US President Donald Trump acknowledged to a journalist early in the coronavirus pandemic that he played down the danger of the health crisis despite having evidence to the contrary, according to a new book.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Mr Trump told author Bob 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.”
CNN on Wednesday broadcast interviews Mr Woodward did with the president for his new book Rage. The book, to go on sale next Tuesday, just weeks before the November 3 presidential election, comes amid criticism of Mr Trump's efforts to battle Covid-19.
The Republican president, assailed by his Democratic rival Joe Biden over the slow US government response to the coronavirus, played down the crisis for months as it took hold and spread across the country.
In the March 19 conversation, Mr Trump told Woodward that some “startling facts” had emerged showing the extent of those at risk: “It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.”
Mr Trump on Wednesday defended his handling of the virus, which has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States.
“The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened,” he said at the White House. “We’ve done well from any standard.”
According to the interviews, CNN and The Washington Post reported, Mr Trump knew the virus was dangerous in early February.
“It goes through the air,” the president said in a February 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.”
A week after that interview, Mr Trump said at a White House briefing that the number of US coronavirus cases “within a couple days is going to be down close to zero”.
Mr Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden said the president's actions were "almost criminal".
"He knew how deadly it was," Mr Biden said while campaigning in Michigan. "He lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.
"It was a life and death betrayal of the American people," Mr Biden said.
"It's disgusting," Mr Biden told CNN later . "Think about it. Think about what he did not do."
Woodward in an interview with the Associated Press defended himself from online critics who questioned why he kept Mr Trump’s comments to himself for months as a pandemic raged.
“He tells me this, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, but is it true?’ Trump says things that don’t check out, right?”
The celebrated Washington Post journalist and best-selling author, spoke with Mr Trump 18 times for his book.
Using a famous phrase from the Watergate era, when Mr Woodward's reporting for the Post helped lead to President Richard Nixon's resignation, the 77-year-old journalist said his mission was to determine, "What did he know and when did he know it?"
On Twitter and elsewhere online, commentators accused Woodward of valuing book sales over public health. "Nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed," wrote Esquire's Charles Pierce.
Other revelations in Woodward's book include the president's disparaging remarks about US military leaders. He drew criticism this week following reports that he had denigrated fallen military personnel and veterans.
Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, Woodward asked the President about his views on the concept of white privilege and whether he felt isolated by that privilege from the plight of black Americans.
“No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” Mr Trump replied, according to media reports on the book. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Woodward told AP that Mr Trump called him “out of the blue” in early February to “unburden himself” about the virus, which then had few cases in the US. But he said that only in May was he satisfied that Mr Trump’s comments were based on reliable information and that by then the virus had spread nationwide.
“If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” Woodward said. At that point, he said, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.
“That was the demarcation line for me,” he said. “Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable.”