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President Trump admitted to misleading the American public by downplaying the risks of the coronavirus during the early months of the pandemic in interviews for a book by famed Washington journalist Bob Woodward.
In a conversation recorded Feb. 7, Trump said the virus is “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” despite repeatedly saying it wasn’t a major concern for the U.S. over the course of that month. On March 19, Trump told Woodward that he had deliberately understated the threat of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump defended his approach after the tapes became public this week. “I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy,” he said. “We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.” Throughout the course of the pandemic, Trump has consistently pushed for states to reopen businesses and schools despite the increased risk of infection those steps bring.
The U.S. has suffered the largest outbreak of coronavirus in the world, with nearly 6.5 million known cases and more than 193,000 deaths. Experts say tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented if the country had started mitigation efforts like social distancing earlier.
Why there’s debate
Disapproval of the administration’s response to the pandemic has been one of the main reasons Trump has trailed his opponent, Joe Biden, for months in polls of the presidential election. Even in an extremely polarized political environment, these newly unveiled statements may be enough to shift voters even further away from the president.
The fallout from the comments could endure far beyond November’s election, some argue.
Trump’s admission that he purposefully deceived the American public about the dangers of the virus, rather than simply making mistakes, is one of the most damning scandals in modern American history, his critics say. Biden called it a “life-and-death betrayal of the American people.” The revelation also implicates other members of the administration, who presumably knew the president was misleading the public and remained silent.
Others argue that the majority of the public already assumed that the president was being untruthful about the risks of the virus. While Trump’s pandemic response as a whole has severely hurt his reelection prospects, these statements specifically will have little impact, they argue. Some have accused Woodward of putting profits over American lives by saving the statements for his book, rather than publishing them at the time.
The statements reframe the administration’s failed coronavirus response
“Trump’s statements to Woodward force us, well, force some of us at least, to wonder: What if? What if Trump had risen to the occasion? What if he had been more forthright with the public about what he was hearing in private? … What if this 9/11-level failure had been treated like a 9/11-level failure last spring? Would our children be back in school? Would some of our loved ones still be alive?” — Brian Stelter, CNN
Trump’s actions are far more important than his motivations
“His revelation doesn’t fundamentally change a fact that we’ve always known — that whatever Trump said in private, he did nothing to stop the coronavirus from ruining American lives and livelihoods. Trump’s motivation for doing nothing matters. But it matters far less than the fact of doing nothing itself.” — Jon Allsop, Columbia Journalism Review
The comments will make Trump’s chances at reelection even smaller
“In the campaign … These revelations bring the pandemic and all of its complications, all of its disruptions, right back front and center. And that is a place of vulnerability for this president because lots of his supporters know that he’s optimistic and strong. True. But if that optimism and that strength cost the country things that it wishes it hadn’t been cost and it imposed difficulties people are so tired of, there’s only one person to blame for that: The president of the United States.” — Major Garrett, CBS News
Trump has a unique ability to endure scandals that would sink any other president
“Does that move the needle? Maybe, in some places, in some states, and if it’s very close, it could. This president has a unique ability to get beyond these moments.” — Bret Baier, Fox News
This removes any doubt that Trump is responsible for America’s high death toll
“Admitting he knew early on how deadly the coronavirus could be potentially hangs the responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of lost jobs on Trump.” — Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle
The tapes don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know
“Woodward reveals … a President Trump who isn’t that different from who we see on camera every day. For each of these comments to Woodward, the president has said something remarkably similar in public, most of which were quickly forgotten in our hypersonic news cycle.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
Trump’s legacy will be tarnished
“Bob Woodward’s revelations matter. They will matter to the outcome of this election. And they will certainly matter in rendering an empirical judgment on Donald Trump’s presidency.” — Tim Miller, Bulwark
The difference between earnest mistakes and lies is important
“Whatever Trump’s motivation, his falsehoods are criminal and inexcusable. On second thought, that he knew better actually makes it worse. Trump is like the captain of a ship who knows it is about to hit an iceberg but doesn’t tell the passengers to make for the lifeboats. That is an offense even more serious than simply falling asleep at the watch.” — Max Boot, Washington Post
Other members of the administration will have to answer for their actions, too
“Mr. Woodward’s tapes make clear that members of the Trump administration failed to act — even behind the scenes — based on what they knew at the time.” — Editorial, New York Times
Woodward could have saved lives by publishing Trump’s quotes when he got them
“Woodward could have published his scoop about Trump’s true attitude toward COVID-19 back in February. Or he could have done it in March or April, when cases began surging in New York and California. He could have done it any time before the well-planned roll-out for his book. … That decision is morally repugnant.” — Samuel G. Freedman, Chicago Sun-Times
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