Tonight, new reporting from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward says that President Trump was bluntly warned in January about the threat of coronavirus but chose to downplay the danger in public. Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” is his latest work in a 50-year career investigating American presidents. His first investigation, reported with Carl Bernstein, led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. For “Rage,” Mr. Trump agreed to 18 recorded interviews. Many, which you’re about to hear, started with the words of the White House operator, “Mr. Woodward? The president.” Mr. Trump called, sometimes late at night, to talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the threat of nuclear war, and about the dire warning he received during an intelligence briefing this past January.
Bob Woodward: On January 28th of this year, before the virus was on anyone’s radar, the national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, told the president, “This virus will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
Scott Pelley: What was the president’s reaction?
Bob Woodward: His head popped up and he asked questions.
President Trump’s questions, in the January 28 meeting, exposed a difference of opinion. Beth Sanner, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the virus might be no worse than SARS in 2003, when there were only eight known infections in the U.S.. But, Woodward says, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, who had been a reporter in China, told Mr. Trump his unofficial Chinese contacts had raised a grave warning.
Bob Woodward: Pottinger said his contacts in China told him “This is going to be like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in this country.” It was a stunning moment in the Trump presidency and, I think, in American history. Because he then went on to publicly dismiss the virus. And he knew that this was a pandemic coming.
Scott Pelley: And this is January 28th?
Bob Woodward: Yes.
The next day, the White House announced a coronavirus task force. This was Mr. Trump, January 30, two days after the warning.
President Trump during January 30 public speech: We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for us. So that I can assure you.
Chinese officials were concealing what they knew about COVID-19.
On January 31, the president restricted travel from China. The next week, in a phone call, Mr. Trump told Woodward what he’d been learning about the virus. This was February 7.
President Trump during February 7 phone call with Bob Woodward: It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, 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 your, you know, your even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff.
Three weeks after that call, the president said this to the public.
President Trump during February 26 White House press conference: It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner. Yeah, go ahead…
Scott Pelley: In that February 7th interview, it’s clear that the president knows what the stakes are. But he’s not sharing that with the public at that time.
Bob Woodward: Yes. This is the tragedy. the president of the United States has a duty to warn. The public will understand that. But if they get the feeling that they’re not getting the truth, then you’re going down the path of deceit and cover up.
Scott Pelley: Did the president ever disclose to you why he wasn’t telling the public what the stakes were with the coronavirus?
Bob Woodward: So in March, I asked exactly that question. You know, what’s going on. And the president said:
President Trump during March 19 phone call with Bob Woodward: Well, I think Bob really to be honest with you–
Bob Woodward: Sure, I want you to be.
President Trump: –I wanted to, I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down–
President Trump: –because I don’t want to create a panic.
Bob Woodward: I think he did not understand the American public. And he said, “Well, I don’t wanna create a panic.” We know, from history, when the public is told the truth, they organize. “We have a problem. We’re going to step up.” And Trump thought, “Oh, well, they’ll panic.” When there’s a crisis, when the president, particularly, knows something, it’s time to tell the public in some form. He failed.
Scott Pelley: You write, in the book, that, “The president’s handling of the virus reflects his instincts, habits, and style.” What are those?
Bob Woodward: Denial. Making up his own facts.
At age 77, Bob Woodward has fact-checked nine presidents. “Rage” is his 20th book. It’s published by Simon and Schuster, part of ViacomCBS.
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