White House's private pandemic message contradicted its public one

In February, White House officials shared rosy coronavirus assessments with the public. In private, they offered a different message for their allies.
Image; White House exterior, President Trump Says He May Reschedule G7 Meeting for Camp David
An exterior of the White House past fencing on May 20, 2020.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Among the most jarring revelations from Bob Woodward's latest book was the extent to which Donald Trump's private coronavirus message was at odds with his public message. Indeed, the president made clear to the Washington Post editor that he knew in early February how serious the public-health crisis was, but he deliberately deceived the public, choosing to "play it down."

This wasn't a situation in which the Republican was incapable of understanding the seriousness of the circumstances. On the contrary, in private Trump understood the dire circumstances facing his own country, even as he took a very different message to the public.

But it wasn't just the president. The New York Times reported overnight on the conflict between the White House's rosy public assessments in February and the private information officials were sharing with allies.

[Hours before a presidential tweet on the health of the stock market], senior members of the president's economic team, privately addressing board members of the conservative Hoover Institution, were less confident. Tomas J. Philipson, a senior economic adviser to the president, told the group he could not yet estimate the effects of the virus on the American economy. To some in the group, the implication was that an outbreak could prove worse than Mr. Philipson and other Trump administration advisers were signaling in public at the time.

A day later, the Times added, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told the public that the United States had contained the coronavirus "pretty close to airtight." In private, he told Hoover Institution board members -- many of whom just happened to be Republican donors -- that administration officials didn't really know at the time how severe the threat was likely to become.

A hedge fund consultant on hand for the briefing wrote soon after that he was struck by administration officials' willingness to raise concerns, "totally unprovoked," about the scope of the COVID-19 threat.

I've seen some suggestions that the reporting raises the possibility of helping donors benefit financially from inside information that the rest of us lacked. The evidence on that remains murky.

But the surface-level revelations are outrageous enough: the president and his team could've provided the public with a full and accurate picture of the pandemic threat. They chose to be far more selective, sharing the truth with select audiences.

Trump's defense for the deception has been that he feared creating "panic" by giving Americans the facts. Evidently, his team had no similar concerns when talking to GOP donors who help lead a conservative think tank.