Sept. 9, 2020 -- President Donald Trump knew in early February, before the first known U.S. death from COVID-19, that the new coronavirus could be transmitted through the air and was deadlier than the seasonal flu.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” he said in a Feb. 7 call with journalist Bob Woodward. “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,” he said.
At the time, Trump was telling Americans that the U.S. was in little danger and that the outbreak would soon go away on its own.
Asked about those statements in March, Trump said he wanted to downplay the threat. "I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
In the same interview, he went on to acknowledge the gravity of the threat facing even young adults. "Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people," Trump said.
These admissions by the president are part of series of 18 taped, on-the-record interviews with Woodward, who rose to fame for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal. Portions of those tapes aired today on CNN and on the website of The Washington Post. In addition to the tapes, the news outlets also received advance copies of Woodward’s new book about the president, Rage, which will hit store shelves next week.
In a CNN report on the interview, Woodward says he expected the president to talk about impeachment, since he had just been acquitted by the Senate. Woodward says he was surprised when Trump’s focus was on the virus.
The U.S. bears the grim distinction of leading the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths. So far, the coronavirus has infected 6.3 million Americans and killed more than 190,000. Compared to other wealthy nations, the U.S. has fared poorly, struggling to come up with ways to contain the virus.
The economy crashed in the wake of the national response, leaving more than 14 million Americans without jobs and pushing the unemployment rate to a high of 14%, one of the worst recorded in the modern era.
In a news conference from the White House shortly after the tapes were released, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained that president’s remarks this way: “At a time when you’re facing insurmountable challenges, it’s important to express calm.” When pressed by a reporter, she denied that the president had misled Americans about the threat from the virus. “This president does what leaders do. Good leaders. It’s stay calm and resolute when you face an insurmountable challenge.”
According to fact-checking by The Washington Post, the president said that the virus will go away on its own 31 times in the first 3 months of the year.
William Hanage, PhD, an epidemiologist in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says the president’s desire not to cause panic is understandable and a core tenet of public health. But he says Trump went about it the wrong way.
“It was not surprising that he knew. What is surprising is that rather than get ready and prepare people for the crisis ahead, he tried to deny it,” he says.