Mr. Woodward’s recorded conversations with the president expose a grave dereliction of duty. This was no casual deceit, no singular slip of the tongue, but a purposeful and repeated falsehood, by Mr. Trump’s own admission to Mr. Woodward on March 19. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” The cost has been about 190,000 dead so far in the United States, and millions sickened, many seriously.
How, having been advised that the coronavirus pandemic had the potential to rival the great influenza pandemic a century ago, could Mr. Trump have told the nation in good conscience on Feb. 25, “I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away”? Or Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” In fact, as he told Mr. Woodward on Feb. 7, he knew the virus was transmissible through the air, that it was “deadly stuff,” “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” But he said to the public June 20, “Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu, what difference?” He knew the answer.
Mr. Trump’s deception paralleled his catastrophic pandemic response. The president who told Mr. Woodward that “you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed” was tardy and fumbling in coming up with face masks and other essential personal protective equipment and negligent in galvanizing a federal response. Then he walked away, turning matters over to the states and irresponsibly demanding a premature opening in the spring.
Mr. Trump at first praised China’s leader Xi Jinping for his handling of the crisis, then charged that China misled the world about the virus. There is no question, as we have pointed out, that China’s closed political system attempted to cover up the Wuhan outbreak. But by engaging in a months-long deception of his own, Mr. Trump forfeits the moral standing to call it out.
His explanation that he hoped to avoid “panic” may reflect Mr. Trump’s fear that the truth would sink the economy and his own political fortunes. It is a sad reality that Mr. Trump often cannot see beyond his own needs. His response to the pandemic has been more like that of a circus barker rather than that of a president devoted to stewardship of the nation. The American people would have welcomed transparent, honest information about a looming disaster. Instead, they got lies and fantasy.