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Trump calls question about why he 'lied' about COVID-19 a 'disgrace'

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE on Thursday scoffed at a question about why he lied to the American public about the severity of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, calling it "disgraceful" in a contentious press conference amid fallout over his comments to Bob Woodward.

"Why did you lie to the American people, and why should we trust what you have to say now?" ABC News correspondent Jon Karl asked during a news conference, referencing the president's comments in audio recordings from February that COVID-19 was "deadly" even as he publicly minimized the threat of the virus.

"That's a terrible question and the phraseology," Trump said. "I didn’t lie. What I said is we have to be calm. We can’t be panicked."

"The way you phrased that is such a disgrace," Trump added. "It’s a disgrace to ABC Television Network. It’s a disgrace to your employer."

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Karl pressed Trump, noting that he told Woodward in early February that COVID-19 spread through the air and was more lethal than a "strenuous flu" even as he publicly compared the emerging outbreak to the common flu.  

"What I went out and said is very simple. I want to show a level of confidence, and I want to show strength as a leader and I want to show our country is going to be fine one way or the other," Trump said. "There was no lie here. What we’re doing is we’re leading, and we're leading in a proper way."

When another reporter noted that other world leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, managed to lead a response to the pandemic without setting off panic, Trump brushed off the comparison by arguing that the European Union is dealing with an uptick in cases.

While some European countries have seen increases in infections, they are a percentage of what the U.S. has dealt with for months. The United States has the highest number of reported cases and deaths from COVID-19 of any country in the world, with 6.3 million and roughly 191,000, respectively, according to Johns Hopkins data.

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The president took three questions total during Thursday's news conference before leaving the briefing room.

Trump has been on the defensive since Wednesday afternoon when the first excerpts of Woodward's book were published. 

The president's remarks to the Watergate journalist underscored how Trump privately talked about the severity of COVID-19, even as he brushed it off in public remarks in January and February.

“I wanted to, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward in a recording from mid-March.

The president on Wednesday acknowledged that "perhaps" he misled the American public about the severity of the virus in order to reduce panic.