Through February and March, President Donald Trump made one statement after another downplaying the seriousness of the new coronavirus, at the time ravaging parts of China, Italy, and Iran. Trump's statements were not caused by ignorance, but involved a deliberate strategy of misleading the American public “because I didn't want to create a panic,” according to acclaimed journalist Bob Woodward. Woodward has the recordings to prove it.
Woodward, one half of the team of investigative reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, interviewed Trump in February and March of this year. Woodward is about to release his second book on Trump, Rage, based on interviews with White House staffers and conversations with the President himself.
In the lead-up to Rage's release Woodward has revealed a tape discussing the coronavirus in which Trump told him, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” in a call the President initiated on February 7. "This is more deadly. This is 5 percent vs 1 percent and less than 1 percent [coronavirus mortality rate vs seasonal flu mortality rate]... this is deadly stuff," he added.
He said in the call SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted through the air, making it harder to control than many other viruses, something that was, at the time, still debated even within the scientific community. However, he didn't publically acknowledge this until several weeks later.
For months, as the pandemic toll in deaths and illness has ticked steadily upwards, health experts have struggled to get people to take the disease seriously, while the figure with the world's loudest megaphone contradicted them. “It's like the flu,” Trump said in March, adding it was fine to go to work with a Covid-19 infection and that the disease would go away once April came, or could be easily treated with existing medicines. The mixed messages have undermined responses far beyond the USA's borders.
Trump has called the book a “political hit job,” but admitted the tape is real, saying he deliberately minimized the danger because he “didn't want to create a frenzy”. Aside from contradicting his entire political career, it is hard to square that with actions like the June Tulsa rally that encouraged the spread of the disease.
Given Trump's ignorance and disregard of many other scientific matters, it had been unclear if he was lying or genuinely didn't understand how dangerous the virus is, and how hard to control. Woodward has apparently settled that question.
The release of the information has set off two firestorms of debate. Most obviously, how could someone whose job is to protect the American public from dangers like this deliberately withhold such crucial information? As it stands, the US has had 6.3 million Covid-19 cases, and 190,000 Americans have died.
The other is about the journalistic ethics of Woodward holding onto what he knew for months, in contrast to his history-changing daily Watergate updates. Woodward's decision will no doubt help book sales. On the other hand, if he had released the tape months ago it may possibly have forced a change in the Trump administration's policy, one that could have saved tens of thousands of lives.
Even if that didn't happen, making the public aware that Trump knew the virus was much more dangerous than he was publicly letting on might have changed the responses of some states and many individuals. The lives saved through such localized changes may have been fewer, but still substantial. And for every death avoided dozens of people would not now be suffering ongoing health effects and wondering if they will ever recover.