(NBC NEWS) – President Donald Trump acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic in a February interview with journalist Bob Woodward, and acknowledged downplaying the threat in a March interview, according to an account of Woodward’s new book.
“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 call with Woodward, according to an audio clip posted Wednesday on The Washington Post’s website. The newspaper obtained a copy of his book “Rage,” which is scheduled to be released next week.
In that same interview, Trump acknowledged the disease was more deadly than he previously thought.
“Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. But just today, and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older,” Trump said, according to an audio clip, and then added, “young people too, plenty of young people.”
Trump is locked in a difficult re-election battle against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, with his poll numbers sagging as he continues to receive low marks from voters for how he handled the response to the virus.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany maintained the president had not been misleading.
“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID,” McEnany said, and has “always been clear that lives could be lost.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden noted that over 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and called Trump’s words “beyond despicable.”
“It was a life and death betrayal of the American people,” Biden said.
Woodward’s book is based on 18 on-the-record phone calls the journalist had with Trump between December and July. Woodward, a highly-respected veteran journalist and The Post’s associate editor, also attributes details about the internal workings of the White House to a series of interviews with aides who served as unnamed sources.
Woodward details that Trump was briefed on the virus in January.
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward in a Feb. 7 phone call.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward, according to the Washington Post. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
The book says Trump was given dire warnings in January about the virus that would lead to a worldwide pandemic in March.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump on Jan 28, according to the book. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”
Trump blocked some Chinese nationals from coming into the country in the days after the briefing, but continued to play down the danger posed by the virus and repeatedly compared it to the flu.
“We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great,” Trump said on Jan. 30. A few days later, he said, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
On March 9, weeks after he told Woodward the coronavirus was more than five times deadlier than the flu, Trump tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed the president in an interview on MSNBC, and said his “downplaying” cost lives.
The “denial about the threat is responsible for many of the deaths and infections that we have today, not all of them, but many of them, could have been prevented,” the California Democrat told Andrea Mitchell.
The book also sheds further light on how much distrust some of Trump’s top officials had in the president.
Woodward also recounted a conversation — which he attributed to unnamed sources — between Coats and James Mattis, who was the Defense secretary at the time, in which Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass.”
Coats agreed, according to the book.
“To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie,” Coats is quoted by Woodward as saying.
According to the book, Trump — who came under fire last week for having reportedly referred to dead U.S. service members as “losers” and “suckers” — had little regard for his own generals.
In a conversation with trade adviser Peter Navarro, Trump complained “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.” The sources for that account were not named.
Trump did not sit for an interview with Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter, for the author’s previous book, “Fear.”
Trump sought to discredit the book before it was published, tweeting last month that the book “would be a FAKE, as always,” despite his own involvement.