Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about President Donald Trump’s recently revealed comments about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic during a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan, U.S., September 9, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters
WASHINGTON — Democratic nominee Joe Biden lit into President Donald Trump on Wednesday following the revelation that Trump deliberately downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus last winter despite knowing as early as Feb. 7 how deadly and easily spreadable the virus was.
“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,” said Biden, in response to Trump’s taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for the forthcoming book, “Rage.”
“It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people,” Biden added, speaking at a campaign event in Warren, Michigan. “It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.”
On Wednesday, tapes emerged on several interviews Trump gave Woodward, including a Feb. 7 phone call where Trump repeated what he knew about the coronavirus from national security briefings.
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward, according to the Washington Post. “You just breathe the air and 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 even your strenuous flu.”
A month later, Trump admitted to Woodward that he was publicly downplaying the severity of the virus, despite privately knowing how deadly it was.
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump can be heard saying.
Woodward’s tapes went off like a bomb in Washington Wednesday, where members of Congress had just returned to their offices on Capitol Hill after the August recess.
But while Democrats were quick to condemn Trump’s willingness to deceive the public on such a serious topic, Republicans who were asked about the tapes nearly all insisted they had neither seen nor heard them.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon in Hart Building on Wednesday, September 9, 2020. Also appearing from left are, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Todd Young, R-Ind., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
“Donald Trump lied, and people died. When I think about how many Americans died in March, and April, and May, and on, it enrages me,” tweeted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose home state of New York was the epicenter of the national outbreak this spring.
“The President’s own words spell out the devastating truth: Trump was fully aware of the catastrophic nature of the coronavirus but hid the facts and refused to take the threat seriously, leaving our entire country exposed and unprepared,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday.
Like Schumer, Pelosi hails from a state, California, that was especially hard hit by the pandemic. “The horrifying toll of Trump’s deadly disinformation and negligence in the lives of grieving families and to our economy is a historic national tragedy,” said Pelosi.
For some Republicans, the sheer effort required to avoid saying anything at all about Trump was torturous. Consider this exchange between Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy and CNN’s Pamela Brown.
After explaining what Trump had said, Brown asked, “Is that acceptable to you? Is that misleading the public?”
“These gotcha books don’t really interest me that much,” Kennedy replied.
“He’s on the record,” said Brown. Kennedy paused.
“These gotcha books don’t really interest me that much. There will be a new one out tomorrow,” said Kennedy.
“But this is different,” said Brown. “He did eighteen interviews with Bob Woodward.”
“Let me answer you again. These gotcha books don’t really interest me. There will be a new one out tomorrow,” Kennedy said again, before insisting that he could speak only from his personal experience with Trump.
Inside the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dodged questions about Trump’s remarks by telling reporters, “I didn’t look at the Woodward book. I will later. But I haven’t even seen what you’re referring to yet.” McConnell also replied to several questions by telling reporters to direct them to the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions after delivering remarks on judicial appointments during a brief appearance in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, September 9, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Over at the White House, however, the message was just as muddled as it was on Capitol Hill.
Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany insisted at a briefing that the president had never misled the public about the coronavirus. “The president has always been clear-eyed with the American people” about the pandemic, she said.
But a few hours later, Trump directly contradicted McEnany, admitting that he had minimized the dangers posed by the virus because he didn’t want to “show panic.”
“We’re not going to show panic,” Trump said, “and that’s exactly what I did. And I was very open — whether it’s to Woodward or anybody else…you cannot show a sense of panic or you’re going to have bigger problems than you ever had before.”
By Wednesday afternoon, neither the White House nor the Republican congressional caucus appeared to have settled on a cohesive message that could either justify or minimize the import of what Trump said to Woodward.
Left unanswered, these damning revelations will continue to inflict enormous political damage on the president, less than 60 days from November’s election.
But for at least one constituency of voters, an explanation is forthcoming: At around 3:30 p.m., Fox News announced that Trump would appear Wednesday night with his good friend, host Sean Hannity.
“During the interview, Trump will discuss the recent revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” along with the latest on the campaign trail,” said a Fox News press release.
“Rage,” by Bob Woodward, officially goes on sale Tuesday, Sept. 15.