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Home/Rod Dreher/Trump Confesses He Downplayed Covid

Trump Confesses He Downplayed Covid

(Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

No two ways about it, this is terrible for the President. From the Washington Post:

President Trump’s head popped up during his top-secret intelligence briefing in the Oval Office on Jan. 28 when the discussion turned to the coronavirus outbreak in China.

“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”

Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed. He told the president that after reaching contacts in China, it was evident that the world faced a health emergency on par with the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Ten days later, Trump called Woodward and revealed that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.

At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the U.S. government had it totally under control. It would be several weeks before he would publicly acknowledge that the virus was no ordinary flu and that it could be transmitted through the air.

Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.

Read all about it — and hear audio of Trump telling Woodward that he tried to downplay the threat of the virus to prevent “panic.” The whole story is pretty savage, especially this part:

[Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis quietly went to Washington National Cathedral to pray about his concern for the nation’s fate under Trump’s command and, according to Woodward, told [then-Director of National Intelligence Dan] Coats, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit.”

In a separate conversation recounted by Woodward, Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass,” to which the director of national intelligence replied: “True. 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.”

Bombshell stuff in this interview, and in this book. Depressing. Infuriating. A president who admits that he knew from the beginning how bad this was going to be, but did not level with the American people about the seriousness of the Covid threat. That is damned hard to forgive.

UPDATE:

That’s true. However, let me say something that a lot of you won’t agree with. I think that even if Trump had been at the top of his game on Covid, it would not have made a significant difference. Major European countries have been much more conventionally governed on their Covid responses, and they’re pretty much on par with us (except Germany, which has been quite good). Even at this late date, we are seeing bars and gatherings of people jammed together, when everybody knows better. Everybody.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

I grew tired of defending President Trump a long time ago and I certainly don’t want to come off as doing so here. However, the narrative generated by the “bombshell” (how many times have we heard that?) Woodward story is incredibly dishonest and disingenuous and I think that’s why, like most things, it’ll end up not affecting Trump much at all.
First, as with The Atlantic story, what took so damn long??? A media that’s made it it’s purpose in life to destroy Trump and everything close to it holds back such a damning story until it can be used to undermine his re-election campaign comes off as cynically and shamelessly political, especially when they’ve been quick to report even the most minor of infractions. This isn’t something that goes unnoticed, even by the president’s detractors and will certainly play a role in how the public views this story.
Second, the left and the media have no leg to stand on. They downplayed or didn’t give much coverage to the virus early on; Trump at least mentioned COVID in his State of the Union address. Only when it became possible to weaponize it politically did the left and the media suddenly change their approach. When they did, they parroted talking points from the WHO, which in turn was parroting talking points from China. If the left and the media thinks they were the protagonists in all of this, they’re deluding themselves.
Color me cynical, but I just don’t see Trump and his detractors on being on the same side of anything. If Trump had taken action earlier and implemented more drastic lockdown measures, mandated social distancing and mask-wearing, etc., he would’ve received political push-back, since, again, the left wasn’t all that concerned about COVID until they realized it could be used to hurt the president. Keep in mind, he needed the cooperation of both state and local governments and the public to implement such measures. Does anyone really think they would’ve followed Trump’s lead as his detractors all imply they would’ve?
Like you, I’m of the belief that earlier, better action wouldn’t have made a big difference. But, even if it did, at best, the media probably wouldn’t have covered this at all and they would’ve undoubtedly made a big deal out of the deaths that did occur. The fact is, nobody can convincingly argue how many lives could’ve been saved through drastic, earlier action, except to say it would’ve been less. It would’ve still been weaponized politically against the president.
None of this excuses Trump’s decision-making. The left and the media’s treachery doesn’t relieve Trump of the responsibility to do the right thing. Among his many problems is his unwillingness to do just that unless there’s some incentive for him to do so. However, all politicians, by their very nature, are hyper-incentivized creatures. I don’t think I’m defending Trump in any way when I say that having the whole world come after you at all hours of the day for anything and everything creates or reinforces a certain defensiveness and reluctance to do anything that might dignify your opponents in any fashion. Again, it doesn’t excuse Trump at all. If he really thought COVID was that big a deal, he had a responsibility to act prudently, no matter what the critics said.
Finally, the reason why I don’t think this story will affect Trump much is because the public has, at least behind closed doors, become exhausted with the lockdown and COVID paranoia. Even if a nearly 200,000 death toll is nothing to scoff at, you’re still talking a mortality rate in the low single-digits. Couple that with the fact these 200,000 deaths have occurred over a long period of time, it’s just not possible to keep people amped up on fear indefinitely. Also, outside a few states, the nightmare scenarios of overwhelmed hospitals, like we saw in places like Italy, has not manifested itself. The fact that the overwhelming majority of fatalities have occurred with people who had other health conditions shows that the risk presented by COVID is hardly universal, but relative, like everything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Americans aren’t separated by one degree from someone who’s had COVID or know someone who’s died from it. Again, I don’t want to downplay 200,000 deaths, but I think it’s clear it’s a manageable risk.
Another shift in public thinking might’ve occurred since the mass protests and riots started. I’ve heard people who aren’t fans of Trump and who are the furthest thing from “conservative” say, in private, of course, that “The double-standards are astounding.” These people recognize the cognitive dissonance that they’re being forced to conform to: COVID is so terrible we have to shut everything down except protests, because racism is so deadly it’s worth risking contracting such a lethal disease. The only other explanation is that COVID actually isn’t that lethal after all. Of course, nobody knows anymore and nobody knows who to believe, because everything’s become politicized now.
The lockdowns being generally over is proof that Americans would rather not stay locked down, even if there’s nothing stopping them from doing so. And I can also guarantee you everyone out and about consist of people all across the political spectrum. Someone who chose to participate in the economy and social activities and voluntarily assume the risk of contracting COVID, is the last person that should ever be criticizing the president’s handling of the crisis, because the president’s done exactly what most people would’ve preferred, no matter what the polls say.
I agree with the reader that this isn’t going to hurt Trump much. Way, way too much else going on now. As I’m trying to figure out my vote, I’ve already factored in Trump’s poor early Covid response. I think most people have, on both sides of the issue.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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