President Donald Trump knew in early February that the coronavirus posed a unique and deadly threat to the United States, and was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
At the time, Trump repeatedly publicly downplayed the virus as no more dangerous than the flu.
The revelation is one of many in journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Rage,” for which Trump granted Woodward a series of interviews.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call with Woodward. “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,” he repeated.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, according to a copy of the book obtained by CNN. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
But by ignoring reality in public, the president didn’t prevent panic, he provoked it. Many statements Trump made as the virus spread in the U.S. were outright falsehoods:
“We have it very much under control in this country.” “It’s going to be just fine.” “It’s one person coming in from China.” “We’re doing a great job with it.” “It’s going to have a very good ending for us.” “We’re in great shape.” “We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.” “Just stay calm. It will go away.” “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Responding to the bombshell on Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “has never lied to the American public on COVID” and also claimed he “never downplayed the virus.”
Republican lawmakers had mixed reactions.
When asked about Trump’s admission in Woodward’s book that he downplayed the coronavirus, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters on Capitol Hill, “It doesn’t sound ideal to me.”
“I don’t think he needs to be on TV screaming, ‘We’re all going to die,’” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch supporter of the president, countered. “His actions shutting the economy down were the right actions.”
Trump repeatedly resisted calls to shut down businesses in order to save lives. In March, he claimed that the U.S. would see more deaths from an economic shutdown than from coronavirus.
Nearly 190,000 Americans so far have died of COVID-19, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.
Separately on Wednesday, emails obtained by Politico showed that the Trump administration has tried to muzzle Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and encouraged him to minimize the risk that the coronavirus poses to children. Fauci told the outlet that nobody tells him what to say, and that he “speaks on scientific evidence.”
According to The Washington Post, Woodward’s book is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews with Trump from December through July. Woodward also interviewed former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats.
In addition to documenting the Trump administration’s failed and fragmented coronavirus response, the book also chronicles Trump’s response to anti-racism demonstrations, North Korean diplomacy and other topics.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.