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Trump's guilt-free confession: I played down deadliness of COVID-19

President Donald Trump on Wednesday at the White

President Donald Trump on Wednesday at the White House. Credit: Pool / Getty Images / Doug Mills

He knew it wasn't like flu

There's no decrying "anonymous sources" on this one. President Donald Trump said what author Bob Woodward says he said. The audio recorder was on for nine hours of interviews that surfaced Wednesday from the veteran journalist's forthcoming book on the Trump presidency, "Rage." 

As the global pandemic was exploding in New York and other U.S. epicenters, Trump in public continued to minimize the danger. That was intentional, he told Woodward on March 21: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” 

Nearly two months earlier, Trump was warned on Jan. 28 that he was facing "the biggest national security threat" of his presidency. Just 10 days after that, he confided to Woodward that the coronavirus was a far greater threat to life than the flu and, ominously, could spread through the air.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus” — perhaps five times deadlier. He repeated for emphasis: "This is deadly stuff.” (Listen to the interview recordings.)

If Trump was going for calm, what he caused was an unbearably tragic complacency, a false sense of security as the storm approached. February came and went, with Trump still falsely comparing COVID-19 to the flu into March and predicting it would soon disappear. Time was wasted that could have been used to start social distancing, shutdowns, mask-wearing and a ramping up of medical equipment supply chains, while experts believe federal preparation could have saved tens of thousands of lives

“Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states,” Woodward writes in the book, due out next Tuesday. 

More than 190,000 Americans are dead — by far the world's worst toll. But Trump appeared before reporters at the White House Wednesday afternoon with no apologies, no regrets. "I love our country. And I don’t want people to be frightened,” Trump said. “We have to have leadership. We have to show leadership."

General alarm: 'Dangerous,' 'unfit'

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, both original members of the Trump Cabinet, shared alarm and disgust over the president's behavior, according to Woodward's book.

Mattis is quoted as telling Coats that Trump had "no moral compass" and is “dangerous” and “unfit” for the presidency. “Maybe at some point we’re going to have to stand up and speak out,” Mattis told Coats during a conversation in May 2019, a few months after the retired four-star Marine general quit as defense secretary, the book recounts. "There may be a time when we have to take collective action.”

Mattis resigned after feeling he was blindsided by Trump's announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Woodward quotes Mattis as saying the decision "went beyond stupid to felony stupid."

The book also provides another view of Trump expressing contempt for military leaders. The commander in chief is quoted as telling trade adviser Peter Navarro in a 2017 meeting that “my [expletive] generals are a bunch of [expletives]" — employing a sexual and sexist vulgarity used to describe weakness and/or cowardice. "They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”

Coats during his tenure "continued to harbor the secret belief … that [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin had something on Trump," according to Woodward. Coats, who left the administration in August 2019, and his top staff couldn't find proof, but the author reasoned: "How else to explain the president's behavior? Coats could see no other explanation."

Whitewashed Russia, white supremacists?

A whistleblower complaint from a Homeland Security official charges that two top Trump appointees at the department, including acting Secretary Chad Wolf, repeatedly sought to censor or stop reports on Russian influence activities in the United States, including the threat of election interference. In one such instance, wrote Brian Murphy, Wolf told him in July that Murphy's unreleased report "made the president look bad."

Murphy objected to Wolf’s instruction, “stating that it was improper to hold a vetted intelligence product for reasons [of] political embarrassment,” according to his complaint to the DHS inspector general. Murphy was in charge of intelligence and analysis at DHS until a recent demotion after clashes with his bosses. 

Murphy also alleges that two months earlier, Wolf told him to stop producing intelligence assessments on Russia and shift the focus on election interference to China and Iran instead. He said Wolf told him “these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.”

In another part of the complaint, Murphy said DHS second-in-command Ken Cuccinelli ordered Murphy to downplay intelligence about violent white supremacists to make their threat appear “less severe” and play up evidence of “left-wing” violence. 

The White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comment, The Washington Post reported.

Janison: Trump's 'self' government

Imagine a president passively stalling amid warnings of a military invasion. With Trump, it's easy if you try. Nobody should be shocked to hear the revelations from the new Woodward book, writes Newsday's Dan Janison

Evidence has mounted for years that Trump uses his administration to promote his image to his fan base, not to effectively govern the nation. Examples of his self-service mount as the election campaign intensifies. 

The Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr acts like Trump's taxpayer-funded law firm — now defending him in a lawsuit over a rape allegation from when he was a private citizen in the 1990s. He used the White House as his convention stage and brought in uniformed Border Patrol for the partisan event. More than other presidents, Trump has treated the White House grounds as his private property and the uniformed personnel as his valets.

As for his handling of the pandemic, with over 190,000 dead, it's too late for a rapid response.

Rocket Man rocks Trump's world

Trump hasn't made a nuclear deal with Kim Jong Un, but he told Woodward the North Korean leader has given him ghastly gossip to share. Kim "tells me everything," including how the dictator had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed for suspected disloyalty.

(Last year, Trump privately told supporters that after the killing, Kim displayed the uncle's head for others to see, according to The Washington Post.)

Trump proudly showed Woodward the letters he has received from Kim, addressing Trump as "Excellency" and reflecting on their personal meetings as a "precious memory" that has showed how the "deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force." The president said he found Kim to be "far beyond smart." Describing their personal chemistry is like, Trump said: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen."

Trump told Woodward he is determined to continue pushing for a nuclear agreement and said that U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA have "no idea" how to negotiate over North Korea's nuclear arsenal. "It's really like, you know, somebody that's in love with a house and they just can't sell it," the president said.

Amid the belligerent exchanges early in Trump's term, Trump’s national security team worried about a nuclear war, Woodward wrote. Mattis slept in his clothes to be ready in the event of a North Korean missile launch and repeatedly went to the National Cathedral to pray.

Biden: A betrayal 'beyond despicable'

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden went to Michigan on Wednesday to sell his economic plan, but that news was partly submerged by his expression of outrage over the Woodward book's bombshells.

Biden accused Trump of "a life-and-death betrayal of the American people" in soft-pedaling the coronavirus threat earlier this year. "He knew it and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied," Biden said. "It's beyond despicable. It's a dereliction of duty. It's a disgrace. He failed to do his job on purpose."

Biden, in a CNN interview, suggested a motive: "It was all about making sure the stock market didn't come down, that his wealthy friends didn't lose any money, and that he could say anything, that in fact anything that happened had nothing to do with him."

The former vice president rolled out a plan to stop businesses from moving jobs overseas, during a speech in one of the nation's most important battleground states in November's election. Under Biden's tax policy, he would impose a surtax on profits from American companies that produce goods overseas and then sell those goods back into the U.S. market. There would be a tax credit for "companies making investments that will create jobs for American workers."

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Matthew Chayes. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Asked by Woodward on June 19 in the wake of the George Floyd protests whether there was a need for white men like themselves to better “understand the anger and pain” felt by Black Americans, Trump replied: "You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don't feel that at all." Trump also complained: "I've done a tremendous amount for the Black community … And, honestly, I'm not feeling any love."
  • Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday there was nothing out of the ordinary about Justice Department lawyers replacing the president's private legal defense team in a defamation suit by a New York columnist who alleges citizen Trump raped her in the 1990s. "This was a normal application of the law," said Barr, because Trump was president when he called E. Jean Carroll a liar. Carroll's suit was filed last November and was advancing in state court before Justice intervened to get it moved to a federal court.
  • Trump bragged to Woodward about a secret new nuclear weapons system he claimed to have built: "We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about.” Unnamed sources later confirmed a new weapons system to Woodward, but they would not provide any further details and were surprised that Trump had disclosed it.
  • Why did Trump give 18 interviews to Woodward for "Rage"? Trump complained two years ago that Woodward never spoke to him for his last book about his presidency, "Fear." That's because his aides didn't pass on Woodward's requests. This time, he was convinced that he could charm and cajole a journalist he admired as a star into seeing his point of view, Politico reported.
  • Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, wouldn't stand behind Trump’s suggestion that a coronavirus vaccine could be available by Election Day. In Senate testimony Wednesday, Collins said, "I just hope Americans will choose to take the information they need from scientists and not from politicians.”
  • Trump and his Republican Party jointly raised $210 million in August, a distant second to the record $364.5 million raised by Democrats and Biden.
  • A woman who entered an Exeter, New Hampshire, voting location was told her anti-Trump T-shirt violated rules against electioneering at the polls. She responded, “Boom! The shirt’s off.” She removed the garment, got her ballot and voted topless, the Union Leader reported.

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