As CBS News teased a 60 Minutes interview with Bob Woodward over his bombshell new book Rage, the star investigative journalist defended a lingering question over the timing of some of its biggest revelations.
According to the book, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus posed a much greater and deadly threat than he was letting on in public. Trump went on to downplay the virus, and it was not until March 13 that the White House declared the outbreak a national emergency.
So why didn’t Woodward sound the alarm back then, about what the president knew and when he knew it?
In an interview with The Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan, Woodward said during the month of February, there was not a panic over the virus and no calls for Americans to take social distancing or other precautions. He said that “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
Woodward told Sullivan that it would be several more months to discern where the president was getting his information. The goal, Woodward said to Sullivan, was to get the bigger picture and to publish before the election.
Authors routinely withhold details until a book’s publication. John Bolton, for example, provided details in his book The Room Where It Happened that would have created a sensation during impeachment proceedings. Woodward is facing questions about his timing in part because of he has an ongoing connection to The Washington Post, where he an associate editor, and because the coronavirus is a crisis like no other, an unprecedented public health emergency.
As CNN and the Post broke the news about the book on Tuesday, Jessica Huseman, a reporter for the investigative site ProPublica, wrote on Twitter, “How differently might Trump’s supporters have acted if — this whole time — they knew that he knew COVID was a serious threat? Woodward could have made that happen in February.”
Wesley Lowery, correspondent for Quibi’s 60 Minutes 60 in 6, wrote, “Woodward‘s best defense is that folks spoke explicitly for a book, thus he didn’t feel comfortable using the reporting in other contexts. An ethical debate worth having. But no need to be incredulous about idea that reporting sooner could have saved lives— it obviously could have.”
Daily journalists did do deep dives into the administration’s coronavirus response, including an April 11 New York Times story, He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure On the Virus. It didn’t contain the same revelations as Woodward’s book, but the main thrust of the story was that Trump played down the threat even as many in the administration were identifying the need for urgent action. Like so much else during the Trump years, the story created a stir for a day or two, then faded in the news cycle.
Woodward did not immediately return a request for comment. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, referred to comments he gave to the Associated Press.
Woodward told the AP that in May, when he had verified the information, the virus had already spread throughout the country. “If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” he said.
Rage will be published on Sept. 15, and it already seems to be standing out amid the wave of Trump-related books that have been landing before the election.
On Wednesday, Woodward’s book was leading national newscasts, Trump addressed it to reporters and his rival Joe Biden delivered blistering criticism at a campaign stop. The book’s revelations may have come too late to change the way Americans respond to the virus, but they could have an impact on how they view the election, with 54 days to go.