Kevin Freking and Zeke Miller
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump talked in private about the "deadly" coronavirus last February, even as he was declaring to America it was no worse than the flu and insisting it was under control, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward. Trump said Wednesday he was just being a "cheerleader" for the nation and trying to keep everyone calm.
His public rhetoric, Trump told Woodward in March, was part of a strategy to deliberately minimize the danger. "I wanted to always play it down," the president said. "I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic."
Trump, according to the book, acknowledged being alarmed by the virus, even as he was telling the nation that it would swiftly disappear.
Coming less than eight weeks before Election Day, the revelations in the book — accompanied by recordings Woodward made of his interviews with Trump — provide an unwelcome return of public attention to the president's handling of the pandemic that has so far killed about 190,000 Americans. He is currently pushing hard for a resumption of normal activity and trying to project strength and control to bolster his political position in his campaign against Democrat Joe Biden.
In a Feb. 7 call with Woodward, Trump said of the virus: "You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed. 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," the president repeated for emphasis.
Just three days later, Trump struck a far rosier tone in an interview with Fox Business: "I think the virus is going to be — it's going to be fine."
Biden said Wednesday the book shows Trump "lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months."
"While a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose. It was a life or death betrayal of the American people," Biden said at a campaign event in Michigan.
Biden's campaign pounced, releasing an ad late Wednesday featuring the audiotapes of Trump's remarks. "And Trump knew all along," the ad's narrator says.
Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Trump acknowledged he downplayed the virus, insisting he was trying to buck up the nation and suggesting he was trying to avoid "gouging" on prices of needed supplies.
"The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic, as you say," Trump told reporters. "Certainly, I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength."
Yet Trump's public comments suggested he was steering people to ignore the reality of the coming storm. Woodward's account details dire warnings from top Trump national security officials to the president in late January that the virus that causes COVID-19 could be as bad as the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918.
On Feb. 25, just weeks before much of the country was forced to shut down because of the pandemic, Trump declared the virus "very well under control in our country."
Though he restricted travel from China in January, Trump did not begin to devote extensive federal resources to procuring vital personal protective equipment, including face masks, or expand the production of ventilators until March. In fact, U.S. officials recommended against widespread mask wearing until April in part because of a shortage of protective masks required by front-line medical workers.
Trump aides and allies said at the time that he was aiming to prop up the economy with his rosy take on the virus throughout February, even as his administration took few concrete steps to prepare for the coming pandemic.
The Washington Post, where Woodward serves as associate editor, reported excerpts of the book, "Rage" on Wednesday, as did CNN. The book also covers race relations, diplomacy with North Korea and a range of other issues that have arisen during the past two years.
The book is based in part on 18 interviews that Woodward conducted with Trump between December and July.
"Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states," Woodward writes of the pandemic. "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."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday: "The president has never lied to the American public on COVID. The president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that."
She said Trump's actions show that he took COVID-19 seriously. She noted that the president put in place travel restrictions with China on Jan. 31 and said that some Democrats had criticized the move.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said Trump never "distorted" what Fauci had told the president.
"Often he would want to, you know, make sure that the country doesn't get down and out about things, but I don't recall anything that was any gross distortion in things that I spoke to him about," Fauci said.
McEnany insisted "the president never downplayed the virus," though Trump himself told Woodward he was "playing it down because I don't want to create a panic."
"There is damning truth that President Trump lied and people died," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer said that when he thinks about how many people in his state died, "It just makes me angry." He added, "How many people would be alive today if he just told Americans the truth?"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the president's comments to Woodward showed weakness and a disdain for science.
"What he was actually saying is, 'I don't want anybody to think anything like this happened on my watch so I'm not going to call any more attention to it,'" Pelosi said on MSNBC.
Woodward's book is his second on the Trump White House. The first, published in 2018, portrayed Trump in an unflattering light, and the president fumed at staff that he was not interviewed for it, according to former White House officials and Republicans close to the White House. They were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
Trump was convinced that if he had talked to Woodward, it could have led to a more favorable depiction in the book, according to the officials. Trump had always held Woodward in high regard — he considered the journalist as the biggest star in the field — and told aides he must be interviewed if Woodward were to write again, the officials said.
Several Republican senators at the Capitol declined to comment on the new book, telling reporters they hadn't yet read it, even when informed of key passages about the virus. "I just can't, can't comment on it," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
"Could we all have done things differently? Yes, including Congress. We were all a little slow to recognize the severity," Portman said.