President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the severity of the coronavirus in public comments to avoid triggering a panic.
“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, the author and associate editor for the Washington Post, on March 19 in one of a series of interviews for his book, “Rage,” due for publication this month. CNN published audio recordings of excerpts of the conversations on Wednesday.
Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the virus was very dangerous and could be transmitted through the air -- even as the president made public comments at odds with those statements.
“It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch,” he told Woodward. “The air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”
Trump also told Woodward the virus was more deadly “than even your strenuous flus.”
The president said publicly in February and early March that the U.S. had the virus under control. Trump repeatedly compared it to the flu and said it could fade away.
The same day Trump commented to Woodward, he tweeted praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the pandemic.
Woodward’s book reports that Trump was warned by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in a Jan. 28 meeting that the virus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” according to the Washington Post, which said it obtained a copy in advance of publication.
“This is going to be the roughest thing you face,” O’Brien said, according to Woodward, who wrote that Trump’s head popped up at the dire warning. Trump told Woodward in May that he didn’t remember being told that.
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Trump restricted travel from China shortly after. “The risk of infection for Americans remains low,” his health secretary, Alex Azar, said on Jan. 31.
The book is based on 18 interviews that Trump gave Woodward between December and July, the Post reported. It also is based on background conversations with officials and other sources.
The book comes as Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden in polls, with surveys showing Americans are displeased with the president’s handling of the virus. Trump has sought to shift blame for the pandemic, which has killed more than 189,000 Americans, to Beijing, regularly calling it the “China Virus.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump never lied or mislead the public. “We want to keep the country calm, that’s what leaders do,” McEnany told reporters at the White House.
“The president never downplayed the virus. Once again, the president expressed calm,” she said. “He was expressing calm, and he was taking early action and his actions are reflective of how seriously he took it.”
But Trump himself told Woodward, on tape, that he “always wanted to play it down,” and there are ample examples of him doing so.
He said Feb. 26 that U.S. cases would fall to “close to zero.” He said the next day the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” He said Feb. 29 that “everything is under control.” On March 9, as Americans began to socially distance themselves to prevent infection, he favorably compared the virus to the flu and said “life & the economy go on.”
Woodward reports that top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci told people the author didn’t identify that the White House had “rudderless” leadership and criticized Trump.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said, according to the Post’s account of Woodward’s book. “His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”
On Wednesday, McEnany quoted Fauci praising Trump for the government’s response to the virus. “There’s a litany of praise,” McEnany said.
The book said Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis referred to the president as having “no moral compass” and that he is “unfit” for office.
According to the Post account of the book, former intelligence director Dan Coats told Mattis that, to Trump, “a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks.”
Trump also criticized top military leaders, according to the Post account of the book.
“Not to mention my f-----g generals are a bunch of p-----s. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals,” Trump told one adviser, according to the Post account.
Trump has been under fire for a week after a report by the The Atlantic that he made disparaging comments about American Marines killed in World War I and questioned the value of military service. The White House has disputed parts of that report.
— With assistance by Jordan Fabian
(Updates with Trump’s public comments in sixth paragraph.)