The Memo: Woodward revelations deepen Trump troubles
President Trump’s response to the coronavirus is back in the center of the news agenda — and that spells bad news for a commander-in-chief trailing in his bid to win a second term.
Details emerged Wednesday of a forthcoming book from Bob Woodward that contains a host of damaging revelations. Worst of all, Woodward depicts Trump as privately knowing the seriousness of the coronavirus while downplaying it publicly.
The president’s handling of COVID-19 has drawn broad disapproval from the American public, according to polls.
Trump and his campaign team have been seeking to shift the focus onto more politically favorable terrain, such as the nascent economic recovery and instances of disorder during street protests.
Those efforts have now been undone, at least for the next several days.
Woodward has Trump on tape acknowledging as early as Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is “deadly stuff.” The following month, he admitted, “I wanted to always play it down.”
In the earlier call, Trump noted that the coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” Despite this, Trump would continue to suggest in public that COVID-19 was similar to the common flu.
As CNN anchor Jake Tapper noted on Twitter on Wednesday, more than a month after his conversation with Woodward, Trump tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
The United States has now had more than 6 million cases of COVID-19. About 190,000 people have died.
The furor buttresses criticism that Trump’s response to the coronavirus is sorely lacking — and driven more by public relations concerns than anything else.
The president’s political foes sought to drive that point home Wednesday.
Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, said during a campaign stop in Warren, Mich.: “The president admitted on tape in February that he knew that COVID-19 passes through the air. He knew how much more deadly it was than the flu. He knew and he purposefully downplayed it. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to our country. For months.”
Other prominent Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif) and prominent progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), made similar points.
Omar’s father, Nur Omar Mohamed, died of complications from COVID-19 in June. He was 67.
On Twitter Wednesday, Omar accused Trump of “gross negligence and lies,” adding that the president “had the power to save lives and went out of his way not to.”
Politically, the new controversies put Trump back on defense at a time when he can ill afford it. He has trailed Biden throughout the campaign in national polls. Neither party’s convention appears to have fundamentally changed the shape of the race.
In national polling averages, Biden has led by roughly 7 points since the start of August.
The Democrat also holds leads, albeit by narrower margins, in most of the battleground states.
The Trump campaign insists the polls are wrong. Aides argue the president can repeat his achievement in 2016, when exceptionally strong performances in rural counties in the upper Midwest, as well as a narrow win in Florida, pushed him across the finish line.
But the two central issues in the Woodward revelations — Trump’s honesty and his handling of the coronavirus — are weak spots for the president.
A new Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 U.S. citizens released Wednesday starkly revealed the problems.
Americans considered Trump “not honest and trustworthy” by a 20-point margin, 53 percent to 33 percent. Biden was considered honest by 41 percent and not honest by 37 percent.
Fifty-six percent of poll respondents called themselves “uneasy” about Trump’s ability to deal with the coronavirus, while only 38 percent expressed confidence. For Biden on the same question, there was an almost even split: 45 percent said they were confident and 43 percent said they were uneasy.
Trump and his allies are seeking to contain the damage. During a White House appearance to announce possible Supreme Court nominees Wednesday afternoon, Trump said, regarding the coronavirus: “We don’t want to have to show panic. We’re not going to show panic, and that’s exactly what I did.”
At an earlier White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that Trump has “never lied to the American public on COVID.”
In a statement emailed to The Hill, Trump’s campaign communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said: “President Trump acted in January to protect the American people from the coronavirus by restricting travel from China — a move Joe Biden called ‘xenophobic’ and ‘fear-mongering.’ So we know Biden would not have made that decision and we would be in worse shape today than we actually are.”
But even some Republicans admit that the new revelations spell trouble for Trump.
“It is another incident of bad news for the president, amid a string of bad news, at a time when he is clearly trailing,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist who was a spokesman for Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) 2012 presidential campaign.
“Any day a book like this comes out sucks up airtime, and puts the president and White House on defense at a time when he is down,” Williams added.
Trump is back on unfavorable ground once again, and the clock is ticking down to Election Day.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.