President Trump acknowledged to the journalist Bob Woodward that he had knowingly played down the coronavirus earlier this year even though he was aware it was “deadly” and vastly more serious than the seasonal flu.
“This is deadly stuff,” Mr. Trump said on Feb. 7 in one of a series of interviews Mr. Woodward conducted with the president for his upcoming book, “Rage.” The Washington Post and CNN were given advance copies of the book and published details on Wednesday. CNN also provided audio of some of Mr. Trump’s exchanges with Mr. Woodward.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Mr. Trump said. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
That was a vastly different story than Mr. Trump was telling the public. In early March the president was suggesting on Twitter that the virus was less deadly than the flu.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, excoriated the president over the report. “He knew and purposely played it down,” Mr. Biden said during a speech in Warren, Mich., Wednesday afternoon. “Worse, he lied to the American people.”
Mr. Trump did not deny the report in remarks at the White House later Wednesday. “The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country,” he said, taking credit for imposing restrictions on travel from China. He said that he was trying to “show confidence” with his public statements and rejected the suggestion that publicly minimizing the threat of the virus had cost lives.
He acknowledged speaking with Mr. Woodward, whose regular books on presidential administrations have a propensity for making news. “I gave him some quotes, and frankly, we’ll see how the book turned out,” Mr. Trump said. “I have no idea.”
According to the book, the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, warned the president on Jan. 28 that the coronavirus represented the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency, CNN reported, but Mr. Trump later said he did not remember the warning.
At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, shortly after the book’s contents were made public in news reports, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed that the president, who intentionally misled the public about the virus, had not lied.
“This president does what leaders do, good leaders,” she said, adding, “The president has never lied to the American public on Covid.”
But in public, Mr. Trump repeatedly claimed early on that the virus would disappear. On Jan. 22, asked by a CNBC reporter whether there were “worries about a pandemic,” the president replied: “No, not at all. We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
On Feb. 10 he was predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” And on Feb. 26, at a White House news conference, commenting on the country’s first reported cases, he said: “We’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.”
But by mid-March he was claiming publicly that “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” By then, experts said, the nation had already fallen behind on the steps it needed to take to combat the virus, from ramping up testing capability to distributing protective gear to health care workers.
Elsewhere in the book, according to CNN, the former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, is quoted calling Mr. Trump “dangerous” and “unfit.” He said he discussed with the former director of the office of national intelligence, Dan Coats, whether there should be “collective action” to speak out publicly against Mr. Trump. And Mr. Woodward includes an anecdote about Mr. Trump being heard in a meeting saying, “My fucking generals are a bunch of pussies” who care more about alliances than trade deals.