By now, you have probably seen the story that’s been everywhere over the past 24 hours: thanks to newly released audio from journalist Bob Woodward, we now know that President Donald Trump was aware as early as January of how dangerous COVID-19 was. We know this because Trump told Woodward as much in an interview in February — part of a series of interviews conducted for Woodward’s latest book, Rage, which is being released on September 15.
Judging from what has been released so far, Trump was much more coherent and infinitely more honest in these interviews than he’s ever been during a White House press briefing. He talked to Woodward about how “plenty of young people” were being affected by the disease, meaning he knew months and months ago that it could badly affect children and still tried to rush them back into classrooms. “I still like to play it down,” he said on March 19, six days after he declared a national emergency, “Because I don’t want to create a panic.” These days colleges are blaming students for their return-to-campus failures, but how could anyone whose brain isn’t poisoned by the nonstop barrage of horrific news not be confused by this shit? Is it serious or is it not?
He was also saying one thing at these briefings and then another thing entirely to Woodward days later. From CNN:
At an April 3 coronavirus task force briefing, Trump was still downplaying the virus and stating that it would go away. "I said it's going away and it is going away," he said. Yet two days later on April 5, Trump again told Woodward, "It's a horrible thing. It's unbelievable," and on April 13, he said, "It's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it."
Even considering the source, the discrepancy between what Trump said privately and publicly is genuinely shocking. What’s even more jarring is that Trump displays an understanding of what’s actually happening that completely strips away the argument that, rather than simply being a liar, he is a fool with no handle on the situation in front of him.
The Woodward tapes are proof that he absolutely grasped the concepts, and then chose to ignore them in favor of a strategy that he believed would optimize his chances of being re-elected and the economy not tanking. This strategy then dictated the rest of the GOP’s response, including governors of states which reopened and then saw a huge spike in cases almost immediately. Yes, we already knew people have died because of Trump, but it makes it all the more particularly evil that he knew it, and at the time was telling people—reporters! On the record!—that he knew it.
As for Bob Woodward, it’s unfathomable how he sleeps at night. Woodward told the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan on Thursday that he didn’t agree to any sort of embargo with Trump, because, in his words, “I don’t do that.” So why, exactly, did he choose to sit on this information for months?
Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.” (Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham famously called journalism “the first rough draft of history.”)
But why not then write such a story later in the spring, once it was clear that the virus was extraordinarily destructive and that Trump’s early downplaying had almost certainly cost lives?
Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
It’s true, Woodward doesn’t write daily stories anymore. But he’s Bob Woodward. I’m sure he could have gotten the Post or another outlet to publish a story considering, I don’t know, EVERYTHING THAT WAS GOING ON AT THE TIME.
Woodward also said that part of the reason he didn’t report the news was that “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.” This is a cop-out. Regardless of whether any of it was actually true, it was directly contradictory to everything he was saying in public at the time. Why let him skate on that? Why not report it and let people decide for themselves what was bullshit and what wasn’t?
It’s not like this revelation on his own would have ended Trump’s presidency the way it seemingly would have other presidents—Mitt Romney’s response confirms that—but it’s undeniable that the revelation would have been just one more bit of information and reason for skepticism of the government’s approach of “Everything’s fine now, open it back up.” Judging by our body count, we could have used a lot more of that.
In a normal country where upwards of 180,000 people have died from an infectious disease, it would be cause for massive protests and possibly criminal charges for a sitting president to be caught on tape saying, “I wanted to always play it down," and directly contradict his own reassurances to the public over and over and over again.
But this is a country that’s utterly broken, fatigued by the decades that powerful people have spent to lying to the public’s face, and the exacerbation of those lies within the scope of the past four years. Political upheaval (or at least what’s considered political upheaval in the United States) is the norm, and people have other, more pressing issues to worry about, such as how they’re going to make rent, if their loved ones are going to get sick, if they’re going to be gunned down the next time they encounter a cop, or where they’re going to find shelter when the wildfires reach them.
It’s become a cliche, but this is what people mean when they say Trump is a symptom, not the disease. A country that would elect a person like this and then consider re-electing him four years later in spite of the path of destruction following him is one where most people have completely given up on the idea of a government that doesn’t take them for a complete and utter fucking rube. If that happens, there is no coming back.
Screenshot: Simon & Schuster UK/YouTube