US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

New York — President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the severity of the coronavirus in public comments to avoid triggering a panic.

“I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward, the author and associate editor for the Washington Post, on March 19 in one of a series of interviews for his book, Rage, due for publication in September. CNN published audio recordings of excerpts of the conversations on Wednesday.

Trump told Woodward on February 7 that the virus was very dangerous and could be transmitted through the air — even as the president made public comments at odds with those statements.

“It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch,” he told Woodward. “The air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”

Trump also told Woodward the virus was more deadly “than even your strenuous flus”.

The president said publicly in February and early March that the US had the virus under control. Trump repeatedly compared it to the flu and said it could fade away.

The same day Trump commented to Woodward, he tweeted praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the pandemic.

Woodward’s book reports that Trump was warned by national security adviser Robert O’Brien in a January 28 meeting that the virus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency”, according to the Washington Post, which said it obtained a copy in advance of publication.

“This is going to be the roughest thing you face,” O’Brien said, according to Woodward, who wrote that Trump’s head popped up at the dire warning. Trump told Woodward in May that he did not remember being told that.

Trump restricted travel from China shortly after. “The risk of infection for Americans remains low,” his health secretary, Alex Azar, said on January 31.

The book is based on 18 interviews that Trump gave Woodward between December and July, the Post reported. It also is based on background conversations with officials and other sources.

The book comes as Trump trails Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden in polls, with surveys showing Americans are displeased with the president’s handling of the virus. Trump has sought to shift blame for the pandemic, which has killed more than 189,000 Americans, to Beijing, regularly calling it the “China Virus”.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary KayLeigh McEnany said Trump never lied or mislead the public. “We want to keep the country calm, that’s what leaders do,” McEnany told reporters at the White House.

“The president never downplayed the virus. Once again, the president expressed calm,” she said. “He was expressing calm, and he was taking early action and his actions are reflective of how seriously he took it.”

But Trump himself told Woodward, on tape, that he “always wanted to play it down”, and there are ample examples of him doing so.

He said February 26 that US cases would fall to “close to zero”. He said the next day the virus would disappear “like a miracle”. He said February 29 that “everything is under control”. On March 9, as Americans began to socially distance themselves to prevent infection, he favourably compared the virus to the flu and said “life and the economy go on”.

Woodward reports that top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci told people the author did not identify that the White House had “rudderless” leadership and criticised Trump.

“His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said, according to the Post’s account of Woodward’s book. “His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”

On Wednesday, McEnany quoted Fauci praising Trump for the government’s response to the virus. “There’s a litany of praise,” McEnany said.

The book said Trump’s former defence secretary James Mattis referred to the president as having “no moral compass” and that he is “unfit” for office.

According to the Post account of the book, former intelligence director Dan Coats told Mattis that, to Trump, “a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks.”

Trump also criticised top military leaders, according to the Post account of the book.

“Not to mention my f***g generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals,” Trump told one adviser, according to the Post account.

Trump has been under fire for a week after a report by The Atlantic that he made disparaging comments about American Marines killed in World War 1 and questioned the value of military service. The White House has disputed parts of that report.

In reaction, reports said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accused Trump of betraying the American people, saying he knowingly lied about the deadliness of the novel coronavirus in what amounted to a "dereliction" of his duty.

Bloomberg

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