September 10, 2020

Trump says he downplayed the coronavirus to prevent 'a panic'

Daily Briefing

    President Trump during an on-the-record interview with Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward in March said he was "playing … down" the novel coronavirus's threat in America to avoid "creat[ing] a panic," according to a forthcoming book by Woodward and audio recordings obtained by several news outlets.

    US new coronavirus cases near 6.4M, deaths approach 191K

    Reports of Trump's comments come as U.S. officials as of Thursday morning reported a total of 6,378,900 cases of the novel coronavirus virus since the country's epidemic began—up from 6,345,700 cases reported as of Wednesday morning.

    Data from the New York Times shows there are 12 states that have seen comparatively higher rates of coronavirus transmission, meaning they've had a daily average of at least 15 newly reported coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the past week, where rates of newly reported cases are "staying high." Those states are Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

    Meanwhile, the Times' data shows that the daily averages of newly reported cases over the past seven days are "going down" in Alabama, Georgia, Guam, and Mississippi, which had all been seeing comparatively higher rates of coronavirus transmission.

    The Times' data also shows there are five states that have seen comparatively lower rates of coronavirus transmission, meaning they've had a daily average of fewer than 15 newly reported coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the past week, but are now seeing those rates "going up." Those states are Delaware, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

    In addition, the Times' data shows that Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands; Washington, D.C.; and 30 states have had comparatively lower rates of new coronavirus cases over the past week, and those rates are "staying low." Those states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

    U.S. officials as of Thursday morning also had reported a total of 190,714 deaths linked to the coronavirus since the country's epidemic began—up from 189,538 deaths reported as of Wednesday morning.

    According to the Times' data, Guam, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, and Puerto Rico saw their average daily numbers of newly reported deaths linked to the coronavirus rise over the past 14 days.

    Trump tells Woodward 'he wanted to always play … down' the coronavirus' severity

    Since the start of America's coronavirus epidemic, public health officials have said one of the best ways to contain the virus is by educating the public on how it spreads and the deadly nature of Covid-19, the disease caused by the pathogen. However, Trump during on-the-record interviews with Woodward at the beginning of the country's epidemic said he downplayed the coronavirus's severity, according to Woodward's forthcoming book "Rage" and audio recordings of the interviews that were obtained by news outlets.

    Woodward interviewed Trump 18 times for his book, which is scheduled to be released on Sep. 15. The book aims to detail what Trump understood about the novel coronavirus early on during America's epidemic and explain why Trump made certain decisions about which information to disseminate to the public.

    According to CNN, which obtained an advanced copy of "Rage," Woodward writes in the book that during an intelligence briefing on Jan. 28, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien told Trump that the novel coronavirus could be the "biggest national security threat" Trump would see during his presidency. In addition, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger told Trump that an outbreak of the virus could resemble the 1918 Spanish Flu, which resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide, according to Woodward.

    Three days after that intelligence briefing, Trump imposed restrictions on travel to China, but he did not yet implement broad measures to contain the coronavirus's spread in America, Axios reports.

    Later, during interviews with Woodward in February and March, Trump appeared to acknowledge that he had learned the coronavirus posed a serious threat to the public—and a threat more severe than many Americans may have known at the time.

    For example, Trump on Feb. 7 told Woodward that he knew the novel coronavirus could spread "through the air." Trump continued, "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."

    Trump also at that time told Woodward that the novel coronavirus is "more deadly than even your strenuous flus." Trump said, "This is more deadly. This is five per—you know, this is 5% versus 1% and less than 1%, you know. So, this is deadly stuff."

    Then, in an interview with Woodward on March 7, Trump said he had learned "some startling facts": that the virus does not only severely affect older adults, it also attacks "young people too, plenty of young people."

    But publicly, Trump during February and March continued to downplay the severity of the country's coronavirus epidemic. For instance, Trump in February said the number of new coronavirus cases in the United States would "within a couple of days [be] going to be down close to zero," Axios reports.

    Trump during those months also routinely compared the coronavirus with the flu in public comments, with statements that made it seem as if the coronavirus was no more severe than most influenza strains. For instance, on March 9, Trump in a tweet compared America's number of coronavirus-related deaths at that time with the number of flu deaths the country sees each year. "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life [and] the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!" he wrote.

    In an interview with Woodward on March 19, Trump appeared to acknowledge that he had been understating the novel coronavirus' threat in public comments. In audio recordings obtained by news outlets, Trump told Woodward that he "wanted to always play [the coronavirus's threat] down," and he "still like[d] playing it down, because [he didn't] want to create a panic."

    Woodward, Trump criticized for keeping information from the public

    On Wednesday, observers criticized both Woodward and Trump for failing to publicly disclose what they knew about the novel coronavirus earlier this year.

    For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday said, Trump "understood better than he let on when he was calling it a hoax. His delay, distortion, and denial about the threat is responsible for many of the deaths and infections … not all of them, but many of them could have been prevented."

    And former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the Democratic nominee running against Trump for president, said Trump "knowingly and willingly lied about the threat (the coronavirus) posed to the country for months. … He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose."

    Woodward, Trump respond

    Woodward in an interview with the Associated Press said he did not reveal Trump's comments on the novel coronavirus sooner because Woodward was unsure whether Trump's statements were accurate.

    "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?" Woodward told the AP.

    According to the Post, Woodward did not learn that Trump's information on the virus had come from a high-level intelligence report until May.

    Separately, Trump during a White House press conference on Wednesday said he had downplayed the novel coronavirus's threat to try to prevent a "frenzy" in America.

    "So the fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don't want people to be frightened," Trump said. "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. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength."

    Trump also pushed back against claims that his public statements about the virus gave the public a false sense of security and allowed the virus to spread because people thought they didn't have to strictly adhere to coronavirus mitigation measures. And when asked why he didn't take more aggressive measures early on to prevent the coronavirus's spread in America based on what he knew in February and March, Trump said, "You didn't really think it was going to be to the point where it was," Politico reports.

    Overall, Trump said, "We have to have leadership. We have to show leadership. And the last thing you want to do is create a panic in a country" (Gangel et al., CNN, 9/9; Perano, "Vitals," Axios, 9/9; Forgey/Choi, Politico, 9/9; Ballhaus, Wall Street Journal, 9/9; Italie, Associated Press, 9/9; Dawsey, Washington Post, 9/9; New York Times, 9/10; Trump tweet, 3/9).

    Have a Question?

    x

    Ask our experts a question on any topic in health care by visiting our member portal, AskAdvisory.

    X
    Cookies help us improve your website experience. By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies.