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President Donald Trump admits he tried to minimise the lethal threat of the coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic in audio recordings released Wednesday from interviews with veteran US journalist Bob Woodward.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said in an interview with Woodward on March 19, according to a CNN preview of the book “Rage,” due to be published September 15.
“I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” he said in the conversation with Woodward, which was recorded.
By contrast, in earlier interviews with Woodward, he made clear he understood well that the virus was “deadly stuff” — far more dangerous than the ordinary flu.
In public, however, Trump had been repeatedly telling Americans that the virus should not be considered much of a danger and would “disappear” by itself.
The frank admission that he decided to diminish the severity of the easily transmittable disease — right as it began to tear through the world’s richest country — brought instant condemnation from Trump’s opponents.
“He knew how deadly it was,” Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden said while campaigning in Michigan. “He lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”
“It was a life and death betrayal of the American people,” Biden added.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump’s only motivation in downplaying the dangers had been to reassure the public.
“It’s important to express confidence, it’s important to express calm,” she said. “The president has never lied to the American public on Covid.”
Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert and member of the White House task force on Covid-19, said he did not get the sense the president had distorted concerns.
“In my discussions with him, they were always straightforward about the concerns that we had… When he would go out, I’d hear him discussing the same sort of things,” Fauci told Fox News correspondent John Roberts Wednesday.
Often the president wanted to keep the country from getting “down and out,” Fauci said. But he added: “I don’t recall anything that was any gross distortion in things that I spoke to him about.”
– Mixed messages –
The US death toll from Covid-19 is expected soon to pass 200,000, looming heavily over the November 3 presidential election in which Trump is currently behind in the polls.
The president has repeatedly insisted that he has managed the pandemic successfully, pointing to his early decisions to ban travel from China, where the virus first appeared, and from hotspots in Europe.
However, opinion polls show some two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump’s actions.
At minimum, Trump long delivered mixed messages at a time when the country was looking for guidance. He veered from declaring himself the equivalent of a war-time president to contradicting government scientists and calling for an early reopening of the economy.
It took until July before Trump even wore a face mask in public. Early on, he also frequently praised the Chinese government’s response, only later pivoting to blame Beijing for the global health crisis.
In February — well after he had been briefed by advisors on the dangers posed by the coronavirus — he said that the virus might go away by April “with the heat.”
In March, he described the government’s “tremendous control over” the situation and said “It will go away. Just stay calm.”
That same month, Trump compared the coronavirus to the common flu, which he noted kills “between 27,000 and 70,000 per year” yet “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”