Reeling from the fallout of another crisis of his own creation, President Donald Trump was trying to move past revelations that he was determined to play down the threat of the coronavirus as he headed for a rally in the battleground state of Michigan on Thursday.
But the president was facing renewed pushback from local leaders worried that his rallies are growing in size and flouting public health guidelines intended to halt the spread of the virus. This week, the state of Nevada became the first to scuttle Trump’s plans for rallies initially set for Las Vegas and Reno. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has also raised alarms about Thursday’s event.
The back-and-forth comes as the White House is grappling with fallout from a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump spoke frankly about the dangers posed by the virus – even as he downplayed them publicly – and admitted he had tried to mislead the public. The book has refocused attention on Trump’s handling of the virus, a subject he has tried to shift away from less than two months before the November 3 presidential election.
Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2020
In a tweet on Thursday morning, Trump defended his comments admitting that he had been warned about the danger of the virus.
“Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months,” Trump wrote. “If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
Woodward has defended his decision to hold off by saying he needed time to make sure Trump’s private comments were true.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, days after he declared a national emergency. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
CNN on Wednesday broadcast interviews Woodward did with Trump for his new book, Rage, which is due to go on sale next Tuesday.
The Republican president, assailed by his Democratic rival Joe Biden about the US government response to the coronavirus, played down the crisis for months as it took hold and spread across the country.
In the March 19 conversation, Trump told Woodward that some “startling facts” had emerged showing the extent of those at risk: “It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.”
In taped conversations released along with the excerpts, Trump insisted he did not want to create “panic”. But his comments also raised fresh questions about how he has managed the defining crisis of his presidency, one that has killed about 190,000 Americans so far, with no end in sight.
“The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened,” Trump said at the White House. “We’ve done well from any standard.”
According to the interviews, CNN and The Washington Post reported, Trump knew the virus was dangerous in early February.
“It goes through the air,” Trump said in a recording of a February 7 interview with Woodward. “That’s always tougher than 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.”
A week after that interview, Trump said at a White House briefing that the number of US coronavirus cases “within a couple days is going to be down close to zero.”
Woodward in an interview with The Associated Press news agency defended himself from online critics who questioned why he kept Trump’s comments to himself for months as a pandemic raged.
“He tells me this, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, but is it true?’ Trump says things that don’t check out, right?” the news agency quoted Woodward as saying in a phone interview.
Some fellow Republicans defended Trump’s coronavirus response on Wednesday.
“His actions of shutting the economy down were the right actions,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “And I think the tone during that time sort of spoke for itself.”
Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for the book. Other revelations include Trump’s disparaging remarks about US military leaders. He drew criticism this week following reports that he had denigrated fallen military personnel and veterans.
In Woodward’s book, an aide to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis heard Trump say in a meeting, “my f***ing generals are a bunch of p**sies” because they cared more about alliances than trade deals. Mattis asked the aide to document the comment in an email, the Washington Post reported.
Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, Woodward asked Trump his views on the concept of white privilege and whether he felt isolated by that privilege from the plight of Black Americans.
“No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” Trump replied, according to media reports on the book. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Revelations from the Woodward book emerged just as Trump’s campaign was beginning to feel that the virus was receding from public view. The president himself has been thumbing his nose at public health experts’ warning against the sort of large gatherings – with few people wearing masks – that his campaign has been staging around the country.
For all of that, Trump has faced devastating revelations of his own creation before and survived them. They stretch back to his 2015 comments questioning the heroism of Senator John McCain, a decorated Vietnam prisoner of war, and the notorious Access Hollywood tape that emerged just before the 2016 election in which Trump described sexually assaulting women.