Recordings of President Trump privately acknowledging he downplayed the coronavirus’s threat to the nation put the White House on defense Wednesday, reinserting the pandemic as the central issue in the presidential race eight weeks before Election Day.
Trump’s remarks to the Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, given in a series of interviews for the book “Rage,” underscored how Trump privately talked about the severity of COVID-19, even as he brushed it off in public remarks in January and February.
“I wanted to, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward in a recording released by the veteran Washington Post journalist.
The remarks about the pandemic that shut down much of American life in 2020 and wreaked havoc on the economy were just some of the comments disclosed by Woodward.
Excerpts of “Rage” showcased by the Post also depict Trump as detached from the challenges Black Americans face, enthralled by his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and outraged that defense officials put outsized importance on maintaining alliances.
But it was Trump’s comments on the coronavirus that caused the biggest stir.
“It goes through the air,” Trump said of COVID-19 on Feb. 7, according to audio released by Woodward to CNN. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breath the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
In public, Trump at the time was spending weeks claiming the virus would dissipate in April when the weather warmed and comparing it to the common flu.
Pressed later Tuesday on his comments to Woodward, Trump did little to dispute the idea that he had intentionally minimized the virus in public.
“We don’t want to have to show panic. We’re not going to show panic, and that’s exactly what I did,” he said during an event to announce potential Supreme Court nominees. “And I was very open, whether it’s to Woodward or anybody else — it’s just another political hit job — but whether it was Woodward or anybody else, you cannot show a sense of panic, or you’re going to have bigger than you ever had before.”
Millions of Americans have been infected with COVID-19 in the months since those comments. Roughly 190,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus, and the economy is still climbing out of a recession sparked by the pandemic.
Trump has been heavily scrutinized for remarks downplaying the virus, and public opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans do not trust what the president says about the pandemic.
The White House and Trump’s campaign have sought to shift the focus to other issues, such as demonstrations and protests across the country. As a result, the Woodward book was an unwelcome change of narrative.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, whose briefing was scheduled to start just as the excerpts were published but was delayed by nearly an hour, vociferously defended Trump’s response to COVID-19.
“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID,” she said. “The president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that.”
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, rebuffed the idea that Trump was “distorting anything” that had been relayed to him from public health officials.
“Rage” is to be released on Tuesday, and Woodward will appear on “60 Minutes” on Sunday to promote it. The book is likely to make headlines for some time, in part because of the breadth of issues discussed.
According to excerpts, Trump was asked about the nationwide protests around racial injustice this summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and brushed off the idea that he had a responsibility to try and better understand the pain of Black Americans because of his position as a white man.
“You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you?” Trump said with a laugh in a recording of the conversation. “Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Trump derided his predecessor, saying he does not believe former President Obama is smart or a gifted speaker. And he reportedly offered vulgar criticisms of his top Defense officials, reportedly telling trade adviser Peter Navarro, “my f—— generals are a bunch of p——” because they cared more about alliances than trade deals.
The book is unlikely to sway committed Trump voters, and its reach beyond the Beltway remains to be seen. But some of the most damaging quotes may repel independent voters who were considering backing Trump in the final weeks of the campaign, and they provided instant fodder for Democrats to go on the attack.
“The President’s own words spell out the devastating truth: Trump was fully aware of the catastrophic nature of the coronavirus but hid the facts and refused to take the threat seriously, leaving our entire country exposed and unprepared,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Speaking from Michigan Wednesday afternoon, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accused Trump of a failure of leadership that cost American lives and jobs, calling it a “dereliction of duty.”
“He knew and purposefully played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months,” Biden said.
“Rage” marks the second book Woodward has written about the Trump White House. His first book, “Fear,” portrayed a West Wing riddled with back-biting and dysfunction.
The president, irked that he was not interviewed for the 2018 book, agreed to speak with Woodward for “Rage,” and he even complimented the journalist during interviews earlier this year. But the decision to cooperate may have backfired, as the recordings and on-record quotes from Trump provide additional negative material and make it more difficult for aides to defend.
Still, Trump attempted to preemptively attack the veteran journalist weeks in advance, tweeting, “The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been.”
Woodward’s most recent work is the latest in a string of books that make damning allegations about Trump personally and politically.
Former national security adviser John Bolton published a book in June that described Trump as “stunningly uninformed” and alleged the president was willing to overlook human rights abuses in China to secure a trade deal.
Trump’s niece Mary Trump authored a book that accused the president of “cruelty and incompetence” and described him as a narcissist with a penchant for lying and cheating. And a new book from Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen recounts his role in a hush money scheme to cover up the president’s extramarital affairs.