At time of writing, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 190,000 Americans.
Burdened by ineffectual leaders and a bloated, profit-driven healthcare system, the wealthiest nation in the world also holds the distinction of having objectively one of the most fundamentally flawed responses to the ongoing pandemic. From dismissing the bug’s lethality to staging political rallies and renouncing (if only by example) the use of protective masks in public, the most elite of our political class gave precedence to their own careers over the health and wellbeing of people they purport to serve—nearly always to the benefit, if not the behest, of their most influential constituent donors.
Unlike citizens of other developed nations, whose leaders offered them substantial financial assistance allowing them to remain safe at home while the virus ran its course, American workers were oft-criticized by their elected officials for refusing to behave like sacrificial lambs. Some were demeaned and humiliated simply for having accepted what was offered: unemployment checks that put a hundred dollars more in their pockets than the rage-inducing, unlivable wages they’d got before they lost their jobs by no fault of their own.
No one has accepted responsibility less than the president of the United States. More than anyone, his complicity in this American tragedy was in no way unwitting.
On Wednesday, CNN published a series of audio recordings giving Americans a chance to hear the truth, directly from the horse’s mouth: veteran journalist Bob Woodward (All the President’s Men, Obama’s Wars, Fear) conducted 18 separate interviews with President Trump for his new book, Rage, which is slated to hit shelves next week. Each interview was recorded with the president’s permission, many taking place in the weeks after news of the virus first broke and then just after the nation went into lockdown.
What the recordings and Woodward’s book more broadly reveal is that Trump had candidly acknowledged on February 7 the severity of the public crisis unfolding before him—that the virus was, in the president’s own words, “deadly stuff,” “more deadly than your strenuous flus”—statements he would go on to contradict in front of cameras and amid rising disapproval ratings.
Woodward: And so, what was President Xi saying yesterday?
Trump: Oh, we were talking mostly about the uh, the virus. And I think he’s going to have it in good shape, but you know, it’s a very tricky situation. It’s –
Woodward: Indeed it is.
Trump: It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, 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 your – you know, your, even your strenuous flus. You know, people don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?
Woodward: I know. It’s much forgotten.
Trump: Pretty amazing. And then I say, well, is that the same thing-
Woodward: What are you able to do for –
Trump: This is more deadly. This is five per- you know, this is five percent versus one percent and less than one percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.
On March 19, the president is on record telling Woodward—again, in stark contrast to many of the public statements that would follow—that he understands the virus is not merely a threat to the elderly, but to the young as well.
Trump goes on to confess: “I wanted to always play it down.”
Trump: Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old- older.
Woodward: Yeah, exactly.
Trump: Young people too, plenty of young people.
Woodward: So, give me-
Trump: So what’s going on-
Woodward: -a moment of talking to somebody, going through this with Fauci or somebody who kind of, it caused a pivot in your mind. Because it’s clear, just from what’s on the public record that you went through a pivot on this to, ‘oh my god, the gravity is almost inexplicable and unexplainable.’
Trump: Well I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you-
Woodward: Sure, I want you to be.
Trump: I wanted to- I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.
Following those interviews, Trump would go on to “play it down” on many occasions. Just a few days later, for example, he would criticize Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, where—as of this writing—more than 445,000 people have tested positive for covid-19, saying, “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.”
“Unfortunately, the enemy is death. It’s death. A lot of people are dying, so it’s very unpleasant,” Trump concluded a March 30 news conference in the White House rose garden.
Trump would go on to deliver suspect medical advice, encouraging Americans to take the drug hydroxychloroquine, which is contraindicated for millions of Americans with heart conditions; serious side effects of the drug include heart rhythm problems and even liver failure. Asked about the drug on Fox News on March 27, Trump is recorded saying, “I haven’t seen bad. I’ve not seen bad.” Two weeks later he would tell Americans, “You are not going to die from this pill,” adding, “I really think it’s a great thing to try.”
The FDA has since warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine due to its serious side effects, saying its determination was based on a large, randomized clinical trial consistent with others around the country in which the medication “showed no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery,” adding, “Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.”
Days before the death toll passed 20,000 in April, Trump tells reporters from the White House podium, “I couldn’t have done it any better,” As it passed 30,000, he claimed he’d “heard” the deaths would halt around 60,000. Around the same time he began his push to reopen the country, even as leaked documents showed the nation’s top infectious disease experts had warned him against it—120,000 Americans have died since.
“You see states are starting to open up now, and it’s very exciting to see,” Trump said on April 23. The death toll passed 50,000 the next day.
“It’s gonna go away, this is going to go away,” he said on April 29. Six days later, more than 70,000 were dead. Three days after that, on May 8, Trump would assure Americans: “This is going to go away without a vaccine. It is going to go away.”
The story Trump is selling now is that a vaccine will miraculously arrive, conveniently, a few days before the election—even though medical experts are insistent there is no possible way to determine the safety or efficacy of a vaccine in that timeframe. As Woodward’s tapes and Trump’s own record of public remarks show, the president will say anything but the truth; anything but what will save the most lives; and anything to try and salvage his candidacy.