President Donald Trump admitted to publicly downplaying the real threat of Covid-19 for weeks, even as cities and states shut down and more Americans fell sick, according to excerpts and audio recordings from reporter Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Rage.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In several interviews with Woodward, Trump said he was aware of the threat of the novel coronavirus as early as January, and continued downplaying the true risk the disease presented well into March, when the US’s epidemic took off. (CNN published audio clips from the interviews.)
On February 7, Trump told Woodward, “This is deadly stuff.” He told Woodward that it was five times as deadly as the flu. He acknowledged that the virus “goes through air,” adding, “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.”
Later that month, Trump claimed in public that the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” He also said that “you have 15 people [with the coronavirus], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” In early March, he also publicly compared the coronavirus to the flu, arguing that Covid-19 hadn’t killed as many people in the US as the common flu does.
On March 19, Trump acknowledged to Woodward that Covid-19 could hit young people as well as old people. That conversation is when he said he still wanted to downplay the threat.
By then, it was perfectly clear that the virus was a real threat in the US. Cases and deaths were starting to rise in the New York City region in particular. San Francisco was already under lockdown. Trump was holding daily press briefings about the virus. On the same day he told Woodward he downplayed the crisis, he boasted about his administration having everything under control.
Later in March, Trump insisted in public that the US would be able to go back to normal and reopen by Easter Sunday in April. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” Trump said on March 24. “I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”
Trump told Woodward that his intent was to avoid a panic. But experts say that Trump’s response to the virus — particularly the magical thinking that colored his public comments — fueled the outbreak in America. That fostered a sense of complacency among the public and other leaders, building resistance to necessary public health measures against Covid-19 like social distancing, testing, and masking.
Once states began locking down, Trump pushed them to reopen too early and too quickly — to “LIBERATE” themselves from economic calamity. After his administration suggested people wear masks in public, Trump claimed it was a personal choice, refused to wear a mask himself, and said people wear masks to spite him. He also hyped up unproven and even dangerous treatments, at one point musing about people injecting bleach to treat Covid-19. And he was slow to expand US testing capacity, arguing that more testing made the US look bad by revealing more cases; he instead punted the issue to local, state, and private actors unequipped for the full job.
“It begins in many ways, and you could argue it ends in many ways, with the Trump administration,” Ashish Jha, the faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, previously told me. “If George W. Bush had been president, if John McCain had been president, if Mitt Romney had been president, this would have looked very different.”
This continued, based on Woodward’s reporting and the president’s admission in audio recordings, well after the threat of Covid-19 was clear even to Trump.
The result: The US is doing about seven times worse than the median developed country, ranking in the bottom 20 percent for Covid-19 deaths among wealthy nations. If America had the same death rate as Canada, 100,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.
Trump, however, has admitted no responsibility for all of this. In his last interview with Woodward in July, Trump said, “The virus has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault. … China let the damn virus out.”