On Wednesday, the Washington Post published excerpts of reporter Bob Woodward’s new book Rage. In one passage, backed up by audio recordings, President Donald Trump acknowledged the severity of the COVID-19 crisis months before he would ever admit its seriousness in public. Indeed, even as Trump was telling the public to treat the disease “like you treat the flu” and downplaying its deadliness in press conferences and interviews, he was telling Woodward he knew it was far more dangerous than the flu.
Woodward’s recording makes it clear that the president was not simply misinformed or being wishful about the virus, but deliberately lying about what he knew. As the country got off to a slow and ineffective response to the virus, Trump would say that the pandemic “came out of nowhere” and that the danger could not have been foreseen. In fact, he was specifically aware of the threat, and chose to misinform the public about it.
In a conversation with Woodward on Feb. 7, Trump said that he had confidence that China’s president, Xi Jinping, had the disease under control, but added ominously:
It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. … And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your—you know, your, even your strenuous flus. You know, people don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right? Pretty amazing. And then I say, well, is that the same thing? This is more deadly. 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.
Throughout February and early March, Trump publicly downplayed the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic, regularly compared it to the flu, and even issued statements directly contradicting what he’d already told Woodward about his awareness of the disease’s death rate.
During a press conference on Feb. 26, for instance, Trump encouraged the public to “view this the same as the flu” and to “treat this like you treat the flu.”*
Less than three weeks earlier, he told Woodward the disease was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Also, in a Fox News appearance on March 4, Trump told Sean Hannity that his “hunch” was that the deadliness of the disease was being exaggerated.
“A lot of people will have this and it’s very mild, they’ll get better very rapidly, they don’t even see a doctor, they don’t even call a doctor,” Trump said. “When you do have a death … all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent.”
He continued: “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent.”
Again, to Woodward less than one month earlier, he said “this is more deadly. This is 5 percent.”
Five days after his Fox News interview, on March 9, Trump again sent out a tweet comparing COVID-19 to the common flu.
At the time Trump made these statements, only a handful of people had died in the United States of COVID-19. Since then, more than 189,000 people have died in the United States from the disease. Recent projections say that total could double by the start of next year.
In a follow-up conversation with Woodward on March 19 after he had acknowledged privately the threat of the virus but played it down publicly, Trump told the journalist that “I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
During her press briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “The president never downplayed the virus.”
Correction, Sept. 10, 2020: This post originally misstated when Trump’s press conference took place. It was Feb. 26, not Feb. 27.