There was no doubt that stories of this particular presidency during this particular moment in public health were going to be a bit explosive. Early reports from Bob Woodward’s (yes, the All the President’s Men Bob Woodward) new book Rage, follows up on his White House reporting in Fear: Trump in the White House
with an exploration of how President Donald Trump’s administration handled messaging around the pandemic before community spread began in the United States.
Early excerpts shared from the book ahead of publication by the Washington Post show that the White House had significant knowledge of the threat the virus could have across the country, with quotes from the president dated February calling it “pretty amazing” and noting it was significantly “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus” (which are already pretty deadly worldwide). Yet, despite this knowledge the administration downplayed the threat to the public during that time.
Meanwhile, public-facing messaging at the time had the administration repeatedly saying (like on video repeatedly saying) that the virus would “disappear.” Trump also said in interviews with Fox Business in the days following that “We’re in very good shape. We have 11 cases. And most of them are getting better very rapidly. I think they will all be better.” A little less than two weeks later, he told reporters on the South Lawn that “we have it very much under control in this country.”
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Later, per Woodward’s reporting (with recordings available via The Washington Post) Trump openly said he chose not to highlight or emphasize in public-messaging the very real threat that has lead to more than 190,000 American deaths so far (let alone the various longterm health problems people who survive the virus are anticipated to experience).
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump reportedly told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” Pandemic-time can feel disorienting and there have been so many news stories since then, but to be clear that is just days after the administration declared a national emergency on March 13.
It should be noted that prior to these reports, researchers and public health experts have already critiqued the early handling of the pandemic as a failure — one that led to what The New York Times and CNN both called “a lost month” that ultimately led to less early precautions by civilians; less clear and effective messaging to the public on the very real threat of the virus (and thus the pressing need for social distancing, staying at home and wearing masks — whether you see yourself as “healthy” or “at-risk”) and reduced access to early screenings and testing around the country. In an overview of official federal actions published in late March Brookings Institute referred to “massive failures of judgment and inaction in January, February, and even March of this year” as part of why the U.S. has struggled so hard compared to other countries who had less time to prepare.
Trump took to Twitter on Thursday morning to respond to the allegations made in the book and the press coverage that followed: “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months,” he tweeted. “If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a briefing on Wednesday that
However, public health officials and other politicians have raised concerns over what this handling of what would have been valuable early pandemic time for preparing the American people for a shutdown, ensure there would be enough tests and assess the long- and short-term strain on healthcare infrastructure.
“He knew how dangerous it was, and while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life and death betrayal of the American people.”
“If accurate, this reporting suggests that the decision to avoid a serious response was deliberate,” Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health told The Boston Globe‘s Travis Andersen on Wednesday in an e-mail. “We have lost 150,000 Americans and counting, and it increasingly looks as if others will have long-term health consequences of this infection. As a scientist, those are the facts. As a citizen, it is hard to know which is worse — that this was done out of ignorance, when there was so much clear information, or that, as this reporting suggests, it was done deliberately.”
Former Vice President and Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden said during a speech on on Wednesday, per The Hill that the president “knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months…He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was, and while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose. It was a life and death betrayal of the American people.”
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