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Trump Tells Woodward He Deliberately Downplayed Coronavirus Threat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Several times during the Trump administration, a whistleblower has accused the president of wrongdoing. This time, in effect, the whistleblower is the president himself. Recordings show he said one thing on TV and another off camera. He made misleading claims about the pandemic, a life-or-death matter affecting almost every American.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The journalist Bob Woodward documented this. He interviewed the president for a new book called "Rage." With the president's permission, he recorded the interviews now published by The Washington Post. In them, the president said how serious the pandemic was, although he later told the public something else. It is best to listen to his statements in the order they happened. On February 7, the president told Woodward what he'd heard from China's president about the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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. 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 your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

INSKEEP: The president repeats, it's many times more deadly than the flu. That was early February, after he'd been briefed on the most serious threat of his presidency, but the public was not fully focused on what was coming. Later in February, anxiety spread. The stock market started to slide. And on February 26, at a public news briefing, the president waved off the threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And, again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done.

INSKEEP: The next day, February 27, the president dismissed the threat again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear.

INSKEEP: Instead, in early March, cases spread across the nation. By March 10, pro sports, universities and schools were about to shut down. At this point, the president had known for more than a month that the coronavirus was far worse than the flu, yet he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Now I guess we're at 26 deaths. And if you look at the flu, the flu for this year, we're at eight - we're looking at 8,000 deaths. And, you know, hundreds of thousands of cases - we have 8,000 deaths. So you have 8,000 versus 26 deaths at this time.

INSKEEP: Now, there's an old phrase - giving the lie to someone. When you give the lie to someone, you prove them wrong, and it is on the matter of comparing coronavirus to the flu that the president most clearly gives the lie to himself. Again, this was the recorded interview where he had previously told the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It's also more deadly than your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

INSKEEP: In late March, after the country shut down, the president spoke to Bob Woodward again. And though he did not say he lied in that Washington Post audio, he admitted playing down what he knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...

BOB WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

TRUMP: ...Because I don't want to create a panic.

INSKEEP: So what to make of all this? NPR's Franco Ordoñez was at the White House on a dramatic day and is on the line now. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were the president's original sources of information that the pandemic was serious?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, these were his top national security people in the White House. His national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was telling Trump that this virus will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency. That's practically a quote. Another top national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, warned that the threat was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed as many as 50 million people. Trump was also having conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the extent of the virus in China and all the work they were doing. But publicly here in the United States, he was comparing the virus, as you noted, to the flu and saying it would go away.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the president now explaining the enormous difference between what he was learning and what he was telling us?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he'll argue that it was not so much of a difference. But he does acknowledge in the book - and, you know, it's obviously on tape - that he did not - that he did downplay the extent of this, and the reason was because he didn't want to create panic.

I was at the White House yesterday, as you noted, and asked the president directly whether he was misleading the public. He told me he didn't want to scare people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We don't want to run around screaming, shouting, oh, look at this, look at this. We have to show leadership. And leadership is all about confidence. And confidence is confidence in our country.

ORDOÑEZ: The president also said he saw his role as one of being a cheerleader, and that was something that he has said kind of throughout the crisis.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but you can be a cheerleader and still be truthful. Winston Churchill was a cheerleader but still told his people the truth. That was part of leadership. What did it do to the president's credibility that he chose not to be truthful?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Steve, that's tough to answer. The president and his staff argue they have been truthful. But, clearly, there were conflicting messages, and I think you see that in the visceral reaction from many in the public. And, look; we have reported that many Americans were already unhappy, and polling showed they felt the administration handled the response poorly. So this adds to that.

INSKEEP: How did the president's misleading stance affect people who believed him?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, it's not necessarily breaking news that the president was downplaying the virus early on. We reported that - about his kind of rosier assessment of the response to the virus for months and his reluctance, for example, to pressure people to wear masks. What had ended up happening is that these public health measures that, you know, scientists - his own scientists were recommending kind of became viewed through a political lens. There were even polls that showed a clear divide between those who wore masks and those who didn't, and they were on political lines.

INSKEEP: Now, as the president has tried to explain what he did, what is Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in this fall's election, saying?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Biden wasted no time attacking Trump on this. He accused Trump of a life-and-death betrayal of the American people. Here he is during a campaign event in Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months. He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose.

ORDOÑEZ: He also said Trump's slow response not only cost lives, but sent the economy into a tailspin.

INSKEEP: We're talking to Franco Ordoñez. And, Franco, we should mention, this Woodward book - the whole thing with the pandemic is just one detail. There's a lot about other people in the administration.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, a lot on foreign policy and the difficult relationship that the president had with his secretary of state and top generals in the cabinet. So much stuff in there. One of the - but one interesting thing was how the former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, allegedly called Trump dangerous and unfit.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks for the update...

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: ...And analysis. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.