WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump talked in private about the “deadly” coronavirus in February, even as he was declaring to America it was no worse than the flu and insisting it was under control, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward. Trump said Wednesday he was just being a “cheerleader” for the nation and trying to keep everyone calm.
His public rhetoric, Trump told Woodward in March, was part of a strategy to deliberately minimize the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump, according to the book, acknowledged being alarmed by the virus, even as he was telling the nation that it would swiftly disappear.
Coming less than eight weeks before Election Day, the revelations in the book – accompanied by recordings Woodward made of his interviews with Trump – provide an unwelcome return of public attention to the president’s handling of the pandemic that has so far killed about 190,000 Americans. He is pushing hard for a resumption of normal activity and trying to project strength and control to bolster his political position in his campaign against Democrat Joe Biden.
In a Feb. 7 call with Woodward, Trump said of the virus: “You just breathe 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.
“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.
Just three days later, Trump struck a far rosier tone in an interview with Fox Business: “I think the virus is going to be – it’s going to be fine.”
Biden said Wednesday the book shows Trump “lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”
“While a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job – on purpose. It was a life or death betrayal of the American people,” Biden said at a campaign event in Michigan.
Biden’s campaign pounced, releasing an ad late Wednesday featuring the audiotapes of Trump’s remarks. “And Trump knew all along,” the ad’s narrator says.
Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Trump acknowledged he downplayed the virus, insisting he was trying to buck up the nation and suggesting he was trying to avoid “gouging” on prices of needed supplies.
“The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say,” Trump told reporters. “Certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”
Yet Trump’s public comments suggested he was steering people to ignore the reality of the coming storm. Woodward’s account details dire warnings from top Trump national security officials to the president in late January that the virus that causes COVID-19 could be as bad as the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918.
On Feb. 25, just weeks before much of the country was forced to shut down because of the pandemic, Trump declared the virus “very well under control in our country.”
Though he restricted travel from China in January, Trump did not begin to devote extensive federal resources to procuring vital personal protective equipment, including face masks, or expand the production of ventilators until March. In fact, U.S. officials recommended against widespread mask wearing until April in part because of a shortage of protective masks required by front-line medical workers.
Trump aides and allies said at the time that he was aiming to prop up the economy with his rosy take on the virus throughout February, even as his administration took few concrete steps to prepare for the coming pandemic.
The Washington Post, where Woodward serves as associate editor, reported excerpts of the book, “Rage” on Wednesday, as did CNN.
The book also covers race relations, diplomacy with North Korea and a range of other issues that have arisen during the past two years.
The book is based in part on 18 interviews that Woodward conducted with Trump between December and July.
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