over several days was an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty. The official said Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.
According to the Department of Defense’s statement, three Chinese intelligence balloons “transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration,” which was Trump’s time in office.
A separate February 4 2023 DoD news release was a transcript (“Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold an Off-Camera, On-Background Press Briefing Update on the High-Altitude Surveillance Balloon.”) The DoD indicated that statements should be attributed to a “senior defense official” or “senior military official,” one of whom reiterated:
PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly at least three times during the prior [Trump] administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time. We spoke directly with Chinese officials through multiple channels, but rather than address their intrusion into our airspace, the PRC put out an explanation that lacked any credibility.
In that statement, the “senior defense official” described a total of five incidents; three during Trump’s administration, two during Biden’s. On February 6 2023 updates appeared to change the disclosure slightly, and CNN reported:
The transiting of three suspected Chinese spy balloons over the continental US during the Trump administration was only discovered after President Joe Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN on Sunday [February 5 2023].
The official did not say how or when those incidents were discovered.
CNN reported on [February 5 2023] that the Pentagon had briefed Congress of previous Chinese surveillance balloons during the Trump administration that flew near Texas and Florida … Another Chinese spy balloon also transited the continental US briefly at the beginning of the Biden administration, the senior administration official said. But the balloon that was shot down by the US military on [February 4 2023] was unique in both the path it took, down from Alaska and Canada into the US, and the length of time it spent loitering over sensitive missile sites in Montana, officials said.
As it turns out, it was hardly the first time. Hours before the giant balloon met its deflated end, the Pentagon said there was another one in flight, over South America. And it noted a long history of Chinese balloons flying over the United States (which the Pentagon, somehow, never wanted to talk about before, until this incident forced it to).
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” the Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, said in a statement published on Thursday. One senior official said many of those were in the Pacific, some near Hawaii, where the Indo-Pacific Command is based, along with much of the naval capability and surveillance gear of the Pacific Fleet.
After a Chinese spy balloon was shot down on February 4 2023, rumors circulated that three Chinese spy balloons “transited” portions of the United States during the Trump administration. In a series of DoD statements, an anonymous “senior defense official” disclosed five total incidents — three during Trump’s term, one at the beginning of Biden’s term, and the fifth in February 2023 — and possibly more. As the New York Times noted in analysis of the story, the government appeared to be reluctant to disclose the previous incidents.