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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he knew the coronavirus was more deadly and contagious than the flu while he continued to downplay its dangers to the public, according to Woodward's new book "Rage."
"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 in excerpts of audio interviews obtained by CNN.
In interviews with Woodward between December 2019 and July 2020, Trump discussed the threat of the coronavirus with a level of detail that he had not yet acknowledged to the public, noting Feb. 7 that it was "deadly stuff," and "more deadly than your – even your strenuous flus."
While Trump discussed the threat of the virus to Woodward, he continued to assure the public that it was "under control" in the U.S. and would "go away." The pandemic has caused nearly 190,000 deaths in the U.S. with cases totaling over 6 million.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president on Wednesday after the publication of the interviews with Woodward, arguing that he was being a good leader by remaining calm.
"This president at a time when you're facing insurmountable challenges, it's important to express confidence, it's important to express calm," McEnany told reporters.
"The president has never lied to the American public on COVID," McEnany said. "The president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that."
Trump publicly compared the coronavirus to the flu, arguing that cases and deaths from the coronavirus were far less than the flu, but with the flu, "Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on," as he tweeted March 9.
He also told Woodward he was aware the virus was transmitted through the air in February. Yet in April when the CDC began advising people to wear masks to stop the virus' spread, Trump continued to resist wearing a mask in public, and only solidly endorsed mask-wearing as "patriotic" in July.
"It goes through air, Bob," Trump told Woodward in February. "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."
On March 19, the same day he told Woodward he was downplaying the virus to prevent panic and over a month after marveling at how easily the virus spread, Trump said during a White House briefing that the virus "surprised the whole world."
"And if people would have known about it, it could have stopped – been stopped in place. It could have been stopped right where it came from – China – if we would have known about it, if they would have known about it."
"It's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it," he told Woodward on April 13, CNN reported. Three days later, the White House was releasing guidelines on how to start reopening the country after coronavirus shutdowns.
He also told Woodward in March that the virus posed a greater risk to young people than was initially thought. "Plenty of young people," he said. He has told Americans repeatedly that children are at low risk as he pushed for schools to reopen.
The same day in February that Trump acknowledged to Woodward, "This is deadly stuff," he tweeted that with warmer weather, the virus "hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone" after a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China.
CNN and The Washington Post reported that Woodward writes Robert O'Brien, national security adviser, informed Trump on Jan. 28 that the coronavirus would be "the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency." That got Trump's attention, according to Woodward.
Trump told Woodward in May that he didn't recall O'Brien saying that, but said, "I'm sure he said it. Nice guy." Trump declared certain travel restrictions on China a few days after O'Brien's reported remarks.
Experts warned that Trump's downplaying of the virus might have a negative impact on Americans' efforts to curb the spread. But Trump has largely blamed China for the spread of the virus in the United States.
"The virus has nothing to do with me," Trump told Woodward in July. "It's not my fault. It's – China let the damn virus out."
Democratic nominee Joe Biden slammed Trump for his comments to Woodward before a campaign event on Wednesday, calling it a "life and death betrayal of the American people."
"He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people," Biden said. "He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in reaction to the revelations in Woodward's book that Trump is responsible for deaths because of his downplaying to the public.
"What he said about the virus early on, he 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 that we have today," Pelosi said Wednesday.
Woodward's book "Rage" is set for release on Sept. 15.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump chose to downplay coronavirus, according to Woodward book 'Rage'