Given the way the media was ratcheting up hysteria about the coronavirus in March and April, Donald Trump felt he had little choice but to downplay the severity of the crisis. That’s the conclusion one would reach by reading the selective excerpts from reporter Bob Woodward’s new book Rage. The book will be available for purchase on Tuesday.
CNN has confirmed much of what’s in the book after obtaining audiotapes of Trump’s recorded conversations with Woodward.
It’s clear that Trump misled the American public about how bad the coronavirus could get. Why he did it is another question. From what we knew about the virus in March and April, it was unclear how deadly it was, although Trump knew it was worse than the flu. He also knew that it wouldn’t just “disappear” or “would work out fine.”
But what is being mostly ignored in the reporting on this story is the reason Trump gave for downplaying the severity of the coronavirus.
The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In “Rage,” Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe.” But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The media wanted to create a panic. The more the American people panicked, the higher their ratings. Headlines designed to create hysteria spread disinformation. If some scientist or researcher had a dire prediction, they found someone else who was even scarier.
Hindsight is 20/20 and, of course, you can say Trump “should have” declared this or that a few days or weeks earlier. Of course, policymakers don’t have that luxury to look into the future and see what the situation is going to be. Arguments about when something should have been done are useless. It presupposes that another president — perhaps from another party? — would have acted more quickly. A total lockdown in February and a mask Gestapo to force people to wear masks. Social-distancing Nazis to maintain six feet between people. There’s a lot that could have been done — if this was China or North Korea.
In America, it doesn’t work that way.
There was so much disinformation being thrown around by the media in the early days of the pandemic, it’s no wonder people were confused. Remember the “ventilator crisis”? And that was Trump’s fault too — even though New York had so many ventilators that they actually sent some to New Jersey a couple of weeks after Governor Cuomo blamed Trump for wanting to kill people.
The WHO was claiming until April that you could catch the coronavirus from any surface. It didn’t take long to debunk that.
In the midst of this hysteria, Trump acted. He didn’t get everything right but he didn’t get everything wrong, either. He downplayed the severity of the crisis while the media ratcheted up hysteria over it.
Who was right? Only history can decide.