Donald Trump told Bob Woodward in early February that the coronavirus was dangerous and deadly, but a month and a half later admitted he downplayed its threat because he didn’t want to create a panic, according to excerpts of Woodward’s new book obtained by CNN.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said in a March 19 interview with Woodward. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” Trump had said publicly in February that the virus would go away. On February 10, he said, “We’re in very good shape. We have 11 cases, and most of them are getting better very rapidly.”
At a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that Trump “has done an unprecedented job” dealing with COVID-19. “He took this seriously but he did express calm,” she said. She also claimed the president did not downplay the virus, even though he said on tape that he did.
In an interview on February 7, Trump told Woodward that the virus was “deadly stuff,” that it was highly contagious and that it was airborne. He said that it was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.” But it was not for more than another month before the White House started to urge social distancing measures and shutdowns.
Woodward will do his first interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday. The show said that the journalist interviewed the president for a total of about nine hours and over a span of 18 on-the-record interviews. While the revelations are potentially damaging to Trump, Woodward is likely to face questions of why he did not come forth earlier with details of what the president was saying privately at the time.
Trump did not participate in Woodward’s previous book about his presidency, Fear.
In the new book, some former top national security officials offer what CNN called “brutal assessments” of his presidency. James Mattis, his former secretary of defense, described him as “dangerous” and “unfit” to be commander in chief.
Dan Coats, who was director of national intelligence, is quoted saying that Trump “doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.” Woodward also wrote that Coats had a secret belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin “had something on Trump,” even though it was unsupported by evidence.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is quoted as telling an associate that Trump’s “sole focus is to get reelected.”
The Washington Post also published details from the book. They included Trump’s boasting of his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who he said “tells me everything.” That included Kim’s account of having his uncle killed, according to the Post. But Trump also talked of his relationships with authoritarian leaders in general.
“It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” Trump said during his interview with Woodward. “You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”
In the February 7 interview, Trump told Woodward that the coronavirus was five times deadlier than the flu. But he later publicly compared the two, including a tweet in March in which he pointed out that 37,000 Americans die of the flu each year but there were only 22 coronavirus deaths at the time. “Think about that!”
Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, said at a speech in Michigan on Wednesday that Trump “failed to do his job — on purpose. It was a life or death betrayal of the American people.”
“He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to our country. For months,” Biden said.
Trump told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he downplayed the virus because “I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic…Certainly I am not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”