CNN  — 

President Donald Trump, subdued but sharply defensive, insisted Thursday he hadn’t lied to the American public about the severity of coronavirus even though he told a journalist on tape he was downplaying it to avoid panic.

Confronting another political crisis caused by his own words and actions, Trump sought to both assign blame elsewhere for the deadly pandemic and share responsibility for the revelation he made in February that the virus was deadly and transmitted through the air.

He was speaking from the White House briefing room, where he’d assembled reporters ahead of an evening campaign rally in Michigan.

Trump, who does not draw a distinction between his official and political events, used the podium as a preview of sorts for his event later in the day, attacking rival Joe Biden in a lengthy and discursive opening statement.

He took a few questions afterward, noting who he thought were the high-caliber reporters in the room, before disappearing quickly back into the West Wing.

The President rejected a question about why he lied when he said in public the coronavirus was milder than the flu even though he was telling journalist Bob Woodward in private conversations it was worse.

And he pondered why Woodward – who is not the president – wouldn’t have disclosed earlier what he said.

“Such a terrible question and phraseology,” Trump responded when asked why he lied to the American people about the seriousness of Covid-19. “I didn’t lie. What I said is we have to be calm, we can’t be panicked.”

Later in Michigan, he took things a step further by attempting to compare that decision to downplay the pandemic to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II. Churchill was famously blunt and honest about the challenges that the British people would face from their Nazi opponents, whereas Trump admitted to Woodward that he was purposely not honest with Americans about the coronavirus.

“As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ We’re doing very well. As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ That’s what I did,” Trump said, later adding, “When Hitler was bombing London, Churchill, a great leader, would oftentimes go to a roof in London and speak. And he always spoke with calmness. He said we have to show calmness. No, we did it the right way. We’ve done a job like nobody.”

His response will do little to quell the uproar over Woodward’s book, “Rage,” which has already been used on the campaign trail to attack Trump as having mismanaged the pandemic.

Trump had been hoping to turn attention away from coronavirus and toward issues such as public safety and the economy. But the continuing presence of the pandemic appears unlikely to shift between now and Election Day.

After excerpts of Woodward’s book emerged on Wednesday, White House aides began pointing fingers at those they believed responsible for signing off on the 18 interviews the President participated in.

And while Trump referred to Woodward as a “wack job” in Michigan on Thursday night, earlier in the day, he had made it clear that it was his choice to speak extensively with the journalist most famous for exposing Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

“Bob Woodward is somebody that I respect just from hearing the name for many, many years, not knowing too much about his work, not caring about his work, but I thought it would be interesting to talk to him for a period of calls. So we did that,” Trump said.

He questioned why Woodward would not have released his quotes about coronavirus earlier if he believed them to be newsworthy – suggesting they were both responsible for concealing the information, though Woodward has said he wasn’t sure of the veracity of Trump’s comments at the time.

“Certainly if he thought that was a bad statement, he would have reported it, because he thinks that you know, you don’t want to have anybody that is going to suffer medically because of some fact,” Trump said. “And he didn’t report it because he didn’t think it was bad, nobody thought it was bad.”

And he claimed his goal through it all was to convey calm, though Trump has previously stoked fear on other topics, including on Thursday morning when he tweeted “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters” if he doesn’t win the election.

Trump, who expressed chagrin at the questions he was asked and left after 12 minutes of back-and-forth, once believed that speaking to Woodward might generate a positive portrayal of his presidency. Many of their conversations occurred without the knowledge of White House officials, sometimes at night when Trump was in his residence.

On Wednesday evening, however, Trump was occupied with coverage of the book. He listed the entire prime-time lineup of Fox News during his news conference, saying he’d watched every program the night before. And he said he woke up this morning to catch “Fox and Friends.”

CNN’s Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.