Can Trump’s Actions Really Shock You Anymore?
09 Sep, 2020
Donald Trump knew the extent of the deadly coronavirus threat in February but intentionally misled the public by deciding to “play it down”, according to interviews recorded by one of America’s most venerated investigative journalists.
The US president gave Bob Woodward 18 interviews between December 2019 and July 2020. They form the basis of his revelatory new book, Rage, obtained on Wednesday by the Washington Post and CNN, in which Trump is condemned by his own words.
Just two months before he seeks re-election, Trump is quoted describing former president George W Bush as “a stupid moron” and mocking the Black Lives Matter movement for racial equality and an end to police brutality.
The book also reports that the US may have come close to nuclear war with North Korea in 2017.
Rage displays the chasm between Trump’s public and private statements on the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 190,000 Americans and caused the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
As early as 28 January 2020, Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, gave him a “jarring” warning, informing the president that Covid-19 would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. Trump’s head “popped up”, the book says.
Three days later, Trump announced restrictions on travel from China, although the virus was already in the United States.
On 7 February he told Woodward in a phone call: “It goes through the air. 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.”
He added: “This is deadly stuff.”
But February, in the view of Woodward and many other analysts, was a wasted month. On 27 February, Trump said publicly: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” In a tweet on 9 March, he explicitly compared it to the common flu, noting that “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on” in flu season. “Think about that!”
By 19 March, Trump had declared a national emergency but told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Trump dismissed the book as “just another political hit job” and sought to defend his handling of the pandemic.
He added: “And certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We wanna show confidence, we wanna show strength as a nation, and that’s what I’ve done. And we’ve done very well from any standard. You look at our numbers compared to other countries, other parts of the world, it’s an amazing job that we’ve done.”
America has the highest caseload (6.35m infections) and highest death toll (190,815) in the world, according to Johns Hopkins university figures. It also has one of the highest fatality rates per 100,000 population, at 57.97.
Later, Trump told Fox News: “I said don’t panic. I’m a cheerleader for this country and I don’t want to see panic.”
Speaking at an election campaign event in Warren, Michigan, on Wednesday afternoon, the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, reacted to the reports by saying: “He knew how deadly it was. It was much more deadly than the flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”
Biden added: “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. It was a life and death betrayal of the American people. Experts say that if he’d acted just one week sooner, 36,000 people would have been saved.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, told the MSNBC network: “I think what he said connotes two things. One, his weakness: he didn’t know how to cope with the challenge to our country.
“Secondly, his disdain and denial for science, which has the answers, we could have contained this early on. But bigger than all of that was his total disregard for the impact on individual families in our country.”
At a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing on 3 April, Trump was still minimising the virus.
“I said it’s going away and it is going away, ” he said. But just two days later, he told Woodward: “It’s a horrible thing. It’s unbelievable.” On 13 April, he acknowledged: “It’s so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it.”
In May, Woodward asked Trump if he remembered O’Brien’s dire warning on 28 January. He replied: “No, I don’t, I’m sure if he said it – you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”
And in their final interview in July, Trump sought to duck responsibility, telling Woodward: “The virus has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault. It’s … China let the damn virus out.”
Rage also contains damning views of Trump’s failures to lead on the virus response, for example his unwillingness to order economic lockdowns, and prevarications and resistance for months over mask wearing.
Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, is quoted describing Trump’s leadership as “rudderless” and saying his “attention span is like a minus number”.
Fauci is reported to have said: “His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”
Woodward, 77, is a two-time Pulitzer prize winner and has written about nine American presidents. His reporting with Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein on the Watergate break-in and cover-up helped bring about Richard Nixon’s resignation. Trump has expressed admiration for Nixon and is currently echoing his “law and order” election strategy.
But Trump said Woodward made Bush “look like a stupid moron, which he was”, according to the book, and said of Barack Obama: “I don’t think Obama’s smart … I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.”
He also told Woodward that the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, thought Obama was an “asshole”.
In June, at the height of protests against racial injustice after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Woodward suggested to Trump that white and privileged men like them need to appreciate the plight of African Americans.
Trump replied, “No,” in a mocking voice. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Meanwhile Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is quoted as saying that four texts are key to understanding Trump, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased the Cheshire Cat from the book: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
Woodward also writes that Trump’s national security team warned that the US may have come close to nuclear war with North Korea in 2017. James Mattis, then the defence secretary, slept in his clothes to be ready in the event of a North Korean missile launch and prayed at the Washington national cathedral. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is quoted as saying: “We never knew whether it was real, or whether it was a bluff.”
Mysteriously, Trump bragged to Woodward about a new secret weapons system: “I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before.” Woodward writes that other sources corroborated the claim but were surprised that Trump revealed it.
Woodward obtained the 27 “love letters” Trump exchanged with Kim. Kim flatters Trump by repeatedly calling him “Your Excellency”, and writes that the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force”. Kim says in another that meeting again would be “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film”.
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