The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” includes reporting from the author’s 18 on-the-record interviews with President Donald Trump conducted between December and July. The Post and other news organizations, including CNN, posted audio from some of those interviews. Woodward, an associate editor with the Post, is most famous for breaking the story of Watergate with fellow journalist Carl Bernstein.
One of the most fundamental duties of an elected official dealing with a life-or-death crisis is to tell the public the truth, however unpleasant.
People need accurate information in order to make sound decisions for their safety and their families’ safety.
This is why we also feel compelled today to highlight some of what President Trump told Woodward and to ask, in hindsight, how many lives might have been saved had the president been honest from the start with the American public about the risks that COVID-19 posed to them and their loved ones.
“I’m a cheerleader for this country,” Trump said Wednesday. “I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic.”
But accurate information, clearly and calmly delivered, alleviates panic. It helps people to make smart choices.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the U.S. had lost more than 190,000 people to the pandemic as of Wednesday evening.
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium has an official seating capacity of 106,572. Visualize a packed stadium on a pre-pandemic football Saturday — that’s a bit over half of the lives lost.
On Jan. 28, according to Woodward’s book, Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told the president what lay ahead.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” O’Brien said, referring to the novel coronavirus. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”
In a recording from an interview with Woodward months later, on May 6, Trump can be heard saying he didn’t remember O’Brien’s warning, but added, “I’m sure he said it — nice guy.”
On Jan. 30, Trump said this of the virus: “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.”
A timeline on JustSecurity.org, a website based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, lays out the key dates in the U.S. response to COVID-19.
On Feb. 2, the Trump administration restricted travel from China — after 45 other countries imposed travel restrictions related to China, according to JustSecurity.org.
Five days later, on Feb. 7, Trump explained to Woodward just how lethal the novel coronavirus could be.
“It goes through air, Bob,” Trump said in an interview with Woodward in words captured on tape. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, 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. ... This is deadly stuff.”
Indeed, Trump said, this virus would be about five times more deadly than the flu.
As The Washington Post pointed out, Trump was telling the American public at that time that the novel coronavirus was no worse than a seasonal flu.
On Feb. 19, Trump urged the public not to worry about the novel coronavirus. “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus.”
On Feb. 24, he tweeted this: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Then on Feb. 26, Trump said this: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
On Feb. 27, he uttered this now-famous quote: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
A day later, at a rally in South Carolina, he called Democratic concerns about COVID-19 “their new hoax.”
‘Playing it down’
In an interview with Woodward on March 19, the president admitted to minimizing the risks of the virus.
“Really to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down,” Trump can be heard saying in a taped recording. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In that same interview, the president — who later insisted that children were “almost immune” to COVID-19 — told Woodward that he’d learned that young people could suffer from the illness.
“Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people, too, plenty of young people,” Trump said.
For months, Americans and some elected officials — reassured by the president’s words — made decisions to keep gathering in crowds, to ignore health experts’ growing knowledge about the effectiveness of mask-wearing.
Indeed, encouraged by a president who still rarely wears a mask in public (despite learning in February how easily the virus was transmitted), Americans made masks the emblem of a counterproductive culture war.
Shutting down the economy was viewed as a political issue from the start, rather than as a public health strategy, and any opportunity to foster national unity in the face of a lethal enemy was gone.
And the president — instead of stressing that COVID-19 was far more serious than the flu, and emphasizing that face masks could help limit the infection’s spread — downplayed the risks.
This made things exponentially harder for health care workers. And for Black Americans, who have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 — while facing another crisis, over injustice and racism.
In a June 19 interview, Woodward asked the president if he believed, as a person with privileged status, that he had to try to “understand the anger and the pain” felt by Black Americans.
“You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you?” Trump responded dismissively. “Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Listen to the recordings. Tell us what you think.