MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty President Donald Trump
Newly released tapes from months of interviews Donald Trump gave to reporter Bob Woodward show the president speaking candidly about the true threat posed by the novel coronavirus, despite his public statements otherwise.
In the audio from those conversations, excerpts of which were published Wednesday by CNN and The Washington Post, Trump acknowledges behind closed doors the opposite of what he was telling the country.
The interviews with Woodward are the basis of his book Rage, set to be released on Tuesday as a follow-up to his 2018 book, Fear.
CNN reported that Trump chose to speak with Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one half of the reporting duo that covered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, after taking umbrage at how he was depicted in Woodward's earlier book.
Woodward recorded their conversations with Trump's permission, according to CNN.
In addition to the tapes, copies of his upcoming book were obtained and reported on by CNN, The New York Times and the Post.
Though Trump publicly insisted the coronavirus would "disappear" and downplayed it compared to the seasonal flu, his interviews with Woodward show he was aware of its dangers as early as February.
After talking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the two leaders "were talking mostly about the virus and I think he's going to have it in good shape, but it's a very tricky situation. It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch."
"That’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus," Trump, 74, continued. "People don't realize, we lose 25,000-30,000 people a year here, who would ever think that, right? I mean it's pretty amazing. And then I said, 'Well is that the same thing?' This is more deadly.”
"This is deadly stuff," he said in that February call.
On March 9, however, he tweeted: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. . ... At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"
It wasn't until mid-March that the White House embraced a large-scale coronavirus response, including encouraging social distancing, after Trump had ordered travel restrictions on China and Europe.
"Bob, really to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," Trump told Woodward on March 19, days after what Woodward described Trump as pivoting his approach toward the seriousness of the coronavirus.
"Now it's turning out that it's not just old people, Bob — today and yesterday some startling facts came out, it's not just older people," the president told Woodward in that March interview.
The federal government's pandemic response has been much scrutinized since the spring, with many describing it as initially inept and ill-equipped, particularly with rolling out testing and with providing states comprehensive guidelines.
Trump's contradictory rhetoric about the virus is underlined by Woodward's tapes.
Getty Images President Donald Trump
The president has openly waffled between supporting his health officials and undercutting them, between highlighting the dangers of the virus that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. and arguing it would "like a miracle ... disappear."
Trump has in turn touted his travel restrictions from China and Europe, in January and March, respectively, as well as his administration's work on the ventilator supply.
He has also argued the states failed to handle their outbreaks.
Speaking with Woodward on July 21, in their last interview, he reportedly said: "The virus has nothing to do with me. It's not my fault. It's — China let the damn virus out."
Though Trump readily spoke with Woodward over a period of months and praised him last year as "cool, calm and interesting," he preemptively slammed the new book.
"The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been," the president tweeted in August, going on to call Woodward a "social pretender ... who never has anything good to say."
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that the audio and quotes of the president's thoughts were not as they seemed, as reporters grilled her on the disparities.
"The president has never lied to the American public," she said, arguing that "the president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that."
Alex Wong/Getty Images President Donald Trump
"The president has never lied to the American public about COVID," White House press sec. Kayleigh McEnany says in response to reports that Pres. Trump admitted he deliberately played down coronavirus threat in an interview with Bob Woodward. https://t.co/Ud65CGPMjB pic.twitter.com/j2odpoNA7n
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) September 9, 2020
"At a time when you're facing insurmountable challenges, it's important to express confidence, it's important to express calm. ... He makes clear that he doesn't want to see chaos," McEnany said.
"The president has always been clear-eyed with the American people," she said.
At an event later Wednesday, Trump said, "I gave him [Woodward] some quotes and, frankly, we’ll see how the book turned out. I have no idea."
He called himself "a cheerleader for this country" and said, like McEnany had, that he didn't want to cause panic though he has a history of histrionic language and all-caps declarations on other issues.
According to the Post and other outlets, Woodward writes in his new book of Trump disparaging predecessors George W. Bush ("a stupid moron") and Barack Obama ("highly overrated," unintelligent and not a great speaker).
Trump said he personally liked to call President Obama "Barack Hussein," using Obama's first and middle name, according to Woodward.
Woodward also writes of Trump praising North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — who sent the president fawning letters, which Woodward obtained. In one letter, Kim wrote of the "deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force."
Trump, who has pushed an unorthodox form of face-to-face diplomacy in order to de-escalate the threat of North Korea, called Kim "far beyond smart," according to Woodward.
Woodward writes that, describing his noted fondness for autocrats like Kim, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump told Woodward: “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”
Woodward's book reportedly includes other scathing accounts of Trump, adding to what has become a cottage industry of his former aides writing negative tell-alls.
“His attention span is like a minus number,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the coronavirus task force, once said of Trump, Woodward writes. “His sole purpose is to get re-elected.”
Trump's former Defense Secretary James Mattis — who has since denounced him publicly — also said he "has no moral compass,” according to Woodward.
He writes that former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, ousted by Trump in 2019, said that "to him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie."
(The officials named in Woodward's book could not be immediately reached by PEOPLE for comment.)
Trump's son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner, "is quoted extensively" in Rage, according to the Post.
He reportedly offers this take on the Trump presidency: It's not unlike Alice in Wonderland — and Trump is like the Cheshire cat.
"The most dangerous people around the president," Kushner said, according to Woodward, "are overconfident idiots."