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Trump recognized the COVID-19 threat early on, but misled the public

It was in early February when Trump told Bob Woodward the COVID-19 crisis was far more serious than he was letting on when informing the public.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump before boarding Air Force One on Sept. 8, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.Evan Vucci / AP

Bob Woodward's first book on Donald Trump's presidency, "Fear," was a devastating portrait of a dangerously unprepared leader, overseeing a chaotic White House. The legendary Washington Post journalist highlighted a meeting in which then-Chief of Staff John Kelly said of Trump, "He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in Crazytown. I don't even know why any of us are here."

The president did not, however, speak to Woodward ahead of that book's release. As the author prepared a follow-up book, "Rage," Trump apparently thought it best to give the writer his side of the story.

In hindsight, that may have been unwise.

President Donald Trump acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic in a February interview with journalist Bob Woodward, and acknowledged downplaying the threat in a March interview, according to an account of Woodward's new book. "I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic," Trump said in a March 19 call with Woodward, according to an audio clip posted Wednesday on The Washington Post's website. The newspaper obtained a copy of his book "Rage," which is scheduled to be released next week.

I'll confess that much of this is unexpected, at least to me. If asked, I would have said that Trump was completely ignorant about every relevant detail of the crisis as it took shape, and the Republican simply ignored the experts who tried to provide him with important information.

As Woodward's new book reports, that wasn't the case -- though the truth is vastly worse than the assumptions.

It was in early February, for example, when Trump spoke to Woodward -- on the record and on tape -- and conceded that the public-health emergency was far more serious than the president was letting on when informing the public.

"You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump said in a Feb. 7 call, a recording of which is now publicly available. "And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.... This is deadly stuff."

But while the president made these acknowledgements to Woodward in private, Trump took an entirely different message to the American public, equating COVID-19 with the flu, downplaying the threat dozens of times, rejecting the need for masks, and even holding indoor rallies with supporters.

In recent years, there's been a parlor game of sorts played in political circles: when Trump peddles nonsense, is it because the president is ignorant or because he's willing to publicly deceive his own country? These new revelations answer the question, at least as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic: Trump knew the truth about a life-or-death issue, and he chose not to share it with the public.

This was already a scandal. Now it's a much bigger one.