WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel defended President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus Sunday after book excerpts released last week showed that the president publicly downplayed the threat in the pandemic's early months.
In an interview on NBC News' "Meet the Press," McDaniel maintained that "20/20 vision is, in hindsight, perfect" and insisted that Trump acted "calm and steady and methodical" as he handled the pandemic, pointing to early steps he took, like canceling most travel from China and creating the coronavirus task force.
"The president was calm and steady in a time of unrest and uncertainty. And I think history will look back on him well as to how he handled this pandemic," she said.
"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," he said.
The book shows that while Trump was dismissing concerns about the virus in public, telling Americans that it was "like a flu" and that "hopefully, everything's going to be great," he told Woodward that the virus was "deadly stuff," worse than a serious flu.
Democrats have pointed to the audio to accuse Trump of having misled the American people. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called it proof of a "life-and-death betrayal of the American people."
Trump has argued that he simply wanted to keep Americans calm, an argument McDaniel echoed Sunday.
"I disagree that the president took political calculations into a global pandemic like we've never seen before that has decimated not just our country but countries across the world," she said.
"Think of what would have happened if he'd have gone out and said: 'This is awful. We should all be afraid. We don't have a plan,'" she said. "It would have been a run on the banks. It would have been a run on the hospitals. It would have been a run on the grocery stores."
Asked about the president's comments, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said leveling with the public is an important part of public health response.
"We know in public health, as well as just in general response to crisis, telling the truth never causes panic. If you just tell people the truth, they will respond, and they will trust you to continue to tell them the truth. The great leaders of the world have done that," he said.
"Science has to rule the day here. Science is what got us to the moon and allowed us to build medieval cathedrals. It eradicated smallpox and really reduced polio," he said. "And so I hope that we stick with the science and not with all this rhetoric that we're hearing right now."
More than 194,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to an NBC News analysis, with more than 6.5 million total cases in the U.S.
Controlled for population, America has had about 59 deaths per 100,000 people, an analysis from Johns Hopkins University shows. Just 10 of the 169 countries on the Hopkins list have worse rates of deaths per 100,000 people.
When asked about the outsize number of deaths in America — about one-fifth of all world coronavirus deaths — McDaniel shifted the blame to governors.
"We do have more testing. And I do think we have, we have, we had hot spots in New York where nursing homes were getting patients put back in who were sick. There were missteps made by the governor there," she said.
"The president has led us through uncertain times with a Democrat Party who's politicizing a time of crisis when usually people come together," she said.
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And she downplayed the president's monthslong resistance to endorsing masks. Trump equivocated on mask-wearing for months, even as top voices within his administration repeatedly told the public as early as April that wearing masks would be essential to stopping the spread of the virus.
Instead, she criticized Democrats for "politicizing" the virus, pointing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's having called it the "Trump virus."
"How is that not a disgusting thing, to say that people are being killed by the 'Trump virus'?" she asked.
"This is something that's affecting every American, Republican, Democrat. I have lost friends from this virus. The president has lost friends from this virus. This is personal," she said. "So to do that is, is not in the best interests of this country. We are already divided. Usually in crisis we come together. Let's show the best of America."