“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump reportedly told journalist Bob Woodward. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
President Donald Trump privately admitted that he knew the novel coronavirus was dangerous and “more deadly than even your strenuous flu” before the first confirmed death in the US, according to a CNN report on journalist Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage.” Trump also reportedly acknowledged that he had repeatedly downplayed the virus in public.
Across several interviews with Woodward between January and March—which were recorded with the president’s permission—Trump said he knew about the dangers of the virus earlier than previously known, adding that it might be five times “more deadly” than the flu.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on Feb 7. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president added.
It would be more than another month before Trump declared the virus a national emergency, and during that time—and for months after—the president publicly downplayed the virus, repeatedly saying it would “disappear” or go away, or that it was comparable to the flu.
In reality, Trump knew as early as January that the virus could become a devastating global pandemic. On Jan. 28, Trump received a warning from his national security adviser Robert O’Brien that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat” of Trump’s presidency. Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed, saying the virus could be as devastating as the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed roughly 50 million people across the world.
Trump has been roundly criticized for downplaying the virus—a charge he has publicly denied. But in a March 19 interview with Woodward, Trump admitted that his decision to minimize the severity of the virus was a calculated strategy.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said, according to Woodward’s book. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Six months later, the US is approaching 200,000 deaths.
Woodward interviewed Trump 18 times between December 2019 and July 2020. In their final interview, Trump denied any responsibility for the devastation the US has suffered under his watch. “The virus has nothing to do with me,” Trump told Woodward. “It’s not my fault. It’s—China let the damn virus out.”
The Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden reacted to the revelations contained in Woodward’s book on Wednesday, delivering a stinging rebuke of Trump.
“He knew how deadly it was—it was much more deadly than flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months,” Biden said during a speech in Warren, Michigan. “He knew how dangerous it was and 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.”
Here are five other revelations from “Rage,” which will be published on Sept. 15:
- Trump also knew in March that “plenty of young people” were contracting COVID-19 and falling ill, months before he pressured schools and colleges to reopen for in-person classes. Even recently as Aug. 5, Trump said children were “almost immune” to the virus.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, is quoted telling associates that Trump’s “attention span is like a minus number” and that “his sole purpose is to get reelected.”
- Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis is quoted as calling Trump “dangerous” and “unfit,” and describing him as a man with “no moral compass.” According to Woodward, Mattis said that Trump’s foreign policy decisions showed foreign rivals “how to destroy America.” A Mattis aide also reportedly heard Trump describe his “f***ing generals” as “a bunch of pussies” because they cared more about alliances than trade deals.
- Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reportedly believed that Russian President Vladmir Putin “had something on Trump.” Coats could find “no other explanation” for the president’s behavior, Woodward wrote.
- Woodward obtained 27 “love letters” between Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un, in which the two speak effusively about each other. Kim calls Trump “Your Excellency,” and writes in one letter that meeting again would be “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” In another, Kim writes that the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a response from the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden.