Everyone can’t stop talking about what’s now become one of the great what-ifs of the coronavirus pandemic:
What if we would have known that President Trump believed the virus to be a serious threat to public health as soon as early February? Or that the president (who would spend months playing down the threat of the virus in public) was telling people privately back then that he knew at least a degree of COVID-19 spread occurs in the air, that the virus represented a serious public health crisis and was more serious than “even your strenuous flus,” to use Trump’s own description.
Unfortunately, that’s a description and an assessment of the virus he decided to share only in private, to longtime Washington Post journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward as part of 18 on-the-record interviews between the two men for Woodward’s new book Rage that will be published on Tuesday. The book quickly shot to the top of Amazon’s AMZN chart of best-sellers, partly over its revelations of how Trump shared his candid thoughts about the deadly coronavirus with Woodward way back on Feb. 7 — not long, mind you, before he would excoriate Democrats at a campaign stop later that same month in South Carolina over what Trump said was a Democratic effort to turn the coronavirus into “their new hoax.”
Here, in case you haven’t seen his remarks yet, is how Trump described COVID-19 to Woodward in early February, weeks before the virus was on most of our radars and before we’d begun to see our lives dramatically changed: “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said at the time. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Ten days before he said that in private to Woodward — who will talk about Rage with Scott Pelley during the next edition of 60 Minutes on Sunday — the president was also warned during an intelligence briefing that the novel coronavirus could be as deadly as the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed some 50 million people worldwide. And, even scarier, the president was told that asymptomatic spread was happening in China.
We all know what happened next. A month after that conversation between Trump and Woodward, the World Health Organization would declare that the virus’ spread now represented a global pandemic, though Trump pressed on with his public pronouncements, undaunted. He steadfastly resisted wearing a face mask in public for months, he appeared to float social distancing guidelines, snipped at reporters for wearing face masks and promised that the virus would eventually disappear when the weather got warmer in spite of any scientific evidence to the contrary. Trump did all that while his supporters watched, taking cues from the president that led them to believe that if he wasn’t worried, they shouldn’t be either.
Accordingly, the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index showed that in April, only 24% of Republicans at that time said they were wearing a face mask outside of their homes. By June, that number had barely budged. Per Axios, “We saw Republicans and Democrats starting out in different places back in March or April in terms of perception and behavior — and then saw their disparate reactions widen over time.”
Though it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the presidential race, Trump’s disingenuousness about a public health crisis with stakes as high as this one is inexcusable. It’s a virus that the US, and of course the rest of the world, is paying a high price for. Southwest Airlines LUV CEO Gary Kelly, for example, told a Dallas newspaper a few days ago that he wouldn’t be surprised if business travel doesn’t return to its 2019 level for a decade. Restaurants and stores in many places around the company are operating at reduced capacity. Face masks are the norm (and requirement) almost everywhere you go in public these days. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and Congress has approved billions of dollars in aid stemming from the crisis. In terms of the cost in human lives, more than 193,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the US as of the time of this writing, per the latest data from Johns Hopkins University (along with more than 6.4 million cases having been confirmed here).
Ask yourself one question though — if you found yourself angered at Trump when the Woodward book revelations were reported in recent days, and wishing the president had been more forthright about the virus much earlier, do you feel the same about the author who sat on those unquestionably newsworthy statements for months?
Because you should. Remember, the dichotomy between Trump’s public comments and what he was telling Woodward could not have been more vast. Publicly, for example, the president was saying that “young people are almost immune” to COVID-19. To Woodward, he conceded that young people were absolutely able to get infected.
The Twitterverse has seen bipartisan agreement in the wake of Woodward’s revelations that if Trump deserves blame here, so does the journalist. “Bob Woodward knew the truth behind the administration’s deadly bungling — and worse — and he saved it for his book, which will be released to wild acclaim and huge profits after nearly 200,000 Americans have died,” Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce tweeted a few days ago.
Likewise, from alt-right activist Mike Cernovich: “If Woodward knew in March that coronavirus was so deadly, why did he sit on his story for 6 months?” And here, finally, is writer Lauren Martinchek, who took to Medium to opine that: “When historians look back on this moment in American history, and when my generation tells our grandkids about what it was like to live through it, what exactly are we supposed to make of Bob Woodward? How are we supposed to view a man who sat idly by with tapes of the President admitting to what is arguably a crime against humanity, and didn’t say a word because he wanted to up his book sales?”
So far, Woodward has defended himself in an interview with the AP, in which he blamed part of his reluctance to do anything early with this material on President Trump’s notoriously cavalier attitude toward veracity. Woodward needed time to confirm and check all this out, he added.
But six months? When most of us were already living under quarantines and stay-at-home orders back in March and could have told you this thing was bad?
Indeed, Woodward needs to give a better answer for his handling of the news he conveys in the pages of Rage during his CBS interview on Sunday. Many of us, to borrow the famous line from the Watergate era that Woodward himself helped make infamous, would have liked to have known what this president knew when he knew it – not months later, and certainly not after almost 200,000 Americans have died.