When he’s right, he’s right. What’s newsworthy about this isn’t what he said to Woodward, it’s what he was saying to the public at the time. April 13 was smack dab in the middle of Trump’s first strong push to reopen the country for business — just one day after Easter Sunday, his original target date for getting states to lift restrictions on businesses. He eventually backed off that timeline, but after Easter came and went he was full throttle on reopening.
In fact, on the very day that he spoke to Woodward, he was pushing back on Democratic governors who were reluctant to end their lockdowns so soon. That’s not their call, he insisted erroneously on Twitter. It’s my call.
Then he dialed up Woodward and said this:
In a newly released tape, Trump privately tells Bob Woodward in April that COVID-19 "is a killer if it gets you." pic.twitter.com/Jiib9GJqwz
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) September 15, 2020
You could argue that those two positions aren’t starkly contradictory. Yes, the virus is a killer to the wrong person, but maybe Trump believed that we were already past the worst of it in New York and New Jersey and that the number of infections going forward would be minimal. Everyone understands that reopening will mean *some* number of additional deaths. If he believed that number would be small, he might have reasonably concluded that opening up businesses was worth doing on balance.
But here’s another clip from the same conversation on April 13, in which he talks about how incredibly transmissible the virus is — again, correctly:
TONIGHT! In a Late Show EXCLUSIVE, journalist @realBobWoodward shares a new recording of his interviews with Trump that reveal even more of the President's failures to protect the American people from the Coronavirus. #LSSC pic.twitter.com/Aib8E6ngUO
— A Late Show (@colbertlateshow) September 14, 2020
Josh Jordan points out that just four days later he was on Twitter howling at anti-lockdown protesters to “liberate” their states:
The only apparent conclusion is that Trump was never in denial about the risk of infection and death from COVID. He understood from the start. But he also believed that a strong economy was his key credential for getting reelected in November. And so he took the position on reopening which (he thought) would benefit him, irrespective of what it meant for his constituents. Which is a theme for him, per this answer he gave when he was asked a few days ago about holding an indoor rally in Nevada:
President Donald Trump said that he was not afraid of catching the coronavirus during a crowded indoor rally in Henderson, Nevada, on Sunday night.
Speaking to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the president said: “Because you know why, I’m on a stage, it’s very far away, so I’m not at all concerned.”
The president did not seem concerned for the health of the thousands that had gathered to hear him speak and who were standing in close proximity for hours ahead of his speech.
The rallies are good for him (or so he thinks). Whether they’re good for the MAGA fans in the crowd is their problem, I guess. The Times reports today that the decision to hold the rally sparked an “internal backlash” within the campaign, with a top Trump advisor complaining that “the president was playing a game of Russian roulette in holding the indoor rally. The adviser, who requested anonymity so as not to anger Mr. Trump, said the campaign was taking a cavalier approach to the pandemic that could backfire politically.” It’s the great reopening debate all over again: What’s best for Trump trumps what’s best for his constituents, which makes for terrible politics even though he seems unable to grasp that.
His insistence on reopening before most of the electorate was comfortable doing so is probably his single biggest liability in November, a problem that shows up in poll after poll after poll. What the Woodward audio proves is that he was under no illusions about anything. He didn’t talk himself into believing that coronavirus was just a “flu,” as some of his fans have, or that it spreads less easily than the egghead scientists claim. He knew the truth. He just had different priorities. It cost the country dearly. It might cost him the presidency.
Having said all that, the quandary of how to balance business owners’ interest in preserving their livelihoods with the general public’s interest in containing the virus remains enormously difficult. This tweet is making the rounds today among D.C. journalists:
My God – American Ice Company, The Brixton, Echo Park, El Rey, The Gibson, Marvin, and Players Club reportedly will close “for the foreseeable future on Halloween.” according to report by @LauraHayesDC https://t.co/AYMVf3z7B0 pic.twitter.com/FJaMidNkXO
— PoPville (@PoPville) September 15, 2020
Some of their favorite bars are gone, incinerated by the virus’s effect on demand. At the same time, this Washington Post analysis is also circulating:
States that have reopened bars experienced a doubling in the rate of coronavirus cases three weeks after the opening of doors, on average. The Post analysis — using data provided by SafeGraph, a company that aggregates cellphone location information — found a statistically significant national relationship between foot traffic to bars one week after they reopened and an increase in cases three weeks later…
There have been 41 outbreaks tied to restaurants and the same number of outbreaks associated with bars, but bar outbreaks appeared to result in more infections, with 480 cases traced to those establishments compared with 180 from restaurants…
“Bars become particularly risky,” said Larry Lynch, who handles food science for the restaurant trade group. “Anybody who had been in bars knows that conversations get louder, people get closer.”
The good news is that the relationship between infections and restaurants wasn’t as strong, suggesting that limited-capacity indoor dining might be doable this fall. The trick is in convincing Americans to take that risk, especially with the CDC putting out a report suggesting that there *is* a connection between indoor dining and one’s chances of getting COVID.
As for Trump, the best thing he can do for himself now is not to continue to try to “downplay” the risk from the virus this fall. The more sober he is about a second wave, the more trust he might — might — be able to rebuild. I’ll leave you with these two headlines and invite you to note the dates. You would think painful experience would lead him to be more circumspect, but oh well.