President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE acknowledged the danger of COVID-19 in recorded interviews even as he publicly downplayed the threat of the emerging coronavirus pandemic, according to a new book from Bob Woodward.
Trump told the Washington Post journalist in a March 19 interview that he "wanted to always play it down" to avoid creating a panic, according to audio published by CNN. But the president was privately aware of the threat of the virus.
"You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call with Woodward for his book, "Rage," due out next week. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president added.
His comments to Woodward are in sharp contrast to the president's public diagnosis of the pandemic.
In February, he repeatedly said the United States had the situation under control. Later that month, he predicted the U.S. would soon have "close to zero" cases. In late March, during a Fox News town hall in the Rose Garden, Trump compared the case load and death toll from COVID-19 to the season flu, noting that the economy is not shuttered annually for influenza.
Trump has been sharply criticized for his handling of the pandemic, with Democrats and public health officials seizing on his tendency to dismiss the seriousness of the threat in the early days.
He has since pushed unproven treatments for the virus and largely eschewed wearing a mask, despite recommendations from his own health agencies. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans do not approve of Trump's handling of the pandemic and do not trust what he says about the virus.
The president has rejected criticism that he misled the public or worsened the toll of the pandemic by publicly downplaying it. He has previously said he viewed himself as a "cheerleader" for the country and did not want to project doom and gloom. But his overly rosy portrayal of the U.S. response has been at odds with the reality of how the country has been hit by the virus.
The U.S. has the highest reported number of infections and deaths from the virus of any country in the world at more than 6.3 million and roughly 190,000, respectively. Thousands of Americans test positive each day and hundreds die daily from the virus.
Meanwhile, Trump has resumed holding campaign rallies outdoors, where hundreds of supporters pack closely together and some do not wear masks. He has resumed giving briefings ostensibly about the pandemic, but they do not feature any public health experts and Trump frequently veers off topic.
Trump and his allies have pointed to the production of personal protective equipment and the rapid ongoing development of a vaccine as evidence that the administration's approach to the virus has been effective.