On Wednesday, Bob Woodward released audio excerpts of interviews with Donald Trump in which the president said he knew how much deadlier COVID-19 is than the flu, even as he was declaring the opposite in public.
Remarkably, mainstream media outlets largely focused their headlines on another related part of Woodward’s reporting, which is that several weeks later Trump acknowledged in private to Woodward that he was “playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” More remarkably still, would-be critics of the president are accepting at face value the most positive interpretation of this remark—that Trump was denying the seriousness of the pandemic as part of an effort to protect the American people from unnecessary alarm. Trump’s challenger in the November election, Joe Biden, for instance, tweeted on Thursday accepting the premise that Trump “didn’t want to tell the truth and create a panic.”
For those, like Biden and most mainstream media outlets, repeating this notion: Were you not alive in February, March, and April, or did you all just forget what happened?
The truth is not that Trump sought to avoid creating a panic among the American people but that he actively downplayed the virus in an effort to avoid panicking the stock market, which he viewed as inextricably tied to his electoral fortunes. It was fine if the American people got sick and died, as long as the public awareness of the threat didn’t rise to a level that would rattle the markets.
How do we know this is what Trump was doing? Well, there are months of voluminous contemporaneous reporting. Here are just a few brief samples.
In an article titled “Trump Faces Credibility Test as He Plays Down Virus Threat” published on Feb. 26—after the stock market nosedive had begun and after Trump had told Woodward the coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu” but when the level of danger was not publicly known—the Associated Press reported that:
During his 36-hour visit to India, Trump received briefings from staff and periodically checked the impact on Wall Street, tweeting at all hours to try to reassure Americans and the markets about the spread of the virus.
Trump expressed deep concern to aides about the effect on the markets, according to White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing. Trump has tied his fortunes to Wall Street more closely than any of his recent predecessors and has made a strong economy his No. 1 argument for reelection.
On April 11, the New York Times reported that on his return from that trip to India, Trump raged over February testimony from CDC official Nancy Messonnier that had alerted Congress and the public to the actual threat of COVID-19 and the extreme measures necessary to combat it, which had sent the markets crashing:
On the 18-hour plane ride home, Mr. Trump fumed as he watched the stock market crash after Dr. Messonnier’s comments. Furious, he called Mr. Azar when he landed at around 6 a.m. on Feb. 26, raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily.
On April 22, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had actually threatened to fire Messonnier:
On Feb. 25, Nancy Messonnier, a CDC official, said the agency was preparing for a potential pandemic and that community spread of the virus was likely. The stock market plunged. … A furious Mr. Trump, flying back to Washington from India, called [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar and threatened to oust Dr. Messonnier.
On April 28, Vanity Fair reported that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner had helped convince Trump to play down the severity of the disease so as not to spook the stock market:
“Jared kept saying the stock market would go down, and Trump wouldn’t get reelected,” a Republican briefed on the internal debates said (a person close to Kushner denies this). … One source briefed on the internal conversations said Kushner told Trump not to declare a national emergency during [a March 11] address because “it would tank the markets.”
On May 19, the Financial Times corroborated the reporting around Kushner’s involvement and Trump’s motivation:
“Jared [Kushner] had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it,” says a Trump confidant who speaks to the president frequently. “That advice worked far more powerfully on him than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate.”
But we don’t have to simply rely on the vast amount of reporting from anonymous White House sources for proof that Trump wanted to avoid panicking the stock markets when he played down the COVID-19 threat. We know this is true because, as with many of the horrible things this president had done, he told us what he was doing.
The day before Messonnier’s testimony, Trump directly linked the coronavirus outbreak to the state of the stock market, tweeting: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
After Messonnier’s subsequent testimony and the ensuing market crash, Trump tweeted that the cable networks were “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets” and that he would be “having a News Conference at the White House, on this subject.”
It was at that Feb. 26 press conference—a direct response to the cable networks “panicking markets” by reporting on the severity of COVID-19—that Trump began a full-court press to stop public awareness of the COVID-19 threat from advancing.
At that press conference, Trump accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose House had just heard CDC testimony about how deadly COVID-19 was, of “trying to create a panic” around the disease in order to “get a political advantage.”
In the same press conference, Trump said, “You don’t want to see panic because there’s no reason to be panicked about it” and repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the common flu. Trump even said that “in some ways it’s easier” than dealing with the flu. He added that unfavorable, unnecessarily panic-inducing media coverage of the coronavirus was partially to blame for the stock crash, saying “in terms of CNBC and in terms of Fox Business, I do believe that that’s a factor.”
A little more than a week later, during a visit to the CDC on March 6, Trump again played down the severity of the threat, misstated the deadliness of the disease, and directly linked his downplaying of the disease to calming economic concerns.
When asked about how COVID-19 was creating “a lot of fear about the economy,” Trump responded that people would continue to spend money in the United States “and then this is ended. It will end. People have to remain calm.” He then gave numbers about the death rate from the disease that he knew to be false, and once again compared it to the flu.
Given all of the news focus on Trump’s remarks to Woodward about downplaying COVID-19 in order to prevent a panic, you’d think this was the first time he’s ever said anything like it. Trump, though, already acknowledged more than five months ago that he had downplayed the disease. During a coronavirus task force press conference on March 31, Trump was asked if he had actually known how severe the disease was when he had previously reassured the American people and he responded: “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible and I knew it could be maybe good.”
Trump went on to say that he had played down the disease because “I want to be positive. I don’t want to be negative. I have to—I’m a positive person.” He added that another reason he played down the virus was that “I’m a cheerleader for the country.”
On Wednesday, after the news of Woodward’s reporting broke, Trump was again asked why he had downplayed the virus—again, a fact we already knew—and he repeated the exact same language from that March press conference.
“The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country, I love our country, and I don’t want people to be frightened,” he said. “I don’t want to create panic.”
On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 405 points, or 1.45 percent.*
Correction, Sept. 10, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus