WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump acknowledged in February he knew how deadly and contagious the novel coronavirus was but did not convey that information to the American people because he did not want to create a panic, according to interviews for a new book.
The recorded interviews, obtained by CNN and based on a new book titled “Rage” by journalist Bob Woodward, came out just weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election and as Trump’s efforts to battle COVID-19 have come under intense criticism as being too little too late.
The Republican president, who has been hammered by Democratic opponent Joe Biden over the slow U.S. government response to the coronavirus, played down the virus for months as it took hold and spread quickly across the country.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, days after he declared a national emergency. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
In that conversation, Trump also told Woodward that some “startling facts” had just come out about the virus’ targets: “It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.”
The White House on Wednesday denied Trump intentionally misled Americans about the virus, which has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States so far, with new cases spiking in the Midwest.
“Absolutely not,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at a news briefing shortly after reports about the book emerged.
“The president never downplayed the virus.”
According to the interviews, CNN and The Washington Post reported, Trump knew the virus was especially deadly in early February.
“It goes through the air,” Trump said in a recording of a Feb. 7 interview with Woodward. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.
“And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for the book, due to be released Sept 15.
Other revelations in the book include Trump’s disparaging remarks about U.S. military leaders, after he drew criticism this week after news reports that he denigrated fallen military personnel and veterans.
In Woodward’s book, an aide to former Defense Secretary James Mattis heard Trump say in a meeting, “my f—ing generals are a bunch of pussies” because they cared more about alliances than trade deals. Mattis asked the aide to document the comment in an email, CNN reported.
On Black Lives Matter, Woodward asked Trump his views on the concept of white privilege and whether he feels isolated by that privilege from the plight of Black Americans.
“No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all,” Trump replied, according to media reports on the book.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Dan Grebler)