Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage” sent shockwaves across Washington on Wednesday that left the White House, Trump campaign and congressional Republicans scrambling to react to revelations that President Donald Trump concealed what he knew early on about how dangerous and deadly the coronavirus was.
A source close to the Trump campaign told CNN many were shocked by the President’s comments so early about how deadly coronavirus is, noting that the President kept that information from his own campaign.
“Hard to say fake news when there is audio of his comments,” a Trump campaign adviser said.
In Woodward’s book, which CNN obtained a copy of ahead of its September 15 release, Trump tells Woodward that “this is deadly stuff” on February 7 in a recorded interview, warning it was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” But Trump continued to publicly downplay the threat for weeks afterward, and he told Woodward on March 19 he did so purposefully. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said in a recorded interview. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
After CNN and The Washington Post reported on the book’s contents Wednesday, the White House insisted Trump has “never lied to the American public” about coronavirus.
Responding for the first time to the recordings made by Woodward, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that Trump was merely looking to convey calm when he publicly downplayed the virus while privately acknowledging its severity.
“When you are facing insurmountable challenges, it’s important to express confidence and express calm,” she said.
“The President was expressing calm and his actions reflect that,” she said, adding later: “The President has always been clear-eyed with the American people.”
Trump addressed the book at a White House event on Wednesday afternoon, defending his response to the pandemic and claiming that “you cannot show a sense of panic or you’re going to have bigger problems than you ever had before.”
“The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy,” Trump said. “We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”
Trump added of Woodward: “It’s a book that, I gave him some quotes and frankly, we’ll see how the book turned out. I have no idea.”
‘A little bit of a difference’
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said in response to Woodward’s reporting that if the President had made the decision earlier on to explain the dangers of coronavirus and the threat of the virus, it could have made “a little bit of a difference.”
“A little bit of alarm about the seriousness early on could have made a little bit of a difference,” Rubio said. “Getting people to think earlier on about some of the protective things we ultimately had to put in would have been better looking back.”
Unlike many of the tell-all books that the White House has been forced to react to during Trump’s presidency, some of the most damning details in Woodward’s book come directly from Trump’s mouth. And are on tape. Trump conducted 18 interviews with Woodward for “Rage,” which Woodward recorded, including some phone conversations late into the evenings without his staff.
Woodward also reported that Trump was warned by his national security team on January 28 that coronavirus was the “biggest national security threat of his presidency,” but he continued to say publicly for weeks afterward that the virus would disappear. Asked by Woodward if he remembers O’Brien telling him that, Trump said he did not.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force who is quoted in Woodward’s book telling others Trump’s leadership was “rudderless,” said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday he didn’t get the sense Trump was distorting things.
“Often he would want to, you know, make sure that the country doesn’t get down and out about things. I don’t recall anything that was any gross distortion in things that I spoke to him about,” Fauci said, adding that the quotes attributed to him in the book were sourced to “others.”
“You know, you should ask others. I don’t recall that at all,” he said.
‘Purposely played it down’
Trump’s 2020 opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, called Trump’s admission “a life or death betrayal of the American people.”
“He knew and purposely played it down,” Biden said, adding that Trump “failed to do his job on purpose.”
Democrats seized on the Woodward book Wednesday, casting it as more evidence that Trump has failed the public on the pandemic, while several top Republicans defended Trump as news of the book and its contents quickly ricocheted around Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans did not discuss the book at their party lunch Wednesday, according to two sources.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview with MSNBC that Trump’s comments showed “his weakness.”
“The way to avoid a panic is to show leadership – to say, ‘This is what the challenge is, we’re going to use scientific evidence that is available to us to contain it, we are going to make sure that we can stop the spread of it.’ That is what stops a panic, not ignoring it,” Pelosi said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is up for reelection in November, pointed to February 29 comments that Fauci made on NBC’s “Today” show, where Fauci said that there was “no need” for people to change their lifestyles “at this moment,” though Fauci also warned about the threat of “community spread” from the coronavirus and cautioned that the risk level “could change.”
“I don’t think he needs to go on TV and screaming we’re all going to die,” Graham told CNN. “His actions of shutting the economy down were the right actions. I think the tone during that time sort of spoke for itself. People knew it was serious.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a vulnerable Republican also up for reelection, said he wanted to see “the full context” of Trump’s comments before fully weighing in. But he added: “When you’re in a crisis situation, you have to inform people for their public health, but you also don’t want to create hysteria.”
Numerous other Senate Republicans declined to weigh in, saying either they had not yet read the book or needed to see more context.
“This is the first I’ve heard of that,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican. “The bombshell hasn’t hit me yet.”
CNN’s Dana Bash, Jim Acosta, Manu Raju, Lauren Fox, Ryan Nobles, Haley Byrd, Ali Zaslav and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.
This story is breaking and will be updated.