New audio recordings of an interview between President Trump and life long investigative reporter Bob Woodward reveal Trump attempted to “downplay” the Coronavirus during its early days, but is that the whole story?
As part of his research for his latest book, Rage, Woodward interviewed the president 18-times on the record between December and July. Woodward, who famously broke the Watergate story during Nixon’s second term, recorded him and the president discussing a wide range of topics from his foreign policy to dealings with his cabinet, but the tapes he released Wednesday from February and March are making headlines.
On February 7th, Trump told Woodward, the Coronavirus “goes through the air. 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.”
Throughout February, Trump repeatedly told the public not to worry, that the virus and its transmission was under control, that it was only spreadable on hard surfaces. He assured us the case count would soon approach zero.
More than six-weeks later, after originally telling Woodward that the virus was airborne and it was much deadlier than originally thought – initial estimates pegged the mortality rate above 3% – Trump said “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump, media critics say, lied about the virus’s threat to the public to prevent panic and in turn contributed to an unnecessarily high death count for the sake of preserving the economy.
However, that view is narrow and incomplete. Yes, Trump’s early communications of the virus’s severity were completely off, the continued spread and deaths act as a tragic reminder, and the behavior of many could have been altered if he took a different approach to addressing the American people. But, the contextualized data around the time of these statements show that while Trump should have been more blunt about the potential dangers, his approach was not all entirely erroneous and our current apocalyptic scenario was far from certain.
As of February 7th, when the first controversial interview was conducted, less than 10 Americans were infected with COVID-19, and there were zero domestic deaths. Cases were relatively contained in China, with about 3,500 global new cases and 86 deaths that day.
By March 19th when the second interview took place, only 15,000 Americans were confirmed to be infected, and 240 died from the disease. At that point, we were far from the first virus peak and those numbers are dwarfed by where we are today. By then, Americans were more aware of the risk and were taking voluntary precautions.
Taking a step back, the Trump administration wasn’t ignoring the growing pandemic. The CDC began issuing warning as early as January 6th, and began screening passengers from Wuhan, China, the virus’s known point of origin, on January 16th, five days before the first case was reported in the U.S. On January 31st, Trump was one of the first to ban travel from China. He would later restrict travel from Europe after cases began spiking over there.
Between the creation of the Coronavirus Task Force and Trump’s second interview in question with Woodard, Trump repeatedly told the public through tweets and press conferences that the virus was under control and would soon be vanquished in the United States. However, according to Trump’s interview, he knew this was a lie, but he said what he said in order to avoid panic.
We had multiple points of information coming in. The CDC, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birks, the WHO, state and local health agencies, they all fed the American people information, and by all available information, Trump never tried to suppress their research.
Whether that’s a justifiable reason to delay the inevitable coast to coast panic is hotly contested, even among his supporters. If the goal were to slow the spread, Trump should have been blunt with the American people. The virus is 5x deadlier than the flu, but the risk is not equal. Older Americans with preexisting conditions are far more susceptible to complications. Telling the public it is no more dangerous than the flu is a lie and likely increased the initial transmission by negatively influencing people’s behavior.
But was Trump’s initial assertion accurate? Trump implied the virus was airborne, but that wasn’t common knowledge in February. It wasn’t until July when the World Health Organization released findings indicating the virus can linger in the air after leaving the body, which changes the dynamic of how we approach social distancing. If Trump announced the virus was airborne five months before researchers made those findings public, he would have been discredited by the media.
Woodward agreed with that assessment, telling the AP “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?” He added, “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.”
The information regarding its health risks were already being disseminated by the CDC. Trump never hid the facts.
At the time, the estimated death rate hovered around 3%-4%, but it was later downgraded by the CDC to an average of 0.6%. Still much deadlier than the flu, but far less dangerous than originally believed.
Again, no one knew what we were dealing with. After China’s misinformation campaign to hide the virus from the rest of the world, officials weren’t sure what was propaganda and what was fact.
Nonetheless, two big questions remain: was Trump justified in trying to prevent panic, and did Trump’s dismissive rhetoric match his official actions?
The first answer is mixed. Again, he should have been straightforward; Americans can be trusted with creating our own risk assessments based on real data. Many Americans turn to the president as the funnel for expert analysis. But Trump was not the only one attempting to deintensify the conversation. Throwing the country into a panic over a disease with a dozen infections that could very well have blown over would be have been a disaster.
Dr. Fauci, the de facto expert on how to address Coronavirus according to the media, also attempted to prevent panic in the early onset of the pandemic by telling people masks did not work. According to The Hill, Fauci “acknowledged that masks were initially not recommended to the general public so that first responders wouldn’t feel the strain of a shortage of PPE.”
Public health experts “were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply,” Fauci said.
“We wanted to make sure that the people, namely the health care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in a harm way, to take care of people who you know were infected with the coronavirus and the danger of them getting infected.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shared Trump’s approach, telling reporters on March 2nd he didn’t think New York’s outbreak would be as bad as other countries, adding the virus was primarily affecting the elderly. The next day, Cuomo continued by saying New York couldn’t contain the spread, but there’s no reason to panic.
But we already knew Trump’s angle. During a White House press conference on March 30th, Trump told reporters “I want to keep the country calm. I don’t want panic in the country.” Woodward’s revelations are nothing new from what Trump had been telling reporters for months. He’s been open about his attempts to quell fear.
Trump’s rhetoric at the time was both in line with heath experts and mirrored that made by other public officials. Other than comparing it to the flu, Trump was not dishonest in his attempts to prevent panic.
Did Trump’s attempt to cool the country interfere with his official actions? I’ve always said, look at what Trump does, not the stupid stuff he tweets on the toilet. Despite the rhetoric, the Trump administration took early action toward combating the spread of disease, including screening overseas travelers and halting travel from China all together, actions that were criticized by Democrats as fear mongering and unnecessary.
Existing FDA guidelines on testing prevented the use of new testing devices and the use of existing testing methods at unauthorized labs. The administration allowed for more labs to test and new tests to fly through FDA approval.
He would later temporarily ban travel from Europe, promise government funded COVID-19 treatment, declare a national emergency, and initiate the 15-days to lower the curve stay at home order in between the two interviews with Woodward.
In fact, while we can all point out Trump’s silly commentary, Dr. Fauci disagrees with the assertion that Trump ‘downplayed’ the virus. “Fauci denied that he ever heard the president ‘distort’ the threat of the coronavirus and maintained that Trump’s presentations to the public were largely in line with discussions he’d had with medical experts,” Politico reported after the audio was released on Wednesday. “When asked whether he ever felt Trump was downplaying the severity of the coronavirus, Fauci said no.”
“I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything,” Fauci said. “In my discussions with him, they were always straightforward about the concerns that we had. We related that to him. When he would go out, I’d hear him discussing the same sort of things.”
Back in April, Fauci admitted Trump took his advice in when to and how to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus. Reuters reported, “top U.S. health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday that President Donald Trump listened to his advice when he recommended that mitigation efforts be taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Based on the actions taken by the White House, Trump did not act to play down the outbreak and did what was recommended to combat the still largely unknown virus. Sure, he’s not perfect, and his attempts to maintain calmness amid early signs of disaster could have been done differently, hindsight is 20/20, but we knew for months, from his own public admission, that Trump was using his position as President to prevent panic.