President Donald Trump on Thursday insisted "I didn't lie" to the American public about the severity of coronavirus, despite having told journalist Bob Woodward in March that he'd been intentionally downplaying the virus's potential impact.
Immediately after telling reporters he hadn't lied, the president seemed to acknowledge painting a rosier picture than the reality. "What I said is we have to be calm. We can't be panicked," Trump said.
He then sidestepped a question about why he'd continued to tell the public that the virus was "like a flu" when he knew in February that it was five times 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 a Feb. 7 phone call that the virus was airborne, which was not known to the general public at the time. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in March one reason he wasn't closing the city's school system was that there was no evidence the virus was transmitted through the air.
Trump, who continued holding political rallies throughout the month of February— including one where he referred to the virus as a "hoax"— insisted it was common knowledge.
"This is stuff that everyone knew," Trump said. "People knew it was airborne. Everyone knew it was airborne," he said, adding "I assumed it early on."
The president said Woodward hadn't had an issue with his comments, because if he had "he would have gone to the authorities."
Trump continued to downplay his comments to Woodward at a rally in Michigan on Thursday. He called the veteran journalist a "whack job." The president again also compared the contradiction between his private concerns and public statements to other leaders who faced a national crisis.
At the rally, Trump used the phrase uttered by Franklin D. Roosevelt — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" — during his 1933 inauguration. He also invoked the phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On," which is from a motivational poster produced by the British government at the onset of World War II.
"That’s what I did,” Trump told the crowd. “This whack job that wrote the book, they wanted me to come up and scream, people are dying,” but Trump added, “We have to be calm.”
The veteran journalist interviewed Trump 18 times for his new book, "Rage," which goes on sale next week. Trump said he spoke to Woodward, who wrote another book about the Trump administration called "Fear," because he "is somebody that I respect," despite "not knowing too much about his work" and "not caring about his work."
Excerpts from the interviews were posted on The Washington Post's website.
In the March 19 call, Trump told Woodward of the virus, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic."
The Feb. 7 phone call with Woodward came one day after Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the novel coronavirus and a little over a week after he was briefed on the virus's dangers by national security adviser Robert O'Brien.
"You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed," Trump told Woodward, according to The Post. "And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu."
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris blasted Trump over his comments to Woodward during a campaign event in Miami, where she accused the president of showing a "reckless disregard" for the health and livelihoods of Americans.
"This is the same man, Donald Trump, who for days weeks, if not months thereafter called it a hoax, dismissed the seriousness of it to the point that he suggested people not wear masks," Harris said. "He knew it was airborne. That people would breathe it," she said.
"Yet he held rallies. He suggested to wear a mask was a sign of weakness as opposed to a sign of strength," Harris said, calling that "examples of the fact that this is an individual who is not concerned about the health safety and well-being of the American people.”
Harris’ remarks were just the latest in a long line of Democrats who’ve offered scathing criticism about Trump’s comments. Harris’ trip was her first to Florida as the vice presidential nominee, where an NBC News poll released this week showed a tight race.
It’s also the first time either member of the Democratic ticket has visited the state for a campaign event since September 2019. Biden is scheduled to travel to Florida on Tuesday.