Trump made the comments in a lengthy interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday, his latest effort to distance himself from revelations published in excerpts from “Rage,” the forthcoming book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward.
In one of a series of bombshell interviews with Woodward, Trump said he knew in early February the coronavirus posed a deep threat to the country and was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
“I want to show calmness, I’m the leader of this country,” Trump told Hannity on Wednesday after the accounts were published. “I don’t want to be jumping up and down, I don’t want to scare people. I want people not to panic. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Public health experts have, for months, been issuing stark warnings about the threat of the pandemic, urging the public to wear masks and social distance even as the White House urged large swaths of the country to reopen. Infections have continued to rise for months in some places, and there is ongoing concern about the rate of spread at schools and college campuses.
The president went on to defend his actions Wednesday and laid blame for the spread of the coronavirus on China, touting his efforts to close U.S. borders to many travelers from China and Europe during the early days of the pandemic (although there were many exemptions to those bans).
“We’ve done a really good job,” Trump said on Fox News. “Really, it’s amazing what we’ve done. We’ve done an incredible job.”
The comments echo those he gave reporters at the White House earlier in the day.
At the time of his interview with Woodward, the president was publicly downplaying the virus and saying it was no more dangerous than the flu. He has continued to champion the U.S. response and to place blame largely on China, even after COVID-19 has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward in a Feb. 7 call, details of which were published by CNN and The Washington Post. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
He went on: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Both the White House and Trump’s GOP allies went on the defensive after details of the Woodward book were released. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president had “never lied to the American public on COVID” and “never downplayed the virus.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee hoping to unseat Trump in November, dismissed those claims.
“He knew how deadly it was. It was much more deadly than the flu. He knew, and purposely played it down,” Biden said Wednesday. “Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”