- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2020

President Trump knew in early February the new coronavirus could be airborne and more deadly than the flu but wanted to play down the risk to avoid a panic, according to a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward on March 19, according to clips of their discussion posted by CNN. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

The book, titled “Rage,” and tapes from the author’s interviews suggest the president — who faces reelection Nov. 3 — kept the public in the dark during crucial weeks, as the virus spread within the U.S. before bursting into view in March.

Facing reporters, Mr. Trump said he was trying not to show “panic” or “fear” as he responded at the end of January by restricting travel from China.

“We have to show leadership and the last thing you want to do is create a panic,” Mr. Trump said.

The president said the country has learned a lot about the disease and protect the vulnerable. He said China is to blame for the scale of the problem.

“It came out of China, it went to Europe, it went all over the world,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump spent much of February saying the virus was under control and might go away in warmer months. Upon returning from a trip to India, he told White House reporters on Feb. 25 that a handful of U.S. cases would go down to zero within days.

But his own security officials warned him Jan. 28 that the virus discovered in Wuhan, China, was a huge deal, according to the Woodward book set for release Tueday.

“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told Mr. Trump, in Mr. Woodward’s telling.

The president then outlined his concerns in a Feb. 7 conversation with Mr. Woodward — even though the author expected the president to focus on the recent impeachment trial.

“We’ve got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China,” the president said.

“It goes through the air,” Mr. Trump said. “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.”

More than a month later, on March 9, Mr. Trump compared the situation favorably to the flu in a tweet. He said the flu kills up to 70,000 per year and the coronavirus toll was much lower at that point.

The coronavirus has now killed close to 190,000 in the U.S.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, called the situation a “disgrace” during a campaign stop in Michigan. He said the president “failed to do his job on purpose.”

“Worse, he lied to the American people,” Mr. Biden said. “He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was.”

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany argued Mr. Trump was always “clear-eyed” about the risks from the virus and took every step he could to mitigate it.

“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID. The president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that,” she said.

“The president was hopeful that COVID — that we would be able to manage this and handle it in a way that we could make it go away as quickly as possible,” she said. “The president rose to the occasion and did just that.”

The president and his administration have been criticized for conflicting messages and other missteps along the way.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had problems in developing a diagnostic test during the critical early weeks in February, while Mr. Trump has shown tepid support for mask-wearing, which is considered a critical tool in suppressing transmission.

Ms. McEnany said Mr. Trump’s supporters had the right to gather in large numbers for recent rallies without wearing masks, citing their First Amendment rights and likening it to a “peaceful protest” after many people took to the streets — many without masks — to protest racial injustice.

For months, Mr. Trump has emphasized China’s role in suppressing information about the virus early on. He argues that Beijing could have stopped it from spreading.

“The virus has nothing to do with me,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward in their final interview, on July 21. “It’s not my fault.”

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