President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the severity of the coronavirus in public comments to avoid triggering a panic.
“I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward, the author and associate editor for the Washington Post, on March 19 in one of a series of interviews for his book, “Rage,” due for publication this month. CNN published audio recordings of excerpts of the conversations on Wednesday.
Trump told Woodward on February 7 that the virus was transmitted through the air — even as Trump said publicly it was no worse than the seasonal flu and would quickly go away.
“It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch,” he said. “The air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”
He also told Woodward it was more deadly “than even your strenuous flus.”
That same day, Trump had tweeted praise for Chinese president Xi Jinping for his handling of the pandemic.
Woodward’s book says Trump was warned by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in an Jan. 28 meeting that the virus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” according to a Washington Post report on the book.
“This is going to be the roughest thing you face,” O’Brien said, according to Woodward, who wrote that Trump’s head popped up at the dire warning. Trump told Woodward in May that he didn’t remember being told that.
Trump restricted travel from China shortly after. “The risk of infection for Americans remains low,” his health secretary, Alex Azar, said on Jan. 31.
The book is based on 18 interviews that Trump gave Woodward between December and July, the Post reported. It also is based on background conversations with officials and other sources.
The book comes as Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden in polls, with surveys showing Americans are displeased with Trump’s handling with the virus. Trump has sought to shift blame over the pandemic, which has killed more than 189,000 Americans, regularly calling it the “China Virus.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump never lied or mislead the public. “We want to keep the country calm, that’s what leaders do,” McEnany told reporters at the White House. “The president never downplayed the virus.”
Woodward reports that top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said the White House has “rudderless” leadership, and criticized Trump.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said, according to the Post’s account of Woodward’s book. “His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”
On Wednesday, McEnany quoted Fauci praising Trump over the virus. “There’s a litany of praise,” McEnany said.
The book said Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis referred to the president as having “no moral compass” and that he is “unfit” for office.
According to the Post account of the book, former intelligence director Dan Coats told Mattis that, to Trump, “a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks.”
Trump also criticized top military leaders, according to the Post account of the book.
“Not to mention my f—–g generals are a bunch of p—–s. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals,” Trump told one adviser, according to the Post account.
Trump has been under fire for a week after a report by the The Atlantic that he made disparaging comments about American Marines killed in World War I and questioned the value of military service. The White House has disputed parts of that report.