Trump admits to deliberately playing down COVID-19 threat in February: Reports

In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward in March, the president admitted to deliberately minimizing the seriousness of COVID-19 to the public, according to reports on Wednesday.
5:12 | 09/09/20

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Transcript for Trump admits to deliberately playing down COVID-19 threat in February: Reports
Good evening and it's great to have you with us here on a Wednesday night. And we begin tonight with those bomb shell recordings. President trump giving journalist Bob Woodward 18 interviews. During those interviews, the president admits to downplaying the coronavirus in the U.S. Early on, telling Woodward he knew the virus was deadlier than the flu, saying privately, it goes through the air, that's how it's passed. The president telling Woodward in early February that the virus would be deadlier than the flu, but weeks later, his words in public, telling the American people that the virus was like the flu. It was in March, the president talks about the toll with Woodward, not just with older Americans but revealing, it's, quote, young people, too. During the interviews, president trump admits to intentionally misleadinging the American public because he didn't want to cause a panic. Tonight, how the president is now explaining those comments. How different they were in public versus private. And his opponent, Joe Biden's response, too. ABC's chief white house correspondent Jonathan Karl leading us off. Reporter: It's all on tape. President trump bluntly acknowledging to Bob Woodward he fully understood the deadly threat posed by coronavirus and that he was misleading the American public about it. In his book "Rage," Woodward writes that national security adviser Robert o'brien told president trump on January 28th that coronavirus, quote, "Will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency." Ten days later, Woodward interviews the president and they spoke about the virus. You just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. And so, that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It is also more deadly than your, you know, even your strenuous flus. This is more deadly. This is five per, you know, this is 5% versus, you know, 1% and less than 1%, you know, so -- this is deadly stuff. Reporter: But just three weeks after that, the president told the American people coronavirus is like the flu. Directly contradicting what he told Woodward. This is a flu. Within a couple of days, it's going to be down to close to zero. That's a pretty good job we've done. You may ask about the coronavirus, which is -- you know, very well under control in our country. Reporter: In another interview in March, the president candidly acknowledged to Woodward he wasn't being upfront with the American people. Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob, just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out, it's not just older -- Yeah, exactly. It's plenty of young people. It's clear, just from what's on the public record, that you went through a pivot on this to, oh, my god, the gravity is almost inexplicable and unexplainable. Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you -- Sure, I want you to be. I wanted to -- I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Yes. Because I don't want to create a panic. Reporter: And the very next week, the president said this. America will again and soon be open for business, very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. Lot sooner, we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. Reporter: The president today was asked directly if he was misleading the public in order to prevent a panic. And he acknowledged, again, he had been. Well, I think, if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so. The fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country, I love our country. Reporter: Campaigning in Michigan today, Joe Biden, who has made the president's handling of coronavirus a centerpiece of his campaign, called the president's comments to Woodward a disgrace. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it poseded to the country for months. He knew how dangerous it was. 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. And so let's bring in Jon Karl with us tonight. And Jon, the white house was pressed on this today. Really on a question that many folks at home are likely asking why would the president offer Woodward such a detailed account of the dangers of the coronavirus and yet deliver a different message to the American people? Didn't he know that in talking with a journalist that this would ultimately be reported? Reporter: Well, David, it's extraordinary. The president did 18 separate interviews with Bob Woodward over the course of several months, as he was working on this book. His national security adviser, just a short while ago, said this was the president's decision to do those interviews and that he was, quote, willing to go into the lion's ring with Bob Woodward. But I can tell you, I think another factor here is that when Woodward wrote his last book, the president was upset that his staff turned down Woodward's request to get an interview with him. He believes that he can talk himself out of anything and that if he could talk enough to Bob Woodward, he would have a positive portrayal in his book. All right, Jon Karl leading us off tonight. Much more to come on this. Jon, thank you.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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