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Top White House aide's interview goes haywire over Trump coronavirus remarks

Peter Navarro was pressed about revelations last week that President Donald Trump intentionally downplayed the virus.
Image: Peter Navarro
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro speaks outside the White House on July 27.Andrew Harnik / AP file

An interview with top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro went off the rails Sunday when he was pressed about revelations last week that President Donald Trump intentionally downplayed the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic.

Navarro's interview cut out as he clashed with host Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union," with the men shouting over each other.

Tapper confronted Navarro about Trump's tape-recorded comments in journalist Bob Woodward's new book, "Rage," set to be released this week. In it, Trump told Woodward in a phone call Feb. 7 that the coronavirus "is deadly stuff" and worse than the flu. After that conversation, however, Trump publicly downplayed the virus and repeatedly compared it to the flu.

Even though Trump's comments to Woodward were on tape, Navarro said that "in February, nobody knew" about the potential impact of the coronavirus. "No, nobody knew. Not the president, not you, not Nancy Pelosi, not Bill de Blasio," he said.

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Navarro accused Tapper of "cherry-picking" the president's comments. Tapper responded by saying Trump "was not honest with the American people" about the virus's impact.

"You're not honest with the American people," Navarro said. "CNN is not honest with the American people."

Navarro pointed to Trump's decision to bar some travelers from China in late January, a step he said proved that the president viewed the virus as "a serious, serious matter."

Navarro described the White House strategy at that time as "hope for the best, prepare for the worst, stay calm and begin to attack" the virus. He said he wrote a memo on Feb. 9, two days after Trump's phone call with Woodward, outlining the need for personal protective equipment and therapeutics.

The Woodward revelations have reverberated around Washington and on the campaign trail in recent days. Faced with the conflicting statements and the recorded remarks, Trump has said that it was necessary to downplay the virus publicly to maintain "calm" and that he didn't want people to "panic." He insisted Thursday that he "didn't lie" to the American public.

"What I said is we have to be calm," he said of having painted a rosier picture than the reality. "We can't be panicked."

Speaking to reporters at the White House then, Trump sidestepped a question about why he was telling the public that the virus was "like a flu" when he had known earlier that it was much more lethal.

"What I went out and said is very simple: I want to show a level of confidence, strength as a leader," Trump said.

Trump told Woodward in the February call that he knew the virus was airborne, which wasn't widely known to the public at the time. In March, he told Woodward: "I wanted to always play it down."

"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," Trump said in a recorded call with Woodward on March 19.

More than 190,000 people have died in the U.S. from the coronavirus so far.

"It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people," Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said during a campaign stop in Michigan last week. "It's beyond despicable. It's a dereliction of duty, a disgrace."

"He knew how deadly it was. He knew and purposely played it down," Biden said. "Worse, he lied."