Thanks to Bob Woodward, we now have audio recordings that prove what public records have shown: President Donald Trump deliberately played down the coronavirus as it swept through the United States. Trump says he did this to prevent a “panic.” But that excuse is even more damning, because it’s the same rationale he initially gave for China’s censorship of information about the virus. Suppressing “panic” was the core of a corrupt alliance between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The story Trump now tells, that the “China virus” caught him off guard, is a lie. He was well briefed and well aware, not just about the virus, but about China’s deception. As Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima reported months ago in the Washington Post, Trump’s briefers warned him “at the beginning of January” that the virus was spreading in Wuhan and the Chinese government was working “to conceal details of the outbreak.” For weeks thereafter, he was told that “China was suppressing information about the contagion’s transmissibility and lethal toll.” Woodward’s new book, Rage, reports that Trump’s head “popped up” when he was advised, in a briefing on Jan. 28, that the virus would be “the biggest national security threat” of his presidency.
Trump could have warned Americans. Instead, he teamed up with Xi. On Feb. 7, he confided to Woodward what he had just learned from an overnight phone call with the Chinese president. “We’ve got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China,” Trump told Woodward. “It goes through the air,” he said, and “it’s also more deadly” than “even your strenuous flus.” But in public statements that day, Trump didn’t talk about setbacks. He said China was working smoothly with the U.S. government, was managing the virus “really well,” and would take care of it. He tweeted that Xi “will be successful” and the virus would soon be “gone.”
During their phone call, Xi suggested to Trump that in April, warm weather would kill the virus. Trump could have run that idea by his own health officials, all of whom thought it was a bad assumption. But he didn’t. Instead, Trump began to peddle it as a talking point on Twitter, at rallies, and in speeches and interviews. It turned out to be fatally wrong. In late spring and summer, as states yielded to Trump’s pressure and allowed bars and restaurants to reopen, the virus rampaged across the United States, causing tens of thousands of additional deaths.
Why did Trump parrot Xi’s assurances, defend the Chinese government, and join it in shading the truth? One reason is that the two leaders shared an interest in looking as though they had the crisis under control. Another is that Trump wanted China to give American scientists more data about the virus. But there’s a third reason that goes to the heart of Trump’s fraud as a China hawk: He had cut a deal with Xi to get Beijing’s help in the 2020 U.S. election.
The evidence of this pact is straightforward. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, directly witnessed Trump asking Xi for help in getting reelected through a trade deal that included Chinese purchases of American crops. Trump signed the deal on Jan. 15. On Feb. 10, three days after his call with Xi, Trump boasted at a campaign rally that the trade deal would “defeat so many of our opponents.” In the early months of the virus crisis, Trump referred constantly to the deal and hailed China as a benefactor. He didn’t want to lose that income.
Trump bent over backward to defend China, including its censorship of medical data. On Feb. 13, two days after another call with Xi, Trump gave a radio interview to Geraldo Rivera. “We think, and we hope, based on all signs, that the problem goes away in April,” said Trump, “because heat kills this virus.” Rivera asked him, “Did the Chinese tell the truth about this?” “You never know,” Trump replied, but “if you were running it, you’d probably—you wouldn’t want to run out to the world and go crazy and start saying whatever it is, ’cause you don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump wasn’t just defending China’s censorship. He was saying he would have done the same thing. And for the next five weeks, he tried. He issued false assurances, told Americans not to believe alarming news reports, and bullied U.S. health officials into muting their concerns. On the morning of Feb. 26, he phoned Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, and threatened to fire Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, for scaring the stock market by talking candidly about the crisis ahead.
Later that day, Trump seized control of briefings on the virus and, in his first move, withheld information he had just been given about its spread in the United States. Messonnier, for the first time, read from a script that praised Trump by name and included political talking points. And Azar, testifying before Congress hours after his phone call with Trump, argued that the president, in contradicting Messonnier’s previous warnings, was just “trying to calm [the] public.” The health secretary likened control of information in the United States to control of information in China. As “we see in China,” he cautioned, “panic can be as big of an enemy as [the] virus.”
On March 19, Trump returned to the “panic” defense. But this time, instead of using it to justify China’s censorship, he used it to justify his own. “I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward, referring to the virus. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” On March 30, when Trump was asked on Fox News to respond to Chinese “disinformation” about the virus, he scoffed, “They do it, and we do it, and we call them different things.” He saw no difference between Chinese and American propaganda. If Xi was willing to fudge facts, so was Trump.
On Wednesday, as Woodward’s tapes became public, Trump stood by his deceptions. “I don’t want to create panic,” he said. “We don’t want to run around” or “jump up and down and start shouting that we have a problem.” His words mirrored almost exactly what he had said seven months earlier in Xi’s defense. He even rationalized deceiving other governments, as Xi had done. “I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy,” said the American president.
When Trump blames China for unleashing the virus and lying about it, he’s hiding his own complicity. He had a deal with Xi to get help in the election. To protect that deal, he worked with Xi to play down the virus. He adopted the Chinese president’s talking points, defended Chinese censorship, and tried, as far as he could, to emulate that censorship in the United States. Now Trump says he, too, was just trying to avert a panic. He’s not a victim of the Chinese Communist Party. He’s its apprentice.