Politics

Was Bob Woodward Wrong to Withhold Trump’s Comments About the Coronavirus?

Woodward in a suit and tie looking to his left
Bob Woodward at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at Washington Hilton on April 29, 2017. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Bob Woodward became Bob Woodward thanks to his reporting on Richard Nixon’s White House. All the President’s Men chronicles Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s race to confirm stories about the Watergate scandal and get them into print as quickly as possible. Those stories, when published by the Washington Post, altered the course of American history.

In his many books since the 1990s, Woodward has taken a different journalistic approach. To get those stories, he’s made agreements with presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and members of their administrations, that rely on delaying publication. Presidents and administration officials have agreed to speak freely with Woodward, and Woodward has waited to publish their comments until his books get released.

This practice has led to criticism that Woodward sits on material that’s in the public interest to goose his book sales. In 2005, for instance, he apologized to his editors at the Post for withholding information about the Valerie Plame case for more than two years.

The latest such controversy emerged on Wednesday, when an excerpt from Woodward’s forthcoming book Rage revealed that Donald Trump knew the coronavirus was much deadlier than the common flu as far back as February. (“This is more deadly,” Trump told Woodward. “This is 5 per—you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.”) Trump’s interviews with Woodward directly contradicted the president’s repeated public statements in the first crucial months of the pandemic. And yet, Woodward withheld them, until now. In interviews on Wednesday, Woodward said he didn’t reveal the contents of his conversations with Trump in part because he wasn’t sure whether the president was telling the truth.

This revelation ignited a lively discussion among Slate’s writers and editors, who weighed in on Slack on the journalistic ethics of Woodward’s approach as well as the potential political and medical impact if he’d revealed his conversations with Trump as they happened. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: Respectfully, to Twitter … Bob Woodward reporting this in March would not have changed the course of history.

Josh Keating: Does the part about him knowing COVID was bad seem … actually damaging to Trump? I can’t tell anymore.

Jeremy Stahl: I just think it would be so easy to contrast these clips in a 60-second ad. So easy.

“On March 4, President Trump downplayed the deadliness of the coronavirus, saying it was ‘way under 1 percent’ [plays clip]. But one month earlier, in private, he told Bob Woodward the truth [plays clip]. He knew how deadly it was. He lied. He did nothing. Would you trust him to keep you safe another four years?”

It would take a few minutes to turn the contradictory statements into an ad.

That’s where the potential damage lies, IMO.

Mathis-Lilley: My brain schema for this stuff right now is “opportunity cost.”

Stahl: That too, a lot.

Mathis-Lilley: Does it dent his 40–42 percent, no, nothing does, because there is no God and no justice, but he will obsess over it for four days that he should be spending talking about jobs numbers and sending out another round of checks.

But yes, [it] definitely seems like it will be used for ads to make the virus “salient,” which is what Joe Biden wants.

Tom Scocca: It’s bad for him.

Stahl: Also, though, you don’t have to dent the 40–42 number. You just have to reinforce and solidify the 50–52 number. These things will do that.

Mathis-Lilley: Yep.

Scocca:

Keating: Aside from the Woodward aspect of it, interested in the psychology of knowing that there’s a deadly thing that’s going to kill lots of people and then deciding not to make a big deal of it. Even assuming he’s purely self-interested, in what world doesn’t that catch up to him eventually?

Seth Maxon: “One day it’s going to magically disappear.”

Susan Matthews: That seems very normal Trump-psychology to me; he exists on the constant edge of potential catastrophe.

Stahl: From Woodward’s perspective, how the hell is he supposed to know the truth of what Trump is saying?

Like, if it were me, I would probably just assume Trump was lying to me.

Matthews: Yeah, I think this too.

Keating: True—and the juxtaposition of this with how close we came to war with North Korea really hammers that home. That shoe didn’t drop. This one did.

Julia Craven: I mean I don’t think it would have altered history.

It’s still irresponsible.

Mathis-Lilley: I agree that it’s a bad norm, that reporters do this.

I just don’t think [Woodward] has 180,000 deaths on his hands.

Jordan Weissmann: No.

Also, can we admit that this might actually do more good for humanity landing close to the election, even if it just eats up a couple news cycles?

Mathis-Lilley: Now there’s the #slatepitch.

Craven: I don’t think [Woodward] has 180,000 deaths on his hands either.

Still, if you have proof the president is lying about the severity of COVID, reporting that might convince just a few more people to listen to the scientists.

Weissmann: Maybe. But also, many of those people who need convincing are so far gone it might not.

This is, of course, completely unknowable. And the principled move here would be to report it at the time.

Stahl: Normally I am a strong proponent of the book deal sourcing thing being OK and respecting it. I don’t know what I think here.

Weissmann: I’m just saying, it’s plausible Woodward’s timing here will work out marginally better for the country.

Maxon: I don’t know. We’re a month ahead of the Access Hollywood tape anniversary. That didn’t kill thousands of people, but still.

I am skeptical it will change more minds now.

People already know he’s been lying.

Sam Adams: It was incredibly obvious he was lying all along. I wish I believed this would have been the silver bullet that changed things, but he was on tape admitting to assaulting women and …

Weissmann: Right.

Craven: It was obvious to us.

Maxon: This is confirmation of an assumption many more hold right now—after tons of people have died—than held at the time.

Stahl: I think it’s a different thing to have Slate.com assume and tell you he’s lying, and then to hear the back-to-back clips that show plainly that he’s lying.

And to hear that over and over and over again, because it’s constantly on your TV, because Joe Biden’s war chest is currently $360 million that he is going to spend on ads for the next two months.

Craven: And the COVID stuff bothers people more than the sexual assault allegations, I think, because more of his constituents are feeling the brunt of COVID—which is gross because you shouldn’t need to experience something personally to get it. But a lot of people do.

Mathis-Lilley: To take the other side of my own argument, a sound clip of “it’s way deadlier than the flu” could have pushed Fox coverage in a certain direction that had utility.

Of course, him saying “it’s the same as flu” at the same time … muddles.

Weissmann: He also could have just said, “I’ve received new information and changed my mind.” Though I guess the playing-it-down part makes that trickier.

Josh Levin:

Maxon: Yeah, I am more mad now than I was when this conversation started.

Craven: We’ll never know how that tape could have shifted the political support he got from governors or anything.

Keating: A world in which Woodward does stuff like burn source agreements is not a world where Trump tells him stuff like this. But also I get the argument that as a one-time thing this was worth it.

Slate’s editorial director for podcasts is Bob Woodward’s son-in-law. He did not participate in this conversation or have any role in editing this article.