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Trump Admits Playing Down Coronavirus's Severity, According To New Woodward Book

President Trump addresses supporters Tuesday at a campaign rally in Winston Salem, N.C.
Sean Rayford
Getty Images
President Trump addresses supporters Tuesday at a campaign rally in Winston Salem, N.C.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET

President Trump is defending himself after interviews from a new book by legendary reporter Bob Woodward reveal that Trump acknowledged the deadliness of the coronavirus in early February and admitted in March to playing down its severity.

"This is deadly stuff," the president told Woodward in a Feb. 7 conversation, according to the book, which is called Rage. "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 flu."

But at the time, Trump was publicly saying that the virus was less of a concern.

On Feb. 10, he told supporters in New Hampshire: "Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away." Later that month, Trump tweeted that the virus was "very much under control in the USA."

And in March, he compared the novel coronavirus to the seasonal flu, saying in a Fox News interview, "We've never closed down the country for the flu."

Trump's claims came despite scientists' relatively early findings that the coronavirus presented significantly more challenges than the seasonal flu because of its novelty, high hospitalization rate and other difficulties.

The coronavirus has now been blamed for nearly 190,000 deaths in America.

Trump responds: "I don't want to create panic"

About a month after the February conversation, Trump admitted to Woodward that he had been playing down the virus's severity.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward on March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

One study has estimated that if the United States had implemented social distancing measures just a week earlier in March, some 36,000 lives could have been saved.

Trump told reporters on Wednesday that being publicly positive about the virus was a sign of good leadership.

"We had to show calm," he said.

Asked whether he misled the public by downplaying the coronavirus to reduce panic, Trump said, "Well I think if you said 'in order to reduce panic,' perhaps that's so."

He added: "The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don'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. We want to show confidence, we want to show strength, we want to show strength as a nation, and that's what I've done. And we've done very well."

The president went on to call the book "just another political hit job," defending the administration's response to the virus.

Biden: "Life-and-death betrayal"

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, addressed the revelations on Wednesday, calling them a "life-and-death betrayal of the American people."

Speaking in Michigan while on a campaign stop, Biden said Trump "knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months. He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while the deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose."

"Dangerous" and "unfit"

Woodward also documents Trump's relationships with some former leaders in his administration, including James Mattis, who was defense secretary; Dan Coats, former director of national intelligence; and Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state.

Mattis, according to the book, privately visited Washington National Cathedral, where he prayed for the nation. Mattis, according to Woodward, called Trump "dangerous" and "unfit," and told Coats, "There may come a time when we have to take collective action."

Coats, a friend of Vice President Pence's, considered resigning because of Trump's handling of Russia, but Pence said, according to Woodward: "Look on the positive side of things that he's done. ... You can't go."

Tillerson's relationship with Trump was poor, but it was especially bad with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Woodward notes. Tillerson found Kushner's dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "nauseating to watch."

All three men quickly found themselves out of favor with the president and ultimately either resigned or were fired.

"Biggest threat of your presidency"

NPR obtained a copy of Woodward's book ahead of its Sept. 15 release.

According to it, Trump was warned in early January by national security adviser Robert O'Brien that the virus would be the "biggest national security threat you face in your presidency."

Trump's handling of the virus has come under severe scrutiny as many parts of the U.S. moved more quickly to abandon mitigation measures than other developed nations, even as cases of the virus surged nationwide.

The president has made calling for states to resume normal operations a key component of his reelection campaign, and he aided in the politicization of mask usage. Researchers have found wearing masks to be effective in slowing the virus's spread.

The president has continued to hold large (mostly outdoor) rallies, at which many attendees do not wear masks, despite public health guidance against large, densely packed gatherings of people.

The president has said he expects to see a fast-tracked vaccine available to the public by no later than the end of the year and possibly earlier.

Democrats have expressed concern and cast doubt on Trump's promises to deliver a safe and effective vaccine under such a short deadline.

Washington Desk editors Dana Farrington and Krishnadev Calamur contributed to this report.

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Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.