Weeks before eventually declaring a national emergency, President Donald Trump admitted to legendary investigative journalist Bob Woodward that he knew the coronavirus that’s now killed 190,000 Americans was airborne, highly contagious, and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
And there are tapes of Trump making these on-record comments, including his admission that he “wanted to always play it down.”
The president, who minimized the virus for weeks before finally and belatedly acknowledging in mid-March that measures needed to be taken to combat it, told Woodward on Feb. 7 that “this is deadly stuff.” At the same time, Trump was publicly downplaying the danger of the virus, claiming repeatedly that it would just “go away” and “disappear,” a refrain he has held onto to this day.
“It goes through the air,” Trump said during that conversation. “That’s always tougher than 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 even your strenuous flus.”
At the same time, the president was insisting publicly that his administration had the virus “under control” and that it was a “problem that’s going away.” Infamously, on Feb. 25, he asserted that the number of cases in the United States would be “down to close to zero” within a couple of days.
After he eventually declared a national emergency in mid-March, the president admitted to Woodward that he was deliberately hiding the catastrophic impact of the virus from the American people.
“I wanted to always play it down,” the president said on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic.”
Experts have said that if the president had acted proactively in February after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 had reached America, and informed the public of the need to socially distance and wash hands, tens of thousands of American lives likely would have been saved.
Trump’s comments—which stand in contrast to his repeated insistence that the virus will merely “disappear”—are among many revealed in Woodward’s upcoming book Rage, due out Sept. 15. CNN obtained the audio recordings of Trump making the remarks in on-record chats with the journalist.
Woodward writes in his book that the president’s head “popped up” after National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s “jarring” briefing on Jan. 28, when he told Trump that the virus was the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. Says later, Trump would implement his partial travel restriction on China.
Months later, however, Trump shrugged off O’Brien’s warning, claiming he didn’t remember it.
“No, I don’t,” Trump told Woodward in May. “I’m sure if he said it—you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”
By his final interview with Woodward in July, the president was taking all the credit and none of the blame for all the actions taken to combat the crisis, which at that point had killed over 150,000 Americans.
“The virus has nothing to do with me,” Trump said that month. “It’s not my fault. It’s—China let the damn virus out.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, meanwhile, denied that the president downplayed the virus or misled the American public on the threat of the pandemic that's resulted in nearly 200,000 dead Americans.
“This president does what leaders do,” she insisted during Wednesday's White House press briefing. “Stay calm and resolute at a time when you face a challenge.”
She also credulously asserted that Trump “never downplayed the virus,” despite what the president said on the record and his repeated promises that coronavirus would simply vanish.
Kicking off his remarks on the economy to auto workers in Warren, Michigan, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden blasted Trump over his comments to Woodward.
“He knew and purposely played it down,” Biden exclaimed. “He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”
“He failed to do his job—on purpose," the former vice president continued. “It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people…It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.”