Though unsurprised at the news that President Donald Trump deliberately lied about and downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, political observers on Wednesday were outraged following the release of audio recordings of interviews veteran journalist Bob Woodward conducted with the president in February and March in which Trump openly admitted he didn't share with the public his own understanding that the pandemic was "deadly stuff."
Ahead of the release of his new book about Trump's presidency, "Rage," Woodward leaked audio interviews from February 7 and March 19, in which the president shared his knowledge that the pandemic was a serious threat to Americans' lives—and his intention to keep that a secret.
Trump told Woodward in February—10 days after being told by his national security team that the coronavirus was "the biggest national security threat" he would face—that the coronavirus was an airborne virus and "more deadly than even your strenuous flu."
"You just breathe the air and that's how it’s passed," Trump said. "This is deadly stuff."
“It goes through air, Bob... It’s also more deadly than... even your strenuous flus.” @realDonaldTrump to Bob Woodward, February 7.
— Richard Hine (@richardhine) September 9, 2020
Publicly at the time, the president vehemently denied that the coronavirus was something Americans needed to worry about. On February 24, he tweeted that the virus was "very much under control in the USA." On March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, Trump told the public that for "the vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low"—a month after telling Woodward the virus was easily spread through aerosols.
"If Woodward's on-tape revelations don’t persuade the nation to turn its political back on Trump, McConnell, and those who have enabled them, Lord help this nation."
—Rev. Dr. William Barber, Poor People's Campaign
While the president understood Covid-19 to be airborne days after being warned about the pandemic in January, he allowed confusion and debate over how to prevent the spread of the disease to persist for months. Trump downplayed the CDC's recommendation, released April 3, that Americans wear face coverings to prevent transmission; he told the public, "You don't have to do it... It's only a recommendation." The president himself didn't wear a face mask in public until July 11, and his campaign has not required masks at his campaign rallies.
On March 19, Trump again spoke with Woodward, telling him he had learned "some startling facts" about Covid-19, including that "it's not just older people, it's plenty of young people" who are vulnerable to the disease.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
— Grant Stern (@grantstern) September 9, 2020
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden quickly went on the offensive after the audio recordings were released, summarizing the newly-confirmed information:
"While a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job—on purpose," Biden tweeted. "It was a life or death betrayal of the American people."
Donald Trump knew.
He lied to us for months.
And while a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose.
It was a life or death betrayal of the American people. https://t.co/WDmVUvmmJk
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 9, 2020
Others added their condemnation of the president:
Having read more of the excerpts in the Woodward book where @realDonaldTrump is on tape, I’ve concluded this is not just dereliction of duty by @POTUS. Trump repeatedly lied to the American people and that resulted in preventable deaths.
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) September 9, 2020
Donald Trump should resign, but we know he will not. He must be held accountable, removed from office, and forever condemned as a criminal, a failed president, and a despicable racist.
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) September 9, 2020
Government is not about marketing, leadership is not about spin. 6 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19. Trump knew but he downplayed the risk.
This is a betrayal of his highest duty to keep our nation safe.
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) September 9, 2020
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost a loved one to the pandemic—shared personal grief as well as anger over the confirmation that nearly 200,000 people "lost their lives to Covid-19 as a result of this president's gross negligence and lies."
All I can think about is my father and the nearly 200,000 other people who lost their lives to COVID-19 as a result of this president’s gross negligence and lies.
Trump had the power to save lives and went out of his way not to. https://t.co/yKk8e66nbP
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) September 9, 2020
While White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany blatantly lied to reporters Wednesday after being asked at a press conference about the recordings, saying, "The president never downplayed the virus," Trump attempted to defend his choice to hide his knowledge of the severity of the pandemic from the public, saying he "didn't want to create panic."
Q: "Did you mislead the public?"
President Trump: "Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so. The fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic." pic.twitter.com/NNbnkPz346
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 9, 2020
The excuse ran counter to the president's recent penchant for claiming that violent riots led by radical left-wing agitators are overtaking cities across the U.S. and will continue to do so if Biden is elected president, some noted on social media.
"A guy whose entire re-election campaign is based on engendering fear and panic is saying that he lied to prevent panic is an interesting plot twist," said Esquire columnist Charles Pierce.
I mean the guy is constantly stoking panic on everything from antifa to immigrants to anarchists, etc. it's all he does. https://t.co/QaWnW7WbGq
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) September 9, 2020
Meanwhile, critics noted that while Trump chose to lie to the public about the pandemic, he had help from Woodward. On March 19, when the president told Woodward he was intentionally downplaying the coronavirus crisis, 200 people in the U.S. had died of Covid-19 in the United States. Six months later, as the recordings were made public on Wednesday, the death toll approached 190,000.
and fuck woodward for sitting on this crucial reporting because book sales https://t.co/wG3jsqHeOg
— aída chávez (@aidachavez) September 9, 2020
Bob Woodward knew the truth behind the administration*’s deadly bungling—and worse—and he saved it for his book, which will be released to wild acclaim and huge profits after nearly 200,000 Americans have died. https://t.co/GTmj40AJaT
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) September 9, 2020
Why. Did. Bob. Woodward. Sit. On. This. Information. https://t.co/KuktElZpzf
— andi zeisler (@andizeisler) September 9, 2020
Rev. Dr. William Barber expressed hope that now that Trump's months-old knowledge of the severity of the pandemic has been confirmed, voters will resoundingly reject him in the November election.
"If Woodward's on-tape revelations don’t persuade the nation to turn its political back on Trump, McConnell, and those who have enabled them, Lord help this nation," Barber tweeted. "It will reveal more about who we are than who Trump is."