WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump acknowledged Wednesday that he intentionally played down the deadly nature of the rapidly spreading coronavirus last winter as an attempt to avoid a “frenzy,” part of an escalating damage-control effort by his top advisers to contain the fallout from a forthcoming book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
Trump’s comments came hours after excerpts from the book and audiotapes of some of the 18 separate interviews he conducted with the renowned author were released, fueling a sense of outrage over the president’s blunt description of knowing that he was not telling the truth about a virus that has killed nearly 190,000 Americans.
Democrats, led by their presidential nominee Joe Biden, denounced Trump’s actions as part of a deliberate effort to lie to the public for his own political purposes when other world leaders took decisive action to warn their people and set those nations on a better path to handling the pandemic.
“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 in front of the United Auto Workers training facility in Warren, Mich., where he delivered a speech on a “Made in America” plan for the economy.
Biden called Trump’s actions “a life and death betrayal of the American people.”
Trump said publicly that he did nothing wrong.
“So the fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don’t want people to be frightened,” Trump told reporters at the White House after announcing his potential Supreme Court nominees if he wins reelection. “I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”
Public health officials have said for months that clearly educating the public on the lethal nature of covid-19, the disease that is caused by the novel coronavirus, is the most important tool in reining in its spread, so that people will adhere to social distancing guidelines and wear masks.
Trump, who regularly flouts those guidelines at White House events and campaign rallies, rejected the criticism Wednesday that his mistruths helped create a false sense of security in the public and led to a more widespread transmission of the disease than in other leading nations.
“We have to have leadership. We have to show leadership. And the last thing you want to do is create a panic in a country,” he said, adding that he was “very open” with Woodward while calling the book “another political hit job.”
Privately, however, the president realized the book would not be good for his political fortunes. For weeks, he told advisers that Woodward’s book was likely to be negative, according to a senior administration official who spoke directly with Trump and shared the private discussion on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.
But the White House had done little to prepare for it, officials said. Initially, surrogates received bland talking points that included comments from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s Wednesday briefing.
The president’s top political advisers, including campaign manager Bill Stepien, have long viewed the coronavirus as the president’s biggest albatross and have argued for Trump to address it more forcefully. The book, particularly with the audio, could be a potent attack area for Biden’s campaign, Republicans close to Trump said, with internal and public polling consistently showing a majority of voters do not agree with the president’s response to the pandemic.
“Our problem is that every day we are focused on something other than defining Joe Biden as a liberal is a bad day for us,” said one campaign adviser, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about internal deliberations.
The book reports that in a Feb. 7 call, Trump revealed to Woodward that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly.
Trump advisers said that the president reacted with fury after Woodward’s last book, blaming former counselor Kellyanne Conway and other advisers for not bringing Woodward in for interviews.
“It would have been a better book if I talked to him,” Trump said in 2018, according to a former senior administration official. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said Trump complained for more than a week about Woodward’s last book, interrupting meetings with broadsides about the author.
For this latest book, Trump encouraged others to speak with Woodward and would often mention the journalist in conversations with other advisers, suggesting that he might call him again. Some of the conversations between the two men, a White House official said, were precipitated by Trump - who thought Woodward was more receptive to a favorable narrative about his presidency.
There was widespread finger-pointing in Trump’s orbit on Wednesday about the book and its revelations, but some advisers noted that Trump is the one who drove the decision to cooperate.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats recounted the myriad ways Trump publicly tried to dismiss the virus.
“He understood better than he let on when he was calling it a hoax,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday afternoon. “His delay, distortion and denial about the threat is responsible for many of the deaths and infections . . . not all of them, but many of them could have been prevented.”
“There is damning proof that President Trump lied and people died,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters.
In a familiar routine on Capitol Hill, Republicans ducked from the latest Trump controversy, almost uniformly asserting they had yet to read Woodward’s book, "Rage,' despite its revelations consuming a day’s worth of news.
“Yeah, I haven’t looked at the Woodward book,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after a GOP luncheon. “That’s a good question for the White House.”
Some Republicans struggled to understand Trump’s logic in misleading the public but supported the idea of not creating mass panic in the early stages of the crisis.
“My only guess is he’s probably talking about not creating a panic and, you know, some sort of overreaction to it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said.
But Rubio acknowledged more straight talk could have helped the public prepare better.
“A little more alarm about the seriousness early on could have made a little bit of a difference,” he told reporters.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he wasn’t able to weigh in on Trump’s remarks without specifically knowing the context in which he said them, even after a reporter read Portman the relevant passage from Woodward’s book.
“He did some things early on that were helpful,” Portman said of Trump. “And could we all have done things differently? Yes, including Congress.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defended Trump’s tone.
“I don’t think he needs to go on TV and scream that we’re all going to die,” Graham said.
The Trump line of defense began early Wednesday afternoon with McEnany asserting that the president had never lied to the American people and was trying to project calm.
“This president does what good leaders do,” McEnany said. “Good leaders . . . stay calm and resolute at a time when you face an insurmountable challenge.”
Asked whether Trump had deliberately misled the American people, McEnany said, “Absolutely not.”
“The president has never lied to the American public on covid,” she said, adding, “The president has been clear-eyed with the American people.”