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Trump Knew, Downplayed Coronavirus Threat: Woodward Recordings

Yuval Rosenberg

President Trump acknowledged in early February that the coronavirus pandemic was more deadly than the flu and said in March that he was intentionally playing down the severity of the virus outbreak, according to recordings of interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for a new book. The private comments contrast sharply with the president’s public claims that the virus would simply “disappear” and was “very much under control.”

In a February 7 phone interview, Trump made clear he knew the threat the novel virus posed:

  • “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.”

As The Washington Post notes, Trump would go on to tell the public that the virus was no worse than the flu, saying it would soon disappear and that his administration had the outbreak under control. Trump claimed later in February that the number of U.S. cases "within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero," and he continued to hold campaign rallies that experts warned could put attendees at risk.

In a March 19 interview with Woodward, Trump admitted he was purposely minimizing the threat from the virus:

  • “To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In that March interview, Trump also told Woodward that “plenty of young people” were contracting the virus. The president would later claim publicly that children are “almost immune” to infection.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, blasted Trump for the recorded comments, saying the president’s decisions betrayed the American people and cost “tens of thousands of lives and millions more of American livelihoods.”

“He knew how deadly it was. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed for months,” Biden said at an event in Michigan. “He failed to do his job, on purpose,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted Wednesday that the president has never lied to the American public about Covid and was exhibiting strong leadership by trying to maintain confidence and calm. “The president never downplayed the virus,” she said.

Trump later reiterated to reporters that he wanted to show strength and avoid public panic. He said his administration has done an “amazing job” in combatting the virus and that the country otherwise would have seen millions of Covid-19 deaths.

Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for his book, “Rage,” due to be released next week. CNN and The Washington Post obtained copies of the book and published details and audio recordings on Wednesday. The book reportedly also includes brutal criticisms of Trump from several of his former top national security officials.

Why it matters: These are potential bombshells that could have Trump again on the defensive about his coronavirus response even as his campaign has tried to shift the focus in the presidential race. Yes, Trump has managed to survive and maintain the support of his base after past damaging comments, but this time the revelations are more directly tied to the voting public’s health and wellbeing — and the Covid death toll is nearing 190,000. One thing is certain: You’ll be hearing a lot more about Woodward’s book over the next week.

Read more about Woodward’s revelations at The Washington Post and CNN.

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