Woodward conducted 18 on-the-record interviews with the president between last December and July to gather material for the veteran journalist’s forthcoming book on the Trump White House.
Excerpts of those conversations were published Wednesday by the Post, including an exchange between Trump and Woodward in which the president revealed he was eager to downplay the coronavirus outbreak so as not to alarm Americans.
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down,” Trump said on March 19. “Because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump later defended himself during a White House briefing, emphasizing the notion that he was trying to prevent panic. He called Woodward’s account “just another political hit job,” and said he was acting in the country’s best interest, even calling himself “a cheerleader for this country.”
“We had to show calm,” Trump said. “The last thing we can show is panic or excitement or fear or anything else. We had to take care of the situation we were given.”
When asked why didn’t take more preemptive measures based on his understanding of the virus before the disease spread in the U.S., Trump said: “You didn’t really think it was going to be to the point where it was.” But Trump acknowledged to Woodward in February how easily transmissible and deadly the disease was.
When asked if he felt the outcome of the pandemic could have been different had he been more forthcoming to the American people, Trump said his response showed leadership. He declined to take responsibility for not reducing the 200,000 deaths from the disease in the United States, claiming millions more would have died had he not shut down the country to foreign visitors.
“We have to show leadership,” Trump said. “And leadership is all about confidence. And confidence is confidence in our country.”
The damaging recordings come in the final weeks of a general election campaign which has seen the coronavirus emerge as the most important issue to voters, and as the White House is already deflecting reports of Trump disparaging the U.S. military and America’s war dead.
The new interviews include a variety of other explosive statements from the president on issues of racial justice, foreign affairs and national defense, with Trump revealing that he had “built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before.”
“We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody — what we have is incredible,” Trump told Woodward, whose sources confirmed that the military had developed a new secret weapons system, according to the Post.
The president also reportedly makes denigrating remarks about his own military officials that echo other media accounts of his frustration with the Pentagon’s top brass. Trump told White House trade adviser Peter Navarro that “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies” who “care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals,” Woodward reports.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden fiercely condemned Trump during a campaign stop in Michigan, saying his remarks to Woodward represented a “life-and-death betrayal of the American people.”
“He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat [the coronavirus] posed to the country for months,” Biden said. “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.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who delayed her scheduled news briefing by more than an hour Wednesday upon the publication of the interview excerpts, told reporters that Trump’s rosy assessments of the outbreak “embodied the American spirit” and argued that “when you’re facing insurmountable challenges, it’s important to express confidence. It’s important to express calm.”
McEnany also maintained that the president “has never lied to the American public on Covid” and “never downplayed the virus” — despite Trump’s acknowledgment to Woodward that he did just that, as well as numerous dismissive statements from Trump regarding the coronavirus.
Trump tweeted on Feb. 24 that the “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” During a Feb. 25 news conference in New Delhi, he said the disease “is very well under control in our country,” and that “as far as what we’re doing with the new virus, I think that we’re doing a great job.”
On Feb. 26, Trump predicted that “within a couple of days,” the number of Covid-19 infections in the U.S. “is going to be down to close to zero.” And on Feb. 28, he said “it’s going to disappear … like a miracle.”
Trump compared the country’s coronavirus deaths to the flu’s annual death toll on March 9, noting on Twitter that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.” On March 10, he urged Americans to “just stay calm” because “it will go away,” and he said again on March 12 that “it’s going to go away.”