President Donald Trump admitted to the American public Wednesday that he had indeed downplayed the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, conceding that he didn't “want people to be frightened.”
“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,” Trump told a reporter after giving remarks on possible Supreme Court appointments when asked if he did so “to reduce panic.”
Trump’s comments came just hours after CNN published excerpts and audio from Rage, famed journalist Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, that showed the president admitting to Woodward that he understated the dire impact of the coronavirus despite knowing how deadly the virus could be.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward in the audio of a March 19 interview obtained and published by CNN. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The stunning on-the-record words to Woodward, which came less than a week after Trump found himself embroiled in controversy over a report in The Atlantic about disturbing comments he reportedly made about members of the nation’s armed forces that had been killed, further threw the president’s much criticized response to the pandemic into turmoil.
As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 190,000 people in the United States had been killed by the coronavirus according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Trump also declared, “I think we've done from every standpoint an incredible job.”
When asked by one reporter how he could convince the public that he could be trusted, Trump said, "We have to have leadership."
“We have to show leadership and the last thing that you want to do is create a panic in the country,” Trump said. “This was a horrible thing. It was sent to us by China. Should not have happened. Should never have happened. This is a disgusting, terrible situation that was foisted upon us. We have to show, we just don't want to use, the best word is panic, we don't want to have to show panic. We're not going to show panic. And that's exactly what I did.”
Trump also defended himself by saying he had been “very open whether it's to Woodward or anybody else.”
“It's just another political hit job," Woodward said. “But whether it was Woodward or anybody else, you cannot show a sense of panic or you're going to have bigger problems than you ever had before.”
Despite making those comments to Woodward just days after the country shifted into shutdown mode in an effort to halt the aggressive spread of the virus, Trump continued to move forward publicly with far less concern when it came to the strictness of coronavirus policies and he has continued to emphasize a far more optimistic view of his administration’s success at controlling the virus, even as the nation’s death toll has continued to climb.
And even as the pandemic has raged on, Trump has continued to call on states to loosen their coronavirus policies as Republican vitriol towards public health measures has become a consistent theme in America during the public health crisis.
In a Feb. 7 interview with Woodward, audio obtained by CNN showed that Trump was aware of how aggressively the virus could spread (“it goes through air, Bob… you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,”) and made clear to his interviewer that COVID-19 was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
The flu comment was particularly striking given how Trump used a Fox News town hall on March 24 to frequently compare COVID-19 to the flu in an apparent effort at downplaying the situation. In that same conversation he also pushed for the country to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” even as the virus was beginning to wreak havoc in the United States.
The Washington Post also reported on key criticism of Trump in Woodward’s book that came from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has often been Trump’s foil during the pandemic.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Woodward quoted Fauci as saying according to The Washington Post. “His sole purpose is to get reelected.”
-- With additional reporting from Justin Baragona