WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump knew in early 2020 how deadly the coronavirus could be in the United States, but he intentionally misled the American public about the severity of the disease to avoid panicking people, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.
As the virus started to sweep from China throughout the world, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump in a January 28 White House meeting, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” according to the book, Rage.
“This is going to be the roughest thing you face,” Woodward, a Washington Post associate editor, quoted O’Brien as saying, an assessment deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger agreed with.
Trump publicly minimized the threat. Ten days later, he called Woodward and said he thought the situation was far more frightful.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a February 7 call. “And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.
Publicly, Trump was telling Americans that the virus would soon disappear and that it was no worse than a seasonal flu. He insisted the U.S. government had it under control.
In one of 18 calls recorded by Woodward, Trump admitted March 19 that he had deliberately minimized the danger.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he said.
AThe White House has not challenged the accuracy of the quotes, but as copies of Rage circulated Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany tried to minimize the political damage.
She said Trump wanted “to keep the country calm. That is what leaders do.”
“This president has done an unprecedented job in dealing with COVID,” McEnany said. “He was always clear-eyed about the lives we could lose. Again, from this podium, he acknowledged that this was serious back in March, that 100,000, 200,000 lives could be lost.”
On Thursday, Trump said on Twitter, “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2020
The revelations came less than eight weeks before the November 3 presidential election between Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden, on a campaign trip to the Midwestern political battleground state of Michigan, assailed Trump’s performance in dealing with the coronavirus, which has now killed nearly 190,000 Americans and infected more than 6.3 million. Both figures are the biggest national totals across the globe.
“He knowingly and willingly lied to the American public about the threat posed to the country for months. ... He failed to do his job on purpose,” Biden said. “It’s beyond despicable.”
Health experts now say one projection shows that 410,000 Americans could die by early 2021.
Political management professor Todd Belt at George Washington University said revelations from the book about Trump's response to the coronavirus could provide political ammunition for both Republicans and Democrats.
"Of course, the Republicans will say, 'Look, he was providing leadership. He didn't want people to panic,’ ” Belt said. “Whereas the Democrats will say, 'Look, this was a poor decision, and it made the problem worse.' So, I think people will probably interpret this part through the same partisan lenses.”
Woodward is best known in American journalism for joining Post reporter Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate political corruption scandal in the 1970s that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The new Woodward book tracks the Trump administration’s missteps in dealing with the pandemic and touches on numerous other controversies during Trump’s nearly four years as president.
“Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states” to deal with the pandemic, Woodward writes. “There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced.”
Woodward said infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, often the administration’s public face answering questions about the COVID-19 disease, at one point told others that Trump “is on a separate channel” and unfocused in meetings, with “rudderless” leadership.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said of Trump, according to Woodward. “His sole purpose is to get reelected.”
In one Oval Office meeting Woodward cited, after Trump had made false statements in a news briefing, Fauci said in front of him, “We can’t let the president be out there being vulnerable, saying something that’s going to come back and bite him.”
Woodward describes Fauci as particularly disappointed in Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, for talking like a cheerleader, as if everything was great about the administration’s response to the coronavirus.
As the virus spread across the country, Kushner said of Trump, “The goal is to get his head from governing to campaigning.”