President Donald Trump admitted to playing down the threat of the coronavirus pandemic in interviews with journalist Bob Woodward in the early days of the virus’ spread across the U.S., contradicting his public comments about the danger of the virus, recordings show.
The comments were made during interviews Woodward, an editor at the Washington Post, conducted and included in his new book “Rage,” which is set to be released later this month.
Recordings of the interviews were also obtained by CNN.
“Well, I think, Bob to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump said of the virus during a March 19 interview, a recording shows.
The comments came after an earlier interview in February in which Trump called the virus “deadly stuff.”
“It goes through air, Bob. 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,” the president said, according to the recording CNN obtained. “And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your — you know even your strenuous flus.”
A Washington Post article includes the quote of Trump calling the virus more deadly than the flu. It also includes an audio file of Woodward telling Trump he was recording.
But the president has publicly and repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the flu to downplay its severity, including in the weeks before and after he admitted the severity of the coronavirus in private to Woodward.
In early March he tweeted that the flu was more deadly than the coronavirus, arguing the country shouldn’t shut down in response.
He doubled down on those comments later that month during an interview with Fox News, pushing for reopening the country.
“We lose thousands of people a year to the flu,” Trump told Fox News in late March. “We never turn the country off. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say stop making cars, we don’t want any cars any more. We have to get back to work.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were between 24,000 and 62,000 flu-related deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to a preliminary report. It estimates about 34,000 died during the 2018-2019 season and that 61,000 died during the 2017-2018 season.
As of Wednesday, nearly 190,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in the United States since the first cases were reported in January, according to Johns Hopkins University.
When asked about the Woodward interviews, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday that Trump did “absolutely not” mislead the public about the threat of COVID-19.
“This president — at a time when you’re facing insurmountable challenges it’s important to express confidence, it’s important to express calm,” she said.
She went on to say the president “doesn’t want to see chaos” and touted his response to the pandemic. She also said he’s “listened to his medical experts.”
Lily Adams — spokesperson for DNC War Room, the Democratic National Committee’s “research and rapid response unit” focused on battleground states — said in a statement that Trump “admitted in his own words that he lied to the American people from the very start of the pandemic for his own political gain” and that it cost an “untold number of lives and caused devastating economic harm.”
“With Trump it’s always ‘me first’ and the American people last,” Adams said. “In November, the American people will hold him accountable.”
The president has been at odds with public health experts, questioning their expertise in some cases and claiming efforts to promote face masks and keep schools closed were politically motivated against him, ABC News reports. He’s also held “mega rallies” despite advice against doing so.
Efforts to downplay the severity of the virus have continued recently as the country remains in the grips of the pandemic with a possible second wave looming.
The president retweeted a post that made false claims about a CDC report on the virus. The tweet said the CDC updated its data to “admit that only 6 percent” of people die from COVID-19, McClatchy New reported in late August. The tweet was later removed by Twitter, and experts have since explained what the report actually found.
“When you see that ‘only 6%’ of people had COVID-19 as the sole reason listed on their death forms, what it means is that there were only a small fraction of people who died of the disease who didn’t have any other underlying or immediate causes noted by the medical certifiers,” epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz wrote in a blog post. “This is completely unsurprising, as it’s pretty rare that someone wouldn’t have at least one issue caused by coronavirus prior to their death, and all it means is that in 94% of cases people who had COVID-19 also developed other issues, or had other problems at the same time.”
On Labor Day, Trump said the U.S. is “hopefully rounding the final turn” of the pandemic, while health experts have predicted a resurgence in cases soon as the country moves into the fall and winter seasons.