(CN) — President Donald Trump admitted to intentionally downplaying the threat of the coronavirus despite being warned that it was deadly and highly contagious, according to a forthcoming book from journalist Bob Woodward.
“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 phone interview with Woodward.
An audio clip of the interview was published by the Washington Post on Wednesday alongside excerpts from Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Rage,” which is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews conducted with the president between December and July.
According to the Post’s report, Woodward, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote in the book that the president was told in late January by national security adviser Robert O’Brien that the coronavirus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
During the March 19 conversation, Trump also acknowledged that he understood the threat the virus posed to young people.
“Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people,” Trump said.
But publicly, the president has insisted that the opposite is true, saying that children are “almost immune” during an Aug. 5 interview on Fox and Friends.
In a Feb. 7 phone call with Woodward, Trump reportedly said that he knew the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president said in a recording released by the Post.
But just weeks later, on Feb. 24, Trump tweeted that the virus was “very much under control in the USA” and one day later, on a trip to India, he said it was “a problem that’s going to go away.”
During a Feb. 28 White House meeting with African American leaders, Trump made assurances that the virus would “disappear” and insisted that the government had it under control.
“One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear,” he said.
With more than 6.3 million cases and at least 190,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, the United States has more reported infections and deaths from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, than any other country on the planet.
“The president never downplayed the virus,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a press briefing Wednesday, directly contradicting Trump’s recorded statements.
“Once again, the president expressed calm. The president was serious about this when Democrats were pursuing their sham impeachment. He was expressing calm and he was taking early action and his actions are reflective of how seriously he took Covid,” McEnany said.
The president defended his statements Wednesday, saying his goal was to avoid creating panic.
“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 as you say and certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence, we want to show strength, we want to show strength as a nation and we’ve done very well,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
At a campaign event in Michigan on Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacted to the recordings, saying Trump “willingly lied” and calling the president’s response to the pandemic “a life and death betrayal of the American people.”
“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,” Biden said.
Woodward’s book reportedly contains harsh assessments of the president’s leadership abilities from top officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force.
According to the book excerpts, Fauci said Trump’s leadership on the pandemic was “rudderless” and that his “attention span is like a minus number.”