Trump admitted he deliberately played down coronavirus threat: Reports

He called Bob Woodward's book, for which he gave interviews, a "hit job."

September 09, 2020, 4:53 PM

President Donald Trump, in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, has admitted to deliberately minimizing the seriousness of the novel coronavirus to the public despite understanding its true danger, according to reports on Wednesday.

"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.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump delivers remarks on judicial appointments during an appearance in the Diplomatic Room at the White House, Sept. 9, 2020.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on judicial appointments during an appearance in the Diplomatic Room at the White House, Sept. 9, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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.

PHOTO:  President Donald Trump holds up a document showing "countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic"  at the beginning of a news conference with members of the coronavirus task force at the White House Feb. 26, 2020.
President Donald Trump holds up a document showing "countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic" at the beginning of a news conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence at the White House Feb. 26, 2020.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, FILE

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."

PHOTO:  President Donald Trump holds a press conference announcing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to lead the effort combating the spread of the coronavirus in Washington, Feb. 26, 2020.
President Donald Trump holds a press conference announcing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to lead the effort combating the spread of the coronavirus in Washington, Feb. 26, 2020.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE

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."

PHOTO: Bob Woodward speaks during an evening with Bob Woodward discussing his new book FEAR Trump in the White House in Coral Springs, Fla., Oct. 15, 2018
Bob Woodward speaks during an evening with Bob Woodward discussing his new book FEAR Trump in the White House in Coral Springs, Fla., Oct. 15, 2018
MediaPunch/IPX via AP

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."

PHOTO: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9, 2020.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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."

The book also contains harsh assessments of Trump's behavior from some of his top former national security officials, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former director of national intelligence Daniel Coates, according to the reports.

Mattis called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” and said “the president has no moral compass,” Woodward wrote, according to The Washington Post.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump takes questions after delivering remarks at a news conference at the North Portico at the White House on Sept. 07, 2020 in Washington.
President Donald Trump takes questions after delivering remarks at a news conference at the North Portico at the White House on Sept. 07, 2020 in Washington.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

ABC News' Jordyn Phelps, Molly Nagle and Libby Cathey contributed to this report.

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