An admission like this might endanger Trump’s campaign if this country weren’t a civic disaster that no longer demanded accountability from its leaders.
Just one more reason he should be grateful to be an American.
The early pro-Trump spin on this bombshell on political Twitter is to try to make it a story about Bob Woodward sitting on the information for months in order to cash in with a late-campaign book instead of revealing it ages ago. That’s a fair point, but maaaybe one that can wait five minutes until we absorb the president admitting that he held back what he knew about the danger from a once-in-a-century pandemic. Or we could all compromise by admitting that both Trump and Woodward are unfit for the jobs they hold.
There’s also some developing spin that this is really a story about Trump’s health experts also not taking the virus seriously enough early on. That’s a fair point too — if Trump knew in early February that it was much deadlier than the flu (and airborne!), why was the Surgeon General still discouraging wearing masks three weeks later?
The problem with that spin, though, is that eventually the health experts did come around on demanding lockdowns, being sticklers about masks, etc, whereas Trump … never did. He knew how dangerous the virus was on February 7, yet here he was a month later on Twitter:
A few days before that he spent several minutes of airtime on Hannity’s show comparing COVID to the plain ol’ flu. Why?
Listen to the audio Woodward recorded. The two clips begin at around 1:55 here.
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) September 9, 2020
The idea that he downplayed the severity of the virus in public to avert panic is silly given the time frame. On the day he said that, March 19, New York City was already locking down. San Francisco has been under a stay-at-home order for weeks. Public panic was a fact of life. What Trump was worried about was a panic on the stock market specifically, and the reason that worried him is because he was planning to run this fall on the big beautiful gains in the Dow since he took office. Remember that he reportedly flipped out in late February after Nancy Messonier of the CDC warned reporters that community spread was coming to the U.S. and that it might affect daily life in unprecedented ways. That caused the stock market to dive, infuriating Trump to the point where he reportedly considered firing her.
He wasn’t worried about public anxiety over the virus. He was worried about investor anxiety over their portfolios and what it would mean for his election chances. He thought he could talk the market up, even enlisting economic advisors like Larry Kudlow to stupidly insist in late February that the virus was mostly contained. All of Trump’s preferences in handling the virus since then have flowed from that view, that his chances at reelection depend on a revival of the economy and the stock market (which he often seems to conflate) and that anything he can do rhetorically to encourage that is what should be done. That’s why he wanted states to reopen earlier than the experts did, that’s why he tried to hold in-person events this summer, that’s why he’s pushing schools everywhere to resume in-class instruction this fall regardless of the extent of local infections, to free parents up to get back to work. Downplaying the virus to create a perception of normalcy is, he thinks, his key to a second term. That’s why he’s worried about “panic,” not some altruistic sense of not wanting the average joe to feel anxiety.
Some of the quotes from Woodward’s new book, most notably those attributed to Anthony Fauci, are right in line with that.
Mattis quietly went to Washington National Cathedral to pray about his concern for the nation’s fate under Trump’s command and, according to Woodward, told Coats, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit.”
In a separate conversation recounted by Woodward, Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass,” to which the director of national intelligence replied, “True. 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.”…
Fauci at one point tells others that the president “is on a separate channel” and unfocused in meetings, with “rudderless” leadership, according to Woodward. “His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said, according to Woodward. “His sole purpose is to get reelected.”
That’s exactly what John Bolton told ABC a few months ago about Trump’s approach to foreign policy: “There really isn’t any guiding principle — that I was able to discern other than– what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection.” Trump knew the virus was deadly from the start, realized that it was going to be a major electoral liability for him, and so he undertook to do what he could to convince people that it’s not as big a deal as the egghead scientists claim. Whether that meant scoffing at masks early on, becoming a cheerleader for premature reopening, and generally inculcating a sense among fans that the crisis is overblown, it’s worked to some degree. Two weeks ago, a poll found that 57 percent of Republicans deemed the country’s enormous COVID death toll “acceptable.” His mismanagement of the pandemic is the single biggest mistake of his presidency but his dogged effort to downplay the threat and to turn it into a partisan issue despite having known better early on may salvage just enough partisan support to get him reelected.
Like Radley Balko says, since when does Trump care about public panic anyway? His new campaign message is that Antifa is coming to kill you and that Biden wants to let poor people overrun America’s suburbs. He’s all about panic when it serves his interests. In the case of COVID and its effects on his economic record, though, panic cut the other way.
Here’s one more quote from the book, as a gloss on the Atlantic story that got so much attention last week:
The loathing was mutual. “Not to mention my f***ing generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals,” Trump told White House trade adviser Peter Navarro at one point, according to Woodward.
He also apparently let slip to Woodward that he’s built some sort of new nuclear weapons system that was supposed to remain secret, and he boasted about Kim Jong Un once regaling him with “a graphic account of Kim having his uncle killed.”
Like I say, he’s lucky to be president of a country in late-stage decline, that no longer cares about whether its politicians are fit for office.
I recommend revisiting this timeline from Tim Miller of various Trump pronouncements early on in the pandemic to situate Trump’s February 7 comment to Woodward about how deadly the virus is. Or, if you can’t be bothered, just watch the clip below from July that’s going around today about his relentless downplaying of the crisis looooong after the public was already panicked about it. Fauci, at least, is trying to do damage control:
QUESTION: Did you get any sense that President Trump was downplaying the coronavirus.
"No, no, I didn’t. I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything." – Dr. Anthony Fauci https://t.co/LXANZOY8P2
— Jon Nicosia (@NewsPolitics) September 9, 2020
That would have been very helpful to Trump, if not for the fact that Woodward had audio of the president himself.
Whoever does Fauci’s next interview really needs to press him on this: If Trump had reason to know from Xi in early February that the virus was unusually deadly — and airborne — why were Fauci and other experts still emphasizing hand-washing and ambivalent about the potential threat to the U.S. at the time? According to WaPo, Woodward reports that Trump advisor Matthew Pottenger warned at a meeting on January 28 that “after reaching contacts in China, it was evident that the world faced a health emergency on par with the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.” Why wasn’t that information relayed in the starkest terms immediately, with Trump and Fauci demanding that the states act ASAP to limit community spread?
Exit question: Why did Trump agree to be interviewed by Bob Woodward in the first place — on tape, to boot?