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Trump on his COVID cover-up: If anyone's to blame, it's Bob Woodward

President Donald Trump at a campaign rally Thursday

President Donald Trump at a campaign rally Thursday at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Mich. Credit: AP / Jose Juarez

'I didn't lie'

In President Donald Trump's telling, he did the right thing when he told the American people that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu even as he was telling author Bob Woodward in one-to-one conversations that it was far more lethal. If that was the wrong thing, Trump said Thursday, blame Woodward.

"If Bob Woodward thought what I said was bad, then he should have immediately, right after I said it, gone out to the authorities, so they can prepare and let them know," he told reporters at a White House news conference. Gone to the authorities? Woodward was hearing this from the president of the United States.

Trump went on: "He didn't report it because he didn't think it was bad. Nobody thought it was bad." Woodward, a veteran journalist, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he had needed time to confirm that the private comments were accurate because "Trump says things that don't check out." Trump's comments, including that the president intentionally decided to "play it down" even when he knew the gravity of the pandemic threat to avert "panic," came in recorded interviews for Woodward's new book, "Rage."

"I didn't lie," Trump said Thursday. "I don't want to jump up and down and start screaming ‘Death! Death!’ ” The middle path, not taken, would have been for the president to be honest with Americans about the urgency of the impending crisis and to prepare them for measures that could have been adopted sooner, which could have saved many thousands of lives.

"Donald Trump knew all along just how deadly this virus is,” Joe Biden said in a virtual fundraiser Thursday. “He knew and purposefully played it down because all he was concerned about was his reelection, didn’t want to affect economic growth.” Congress’ top Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, set the party’s theme: “Trump lied and people died.”

Even after Trump told Woodward he knew the virus was airborne, the president held six big indoor rallies, CBS News noted. He's holding them again, in venues like open-air airport hangars with crowds packed tightly together and, for the most part, maskless. Thursday night's show was in Michigan.

On a Biden campaign call with reporters, Kristin Urquiza — who Democrats invited to speak at their convention last month — again told the story of her Trump-supporting father who died of COVID-19. “My dad trusted this president. He listened to the president and followed his advice. So sure, my dad did not panic. But instead, he died."

Janison: Trump the soothe-sayer

A new entry this week tops the president's yearslong list of shaky excuses and alibis, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Confronted with evidence from his own words that he knew about the lethality of the coronavirus threat while he was denying it to the public, Trump said he wanted to keep everyone calm.

Serenity now? If that was true, it would be an exception to the Trump style of rule in which building public fear is a plus if it can work in his favor.

He hypes up a nightmare vision of urban "carnage" to get votes. He evokes "caravans" invading the nation from south of the border, and spreads distrust in the electoral process, the postal system and state public health measures. 

When Barack Obama was president, Trump was anything but calm about how Obama was handling the 2014 Ebola virus. Two people died of Ebola in the U.S., compared with more than 190,000 who died of the coronavirus so far under Trump.

Rudy a tool of Russian agent?

The Treasury Department on Thursday slapped sanctions on a top source for Rudy Giuliani's conspiracy theories about Biden and his son Hunter and Ukraine.

Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” Treasury said. It charged that Derkach "has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

Giuliani met with Derkach in December. Derkach has worked closely with Giuliani to peddle anti-Biden material, which also has been supplied to Republicans on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is conducting an investigation into the Bidens. Trump himself has retweeted Derkach's material after the U.S. intelligence community flagged it as disinformation.

Giuliani told The New York Times: "I have no reason to believe he is a Russian agent. There is nothing I saw that said he was a Russian agent." But Giuliani added later: "How the hell would I know?"

In addition to Derkach, Treasury also sanctioned three Russian nationals accused of mounting a campaign to influence the U.S. elections, in part through identity theft, Politico reported. In a separate action, the Justice Department charged one of those Russian nationals, Artem Lifshits, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud connected to the large-scale election interference operation.

Trump, Biden converge on 9/11

Trump and Biden both will head to Shanksville, Pennsylvania — home of the Flight 93 National Memorial — to mark the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Trump will attend the memorial service in the morning and Biden will visit in the afternoon, report Newsday's Tom Brune and Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Biden and his wife, Jill, will start the day by traveling to lower Manhattan to attend the commemoration ceremony at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum.

Neither Trump nor Biden is likely to campaign Friday, to avoid charges of politicizing what should be a solemn day.

Biden: Trump a menace to national security

Biden said in a CNN interview that Trump "seems to have no conception of what constitutes national security" after the president revealed to Woodward the existence of a classified nuclear weapons system.

"You wonder why people in the intelligence community wondered from the very beginning whether you could share data with him, ’cause they don't trust him. They don't trust what he'll say or do," Biden said. "He seems to have no conception of what constitutes national security, no conception of anything other than what can he do to promote himself."

Biden also pointed to The Atlantic's recent report that Trump had referred to those killed and injured at war as "losers" and "suckers." He highlighted his deceased son Beau Biden's service in Kosovo and in the Iraq War, "and all the people with him, the people who died. They're 'suckers'? I mean, I can't fathom."

TV or not TV

Trump has bristled over the years at reports about his obsessive TV watching. A 2017 tweet: "Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day - Wrong!" Last month, he reiterated to the Times: "I don't watch very much TV. Nobody knows what I do."

Here's what Trump said Thursday afternoon about his media consumption in the previous 24 hours. “I watched Liz McDonald [on Fox Business Network] she’s fantastic. I watched Fox Business, I watched Lou Dobbs last night, Sean Hannity last night, Tucker [Carlson] last night, Laura [Ingraham]. I watched 'Fox and Friends' in the morning,” he said.

Trump suggested that's where he gets information about the investigations ordered by Attorney General William Barr into those who investigated Trump. "You watch these shows. You don’t have to do too far into the details. They cover things — it’s really an amazing thing," the president said.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Robert Brodsky. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • A panel of three federal judges in New York blocked as unlawful a Trump order that tried to exclude people in the country illegally from being counted in the 2020 census data used to redraw congressional districts. 
  • Trump bragged to Woodward that he protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from efforts in Congress to hold him accountable for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. “I saved his ass,” the president told Woodward in 2018. Trump touted Saudi purchases of U.S. arms and dodged Woodward’s attempts to get him to clarify his own beliefs about MBS' culpability.
  • Trump's campaign aides are weighing staging another event on White House grounds around Election Day, despite criticism over its use for the Republican convention, NBC News reported.
  • Twitter announced that it is expanding its policies against election-related misinformation, setting new rules that likely will mean more aggressive fact-checking of Trump through the rest of the campaign, CNN reported.
  • Airport officials in northern Nevada have rejected Trump's plans to host an in-person rally at a hangar, citing the state's 50-person cap on mass gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Biden told a fundraiser that when he meets Trump in their first debate later this month, he has one goal: “I hope I don’t get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that’s the only place he’s comfortable." Biden said he expects Trump to “say awful things about me and my family” to try to get a rise out of him. "This is a guy who is absolutely tasteless. Completely tasteless. So pointing it out doesn’t do much.”

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