US President Donald Trump knew the coronavirus was “deadly stuff” early on in the pandemic despite repeatedly downplaying its severity, an explosive new book is set to reveal.
Mr Trump told author and acclaimed journalist Bob Woodward, who notably broke the Watergate scandal, he knew the virus was serious and deadly on February 7 – three weeks before the first US death from COVID-19 was announced.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” the president said.
“This is deadly stuff.”
According to audio excerpts from interviews Woodward conducted for his forthcoming book, “Rage”, which were published on Wednesday (local time), Mr Trump told the journalist and Washington Post columnist he knew the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus”.
To date, more than 890,000 people worldwide and more than 190,000 Americans have died from coronavirus.
The president’s comments to Woodward about the coronavirus were in stark contrast with what he was saying in public.
On the same day of his February 7 interview with Woodward, the president suggested on Twitter coronavirus would disappear as “the weather starts to warm”.
A month later on March 7, when asked by reporters whether he was concerned about the pandemic affecting the US, Mr Trump said: “No, I’m not concerned at all.”
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year,” he said two days later on Twitter.
“Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus (sic), with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Trump intentionally played down virus
Mr Trump did not declare a national emergency until March 13, more than a month after speaking to Woodward.
In another interview with Woodward, on March 19, Mr Trump admitted that he was intentionally downplaying the threat of the virus.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he said.
“I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In the same interview, the president acknowledged that younger Americans were susceptible to contracting the deadly virus.
“Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people,” Mr Trump said. “It’s plenty of young people.”
Yet just last month, the president suggested that younger Americans “don’t get very sick.”
Woodward also reports that in late January, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Mr Trump that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency.
In an interview on May 6, Woodward asked the president if he remembered O’Brien’s dire warning.
“No, I don’t.” Trump said. “I’m sure if he said it — you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told Woodward that Mr Trump was unfocused in meetings about the US response to the pandemic.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Dr Fauci said, according to Woodward.
“His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”
Trump responds to claims
“Rage,” the follow-up to Woodward’s other book about Mr Trump, “Fear,” is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews Woodward conducted with the president between December 2019 and July 2020. It is set to be published on Tuesday.
At a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday afternoon (local time), press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to defend Mr Trump’s comments.
“The president never downplayed the virus,” McEnany said, despite Mr Trump’s assertion, on tape to Woodward, that he was doing exactly that.
The president told reporters at the White House on Wednesday (local time) that the book was a “political hit job”.
"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,” he said.
"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."
‘He lied to America,’ Biden says
At a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan, Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, quickly seized upon Trump's comments to Woodward.
“He lied to the American people,” Mr Biden said.
“He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. While this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.”
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