Even as he publicly sought to downplay the threat of the coronavirus to Americans earlier this year, President Trump told author Bob Woodward that he knew the virus was serious and deadly.
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, three weeks before the first U.S. death from COVID-19 was announced.
According to audio excerpts from interviews Woodward conducted for his forthcoming book, “Rage,” which were published Wednesday, Trump told the journalist and Washington Post columnist that he knew the virus — which has now killed more than 890,000 people worldwide and over 190,000 Americans — was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said, adding: “This is deadly stuff.”
The president’s comments to Woodward about the coronavirus were in stark contrast with what he was saying in public:
On the same day of his Feb. 7 interview with Woodward, the president suggested on Twitter that the coronavirus would disappear as “the weather starts to warm.”
On March 7, when asked by reporters whether he was concerned about the pandemic affecting the U.S., Trump said: “No, I’m not concerned at all.”
On March 9, Trump tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Trump did not declare a national emergency until March 13, more than a month after speaking to Woodward.
In another interview with Woodward, on March 19, Trump admitted that he was intentionally downplaying the threat of the virus.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In the same interview, the president acknowledged that younger Americans were susceptible to contracting the deadly virus.
“Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people,” Trump said. “It’s plenty of young people.”
Yet just last month, the president suggested that younger Americans “don’t get very sick.”
Woodward also reports that in late January, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. In an interview on May 6, Woodward asked Trump if he remembered O’Brien’s dire warning.
“No, I don’t.” Trump said. “I’m sure if he said it — you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told Woodward that Trump was unfocused in meetings about the U.S. response to the pandemic.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said, according to Woodward. “His sole purpose is to get reelected.”
“Rage,” the follow-up to Woodward’s other book about Trump, “Fear,” is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews Woodward conducted with the president between December 2019 and July 2020. It is set to be published Tuesday.
At a press briefing at the White House Wednesday afternoon, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to defend Trump’s comments.
“The president never downplayed the virus,” McEnany said, despite Trump’s assertion, on tape to Woodward, that he was doing exactly that.
At a campaign stop in Warren, Mich., Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, quickly seized upon Trump's comments to Woodward.
“He lied to the American people,” Biden said. “He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. While this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.”
In other excerpts from the book, Trump apparently disclosed the existence of a top-secret nuclear weapons system.
“I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said. “We have stuff you haven't even seen or heard about.”
According to Woodward, anonymous sources later confirmed the existence of a new weapons system, but would not provide further details.
In another excerpt published by the Washington Post, Trump disparaged members of his own administration, calling the generals serving under him a “bunch of pussies.”
“My f***ing generals are a bunch of pussies,” Trump told his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, according to Woodward. “They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”
According to the book, one of those generals, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, quietly went to Washington National Cathedral to pray about his concern for the nation’s fate under Trump.
Mattis also told Daniel Coats, former director of national intelligence, that “there may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous” and “unfit” as commander in chief.
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