"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said on March 19, according to CNN, which obtained an audio recording of the interview, and The Washington Post. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
Trump had acknowledged to Woodward over a month before that the recognized COVID-19 was "deadly stuff," according to CNN -- in contrast with the president's public assertions the virus would "work out fine" and was "very much under control."
His statements to Woodward, as reported by CNN and The Washington Post, reflect a greater recognition of the threat than he let on publicly.
Reacting to reports on Woodward's new book, President Trump did not deny that he sought to publicly play down the seriousness of the virus but instead defended his rosy public assessments as part of a possible effort not to "create panic.”
"Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so," Trump said. "The fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic as you say. And certainly, I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength. We want to show strength as a nation. And that's what I've done."
Even as the president didn't seek to refute the substance of Woodward's reporting, he denounced the book as a political "hit job."
"I was very open, whether it's to Woodward or anybody else. It's just another political hit job, but whether it was Woodward or anybody else, you cannot show a sense of panic or you're going to have bigger problems than you ever had before," Trump said.
ABC News has not obtained copies of Woodward's book or the audio recordings and could not independently confirm the reports. The book is titled "Rage" and scheduled to be published next Tuesday.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in call with Woodward on Feb. 7, according to The Washington Post and audio aired on CNN. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
But less than two weeks later, the president said in a television interview: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine."
About 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus since the outbreak began earlier this year.
Trump also told Woodward on Feb. 7 that COVID-19 was "more deadly than even your strenuous flu," according to CNN.
But 19 days later, during a news conference, he said: "This is a flu. This is like a flu."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted at a White House briefing Wednesday the president "never lied to the American public on COVID" but rather "was expressing calm."
Despite Trump's saying on the March 19 audio recording obtained by CNN that "I wanted to always play it down" and "I still like playing it down," McEnany said: "The president never down played the virus. The president expressed calm and he was serious about this."
Trump's Democratic opponent for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden, said Wednesday that the president's reported comments were "beyond despicable and that it amounted to a "dereliction of duty to disgrace."
"He knew how deadly it was," Biden said during a campaign stop in Michigan. "It was much more deadly than the flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.
"He had the information," Biden added. "He knew how dangerous it was, and while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people."
Mattis called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” and said “the president has no moral compass,” Woodward wrote, according to The Washington Post.
ABC News' Jordyn Phelps, Molly Nagle and Libby Cathey contributed to this report.