Analysis: Of all the self-defeating things he has done, admitting he publicly downplayed the risks of the coronavirus while privately conceding the danger may be the most damaging.
By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump won’t have to look far to find the culprit behind the latest “political hit job” targeting him.
It isn’t “the swamp,” “the deep state” or the “fake news.”
He knew how deadly the coronavirus was, and he played it downanyway. Bob Woodward, one of the reporters who took down Richard Nixon, had the foresight to record his conversations with a president who sometimes lies even when video evidence contradicts him.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward during a phone call March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The president, in justifying his sunny early take on the pandemic’s impact, has publicly described himself as a “cheerleader” for the country. But what he told Woodward privately about his view of the danger apparently contrasted sharply with the information he was relaying to the nation about the risks, then and for months to come.
“This is deadly stuff,” he told Woodward during a conversation on Feb. 7. “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 flu.”
That assessment came just days before he told supporters that with warmer weather, the virus “miraculously goes away,” and more than a month before he downplayed the disease by comparing it to the flu, telling a Fox host as the wave of public health-driven shutdowns began nationwide that “we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.”
Trump responded to the early release of excerpts from Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Rage,” in typically pugnacious fashion Wednesday.
“It’s another political hit job,” he said in a brief exchange with reporters. Otherwise, he stuck to the talking points he has fallen back on for months: He did the best he could, he did better than anyone else would have, and his actions saved millions of lives compared to doing nothing at all.
Poll after poll suggests that voters haven’t been buying it. They think he’s done a poor job handling the coronavirus crisis. Most of them don’t think he’s honest and trustworthy. It’s easy to see how his remarks to Woodward acknowledging that he soft-pedaled the dangers of a disease that preys on the unguarded would hurt him on both counts. It’s also impossible to forecast that it would help him on either.
Nearly 200,000 Americans have died, the pandemic response has cost taxpayers several trillion dollars, and tens of millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. And Trump is on tape, from the week he issued stay-at-home guidelines, saying, “I still like playing it down.”
Democratic nominee Joe Biden lit into Trump during a speech to Michigan auto workers Wednesday, pointing out that the president revealed intent in the Woodward interviews.