The question, as it often is with Trump, is whether the president truly believes his own hype and is just that disconnected from the reality of the situation, or whether he’s just saying stuff to get through a news cycle.
A new book from legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward suggests that it’s very much the latter.
Woodward spoke with Trump frequently for the book, titled “Rage,” including early in the coronavirus outbreak. While Trump spent almost the entirety of January, February and early March consistently downplaying the threat, he expressed much more serious concerns in his conversations with Woodward.
“You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “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,” the president repeated for emphasis, saying the virus was as much as five times deadlier than the flu.
Despite this comment, Trump would spend another month comparing the coronavirus to the flu, arguing that since we don’t shut down society for the flu, we shouldn’t do it for the coronavirus. He invoked the flu comparison on Feb. 26, 27 and 28 and on March 2, 4, 6, 9 and 10, before ultimately admitting in late March, after adopting stricter safeguards recommended by health officials, that “it’s not the flu; it is vicious.”
That time period also brings an important new revelation from Woodward’s book. After Trump finally embraced those tougher measures March 16, he told Woodward that the nearly two months he had spent downplaying the virus were intentional.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said March 19. He added: “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The comments from Trump — not to mention that he decided to make them — are remarkable in the context of his coronavirus response. Polls show his handling of the matter is even more unpopular than he is overall, and it’s dragging down his reelection campaign. In addition to the United States dealing with a bigger resurgence of the virus than most any other first-world country, schools are being forced to make difficult calls about whether to reopen, with some attempting it before reversing course in the face of surging cases.
The comments in Woodward’s book are nearly impossible to square with what Trump was saying at crucial junctures early in the outbreak. If he truly knew this was a far different situation than the flu, why would he keep comparing the two? If he truly knew the scope of the potential disaster ahead, why would he focus almost exclusively on downplaying it?
Avoiding “panic” is one thing, but leaving people with a false sense of security and risking them being underprepared is quite another. Trump certainly erred in that direction — and apparently deliberately so.
I’ve said from early in the outbreak that Trump’s M.O. seemed to be much more focused on avoiding momentary bad headlines about the situation — a trend that has characterized much of his presidency — than on truly combating it. When case numbers began to rise, Trump wrongly assured Americans that they’d soon drop. When the stock market began to drop, Trump seemed to fear that it would irreparably harm his silver bullet in the 2020 campaign: the economy.
As I also noted way back then, though, the danger for Trump — and the country — was much more in the long-term course of the outbreak than brief downturns in the markets. But Trump seemed to have an almost visceral reaction to the idea that the situation was dire or even just bad. That could be either because he believed it would personally reflect upon him, because he worried about strict measures to combat it damaging the economy in the months before his reelection campaign, or both.
The revelations Wednesday suggest that this was indeed a deliberate effort, rather than simply a president who was so utterly out of tune with his own health officials. Trump may not have bought his own hype in the way it appeared, but that doesn’t mean that lots of Americans — and especially Republicans — didn’t do so.
At a March 20 White House coronavirus task force briefing, Anthony S. Fauci tried to put a good face on the differences between his and Trump’s comments about the prospects of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment.
“The president feels optimistic about something — his feeling about it. What I’m saying is that it might be effective; I’m not saying that it isn’t,” Fauci said. “It might be effective, but as a scientist, as we’re getting it out there … you’re also collecting data that will ultimately show that it is truly effective and safe under the conditions of covid-19. So there really isn’t a difference; it’s just a question of how one feels about it.”
The newly reported comments, though, suggest that something more than optimism was lurking behind Trump’s early handling of the coronavirus outbreak. They suggest that he deliberately sought to give people a false sense of security. Even if you could perhaps argue that it was a well-intentioned effort to avert “panic” — and that’s a big if at this point, given Trump’s apparent fear of an economic downturn — it means that Trump, by his own admission, wasn’t really leveling with the American people about a life-or-death matter.