The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump will be in big trouble when he can’t run off stage at the debates

President Trump leaves the podium following a news conference at the White House on Thursday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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At his Thursday campaign event masquerading as a White House news conference, President Trump could not answer a basic question from ABC News’s Jonathan Karl: Why did he lie to the American public about the danger of covid-19? He claimed he didn’t, but we know he did. He told The Post’s Bob Woodward that he had downplayed the virus. We also know Trump was told the coronavirus pandemic was much deadlier than the flu and that he told the public the opposite. When pressed, he resorted to his “I did not want to panic people” argument — a confession of his inability to lead in a crisis.

The Post’s Philip Rucker followed up by asking why he could not be both honest and calm, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been. That sent Trump into a long rant in which he falsely insisted the United States was faring better than the European Union. As he fumbled and mumbled, he hit upon a new excuse: If what he said was so horrible, Woodward should have gone to the “authorities." Not only is the president the highest “authority” in the executive branch but, as Rucker pointed out, “Bob Woodward is not the president.” It was a truly bizarre moment, which only confirms Trump has no idea, after nearly four years, how to do the job.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Trump also let on that he watched a full night’s worth of Fox News, mentioning the hosts by name. It was a useful explanation for where he gets much of his information: sycophantic TV hosts who lie to their audience. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

And then he disappeared, leaving the podium as he often does when things are especially dreadful. This is not something Trump will be able to do when things get dicey on the debate stage in a few weeks. If not moderator Chris Wallace, then Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is going to press him: When you told Woodward that covid-19 is worse than the flu and then told the public the opposite, isn’t that lying? If you knew it was so dangerous and transmitted by air, why did you keep holding rallies, mock people for wearing masks and nag governors to reopen businesses? Trump cannot rant and rave during a debate as he does on the stump or during news conferences without sounding ridiculous.

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We got a flavor of the side-by-side comparison Americans will see with Biden’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday, which showed the former vice president to be coherent, factual and responsive to questions. “He seems to have no conception of what constitutes national security, no conception of anything other than what can he do to promote himself,” Biden said, pointing to Trump’s insults to our military, his query as to why we can’t use nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes and his own advisers’ concern about his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Biden laid into Trump on his contemptuous talk about men and women in uniform. “He doesn’t understand duty, honor, service, country," Biden said. "He doesn’t get it. Or if he gets it, he doesn’t care about it.” He went on: "Unrelated to my running, he should not be the commander in chief of the United States military. It’s just — no commander in chief’s ever, ever, ever acted like this man.”

When Biden says such things — reasonable arguments backed up by facts — will Trump run from the stage? Will he blame a reporter? Trump would have no real answer if Biden were to say, as he did on CNN, “The virus is not his fault, but the deaths are his fault because he could’ve done something about it.” There are nearly 200,000 families in mourning who will attest to that.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Let Woodward be Woodward

Greg Sargent: There’s a big hole in Trump’s frantic spin about the Woodward revelations

David Ignatius: Bob Woodward gave Trump every chance to prove himself

Joe Scarborough: Trump’s offensive comments about patriotism are destroying the GOP

The Post’s View: When Americans needed honesty most, Trump gave them lies and fantasy