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Trump Knew Seriousness Of The Coronavirus Early On, New Book Says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump knew how serious the coronavirus was in early February. He privately told journalist Bob Woodward that he wanted to play the whole issue down, even as he publicly minimized the risks. Here's the president back on February 7 in audio obtained by The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch - you don't have to touch things, right? But the air - you just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

CHANG: That is one of several revelations in Woodward's new book "Rage." Joining us now to talk about it is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. How are you?

CHANG: Good. So you've been listening to the president talk about the virus all these months. So I just want you to put this in context for us. How does what he said privately to Woodward compare to what the president had been telling the country publicly?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, publicly, back in February, he was comparing the virus to the flu and saying it would go away quickly. Let's just listen to a bit of what he was saying on February 26.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Well, we're testing everybody that we need to test. And we're finding very little problem, very little problem. Now, you treat this like a flu. We were - in fact, I might ask one of the doctors to come up and explain it.

ORDOÑEZ: But in his interviews with Woodward, he says in his own words that he downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, and that's despite being told by his national security adviser Robert O'Brien that this would be the, quote, "biggest national security threat of his presidency." His own health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is quoted in the book, saying the president's attention span is like a minus number, and all he cared about was being reelected. I will say today, Fauci said on Fox News that he didn't recall saying that and that he also doesn't recall any distortions between his public and private comments.

CHANG: And what has President Trump said so far about this book?

ORDOÑEZ: I actually asked him about the book this afternoon. And I asked him specifically whether he had misled the public by downplaying the extent of the virus. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so. The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country, and I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and that echoes something that he has said throughout this crisis; that he sees his role as a cheerleader. Dr. Fauci - and he noted that today as well - that the president wanted to avoid the country getting kind of down and out.

CHANG: I do want to point out that that event where you asked that particular question - it was about an announcement of a short list of potential Supreme Court nominees. What do we know about the timing of that announcement given the publication of this book?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. He's been saying for some time that he would release a list of people who he could draw from if there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. You know, this is something that he did during his first campaign. He promised he would name conservatives to the highest court. And it's a way to appeal to conservative voters who see the long-term shape of the court as a critical issue for their vote, including in November. But it was not on his original schedule. It was only announced after all this news broke about the Woodward book, so it was interesting timing and a good chance to change the subject and talk about something that is important to Trump's base.

CHANG: Well, did he succeed in changing the subject?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, we're in the homestretch of the election campaign, so everything gets amplified quickly. Democratic challenger Joe Biden - he didn't waste any time talking about it. He accused the president of betraying Americans. Here's what he said today during a visit with autoworkers in Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: He knew how deadly it was; that it was much more deadly than the flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse - he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'll just add The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans who support Biden - they immediately produced an ad from the Woodward book. But, you know, there have been a lot of books critical of President Trump, including one by Woodward about the first two years of Trump's White House. So there still remains this question whether this book will have kind of - will continue to have the staying power.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.