By Benjamin Kail
President Donald Trump, who claimed that COVID-19 was under control and would “disappear” as the pandemic continued to spread across the country, acknowledged to journalist Bob Woodward that he knew early on the virus was far deadlier than the flu, even as he admittedly downplayed the threat facing the American public.
According to an interview on Feb. 7, weeks before the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the U.S., Trump admitted to the former Washington Post reporter and author that he was aware the virus was airborne and highly contagious and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” perhaps five times as lethal, CNN reported.
The Watergate reporter interviewed the president several times as the pandemic worsened and as the economy reopened. The interviews, recorded with Trump’s permission, are part of Woodward’s newest book, “Rage,” which CNN obtained before its Sept. 15 release.
On March 19, just days after he declared a national emergency that led to widespread shutdowns and expansive social distancing measures to blunt the spread of the virus, the president told Woodward that he “wanted to always play it down.”
“I still like playing it down,” he added, “because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump’s comments to Woodward mirror previous statements during late March and early April news conferences, when he said he doesn’t “want to create havoc and shock” even while shutting the government down and shutting down travel from China.
Pressed on the fact that many public health experts warned that earlier action and a nationwide testing strategy could have helped saved lives, Trump has repeatedly focused on his travel ban from China and said in late March that he didn’t “want to be a negative person.”
“I think a president has to be a cheerleader for their country,” he said in early April.
But Trump’s admissions to Woodward about the threat posed by COVID-19 stand in stark contrast to his public statements in late January, when he told a reporter the outbreak was “totally under control” in the U.S., as well as frequent instances of downplaying the virus through February and later months.
On March 9, more than a month after he told Woodward that COVID-19 was much more deadly than the flu, Trump openly compared the virus to the flu in a tweet.
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” he tweeted. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Six months later, the virus has now infected more than 6.3 million across the U.S. and killed nearly 190,000 Americans, by far the most confirmed cases and deaths in the world.
Woodward’s interviews were recorded with Trump’s permission, and CNN obtained some of the audio tapes.
CNN reported that the book also includes harsh rebukes of the president from his former cabinet members and administration staffers. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told Woodward on the record that Trump is “dangerous” and “unfit” to be commander in chief, CNN reported.
The book also includes comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, overwhelmingly well regarded by public health experts as well as in public opinion polls, but who again made comments likely to draw Trump’s ire. Fauci is quoted telling others that Trump’s “attention span is like a minus number,” and that his “sole purpose is to get re-elected,” Woodward reports.
In their final interview in July, the president told Woodward “the virus has nothing to do with me,” CNN reported.
“It’s not my fault. It’s — China let the damn virus out.”