New Woodward book contends Trump knew of COVID-19’s deadliness but downplayed it
President explains in taped interview for book and at news conference that he didn't want to create panic
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WKBT) — Bob Woodward’s new book prompted rage from both sides of the aisle over its claims of recordings of President Donald Trump acknowledging the deadliness of the novel coronavirus even as he told the public the disease would just go away.
The renowned journalist’s book, “Rage,” to be released Sept. 15, quotes Trump as telling the author on Feb. 7: “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”
The tome also quotes Trump as saying, “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” although publicly he was saying that seasonal flus are more lethal than COVID-19.
Trump told Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger, saying, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The Washington Post and CNN printed excerpts of the book Wednesday. It is Woodward’s second book on the president; the first, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” reportedly sold 750,000 copies the day it came out, Sept. 11, 2018.
NPR book reviewer Ron Elving’s report on the Simon and Schuster book advises readers to be sure to read the prologue, noting, “the author puts his best scene on its first page.”
That scene is in the Oval Office, where the two top national security officials are briefing him about COVID-19, telling him that the disease is a major threat and far worse than the flu:
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” says Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth national security adviser. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”
O’Brien’s statement makes the president’s head “pop up,” Woodward writes.
“The date on this conversation leaps out from the book’s very first sentence: Jan. 28,” Elving contends.
The date is significant because it was just a few days after Trump had dismissed the virus at a conference in Switzerland, Elving notes.
“It’s one person coming in from China,” Trump had said. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine. We’ve already handled it pretty well.”
Three days later, pressed by O’Brien and his main deputy, Matt Pottinger, who also was at the Jan. 28 meeting, “and a chorus of scientists including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Center for Disease Control, Trump ordered a shutdown of travel from China to the U.S.,” Elving observes.
Trump later would claim, during interviews with Woodward, in countless speeches and at rallies, that he blocked Chinese travel over the objections of virtually everyone.
Woodward’s book quotes Trump as saying that dozens of advisers were there, and “everyone in that room except me did not want to have that ban.”
Most Republican lawmakers declined to comment on the book Wednesday, and a few senators said they wanted to read it first. However, a few of Trump’s GOP allies stepped to the fore to defend the president, according to quotes in several publications.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina insisted that voters should put more stock in Trump’s actions than his rhetoric during the pandemic in which nearly 190,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.
“I don’t think he needs to be on TV screaming, ‘We’re all going to die,’” Graham said. “His actions shutting the economy down were the right actions.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told reporters that the narrative doesn’t concern him, adding, “I don’t feel like he was ever lying to anybody. He’s a hopeful, upbeat, positive person. … The gravity of it, when it was becoming clearer, was also reflected by him.”
Trump “wanted to give people hope rather than despair,” Cramer said, citing the president’s travel ban on China as proof that he took the virus seriously.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said, “When you’re in a crisis situation, you have to inform people for their public health but you also don’t want to create hysteria.”
Tillis, who, like Graham, is seeking reelection in November, declined further comment because he has not read the book.
Only Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who frequently criticizes Trump, took issue with the book, telling reporters, “It doesn’t sound ideal to me.”
Democrats took off the gloves in slamming the president, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York saying, “There is damning proof that Donald Trump lied. And people died.”
Trump’s rival in the Nov. 3 presidential election, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, saying, “He failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people. It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.”
For his part, Trump restated during a late afternoon news conference at the White House his explanation that he merely was trying to avoid panic.
Woodward, whose book is based in part on 18 taped interviews with Trump, is half of the “Woodstein” duo whose painstaking investigative efforts contributed mightily to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.
He and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein enlisted a source they dubbed “Deep Throat,” to gather information. In 2005, William Mark Felt, who had been the FBI’s deputy director, outed himself as Deep Throat.
During a CNN interview about “Rage,” Bernstein said the contents of Woodward’s recorded interviews with are more incriminating than the facts in the Watergate scandal that dethroned Nixon.
Bernstein told CNN’s Brianna Keilar that Trump is “putting his own narrow presidential re-election efforts in front of the safety, health and well-being of the people of the United States.”
Reports from other media outlets contributed to this report.
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