President Donald Trump has admitted in a series of interviews with veteran journalist Bob Woodward that he downplayed the threat of COVID-19 despite knowing that it would cause considerable harm.
On February 7, Trump emphasized that the novel coronavirus was "deadly stuff."
"You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump said on a taped call with Woodward. "And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu."
Contrast that with Trump's remarks later that month: "The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year," he said at a briefing on February 26. "That was shocking to me. And so far if you look at what we have with the 15 people, and they are recovering." On March 6, he said he "didn't know people died from the flu."
According to Trump, the move was strategic. "I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward mid-March. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
That defense—that he did so on purpose for good reason—has already caught on in some circles. "When media accused Trump of downplaying the virus, he publicly and repeatedly said he was doing so to avoid a panic," tweeted Charlie Spiering, a correspondent for Breitbart News.
But it remains unclear how lying to the American public and deliberately propagating wrong information, even if it cultivates some false sense of security, is a winning strategy. Just last month, the president said that just 9,000 people had died from COVID-19.
The short-sightedness of such an approach is reflected not only in Trump's public statements but also in how he approached the virus from a policy perspective in its nascent stages.
Consider Trump's March 13 announcement that he would pave the way for a public-private partnership to create a robust testing program, as private labs were having difficulty navigating burdensome Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. The decision was a good one but could have been made earlier had Trump chosen to be frank with the American people.
"Our capacity to identify potential outbreaks of #coronavirus early, and intervene to prevent spread, is well served by expanding access to the PCR [Polymerase Chain Reaction] based test for the virus," tweeted former FDA Chief Scott Gottlieb on February 2. "The test is based on a common Roche platform, and is a fairly routine technology."
Also in February, Trump privately admitted to Woodward that the virus would pose a menacing threat. But the president did not shepherd the Roche test, which is particularly efficient at screening for the virus, through FDA approval until that March 13 press conference, hamstringing the country's ability to get ahead of the problem.