Return to Transcripts main page


"Dangerous" And "Unfit": Trump's National Security Advisers Say He Has "No Moral Compass" In New Woodward Book; Woodward Book: Trump Knew In Early February Coronavirus Was Dangerous, Highly Contagious, Airborne And "Deadly". Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 9, 2020 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello to viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing a very busy news day with us. We begin the hour with stunning, breaking news.

President Trump, in his own words, making clear he knew about the dire threat of the Coronavirus very early on at a time he repeatedly told the American people they were safe. China was on top of it and that it would all soon pass.

And the president again in his own words making clear he deliberately withheld information from the American people repeatedly concealed details about the gravity of this threat, because in his words, he didn't want to create a panic.

These are among the many eye eye-popping revelations in rage. You see the cover there the new book by the legendary "Washington Post" journalist and author Bob Woodward. The book also contains new scathing takes from several of the president's closest advisers including Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Former Director of Intelligence Dan Coats, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But most stunning is to read and to hear the president acknowledging he was told early on in early February that the virus was a big problem in China. Airborne transmission was happening and then it was far more serious than any flu. What he told Woodward about the Coronavirus threat and what he was telling the American people in that same period of time are night and day.

The gravity of what he was being told compared to the limited actions he took in those early days raise new and profound questions about this president's pandemic mismanagement. CNN obtained an early copy of "Rage" and some of the audio of recordings Woodward made in his 18 conversations with the president.

Our CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel is breaking this news right now and is here to walk us through the most significant pieces of information. Jamie, let's start with early February. This is when the president was telling the American people China is on top this. There is little reason to worry, but--

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Remember for those of us from Watergate, Howard Baker. What did the president know and when did he know it? That's what Bob Woodward lays out in this book. What we know is from Woodward's account that on January 28th his National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien tells him in a tough secret briefing this is going to be the greatest threat of your presidency.

At the same time, the president is, as you said, playing it down. But what Woodward did with the president's permission was he recorded all of these interviews. There are 18 wide-ranging interviews. And what we're going to play you first is the president in his own words, February 7th, telling Woodward in striking detail just how much he understands about how deadly and dangerous the virus is?


BOB WOODWARD, AMERICAN JOURNALIST: And so what was President Xi saying yesterday?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But we were talking mostly about the - the virus, and I think he's going to have it in good shape, but you know, it's a very tricky situation. It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. You know? The touch you don't have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that's how it's passed.

And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your, you know, your, even your strenuous flu. You know people don't realize we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here who would ever think that, right?


TRUMP: Pretty amazing. And then I say the same thing. This is more deadly. This is five per, you know, 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So this is deadly stuff.


GANGEL: John, I just want all of us to remember, we are used to the virus now, as used to it as you can be, but if you go back to the beginning of February, American public we thought this was a problem in China. The notion of it being airborne, 5 percent more deadly, these are very specific details that the president had in the very same time period that he is saying, it's all going to go away.

KING: Right, that's February 7th, you just played that conversation. He talks about how deadly it is and he said two weeks later 20 days later in India, it's a problem that's going to go away.


KING: Within a couple of days it's going to be down to zero the president telling Woodward one thing and telling the American people and the world something very different. Interesting part is the president makes no bones about it, that he was doing this on purpose. That he decided as a strategy not to convey the seriousness of this because he didn't want to "Incite a panic."

GANGEL: Correct. So Woodward does another interview March 19th. We also have the audio of that again, the president in his own words. Just to set this up, remember, he has been publicly minimizing the threat to young people. Not a problem for young people.

He still minimizes the threat to young people. So he addresses that, and then you'll hear he admits that he's not sharing everything he knows.


TRUMP: Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob. Today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old, older people.

WOODWARD: Yes, exactly.

TRUMP: There are plenty of young people - so what's going on?

WOODWARD: So give me a moment of talking to somebody, going through this with Fauci or somebody who kind of, it caused a pivot in your mind? Because it's clear just from what's on the public record that you went through a pivot on this to, oh, my God. The gravity is almost inexplicable and unexplainable?

TRUMP: Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you.

WOODWARD: Sure. I want you to be.

TRUMP: I wanted to - I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.


TRUMP: Because I don't want to create a panic.


GANGEL: You know, but, John, this wasn't just about panic. The White House, we know, is very concerned about the economy. The president is very concerned about getting re-elected, and what I think you have to just remind people is, we've put together some of what the president is saying at the same time publicly in stark contrast.


TRUMP: The virus - they're working hard. Looks like by April, you know in theory when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away hope that's true but we're doing great in our country. China, I spoke with President Xi, they're working very, very hard and I think it's all going to work out fine.

And again when you have 15 people and 15 within a couple of days are going to be down to close to zero. That's a pretty good job we've done.

It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle. It will disappear.

And from our shores, it would get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows.

Stay calm, it will go away. You know it is going away and it will go away and we're going to have a great victory.


GANGEL: Just to sort of give you a big picture of the book and you can see right there the contrast. Woodward paints a picture in this book of failed leadership, a betrayal of trust of the American people. We see February as a lost month where something could have been done.

He knew, and you just have to wonder when you read this book if the president had not played it down, and if he had shared with the public these details, if he had shut down the country, if he had said, wear a mask. He knew it was airborne. Wash your hands, socially distance. We have lost almost 190,000 Americans. You just have to wonder how many of those lives may have been saved.

KING: Urgency protesting back then, ramp up PPE production back then. Even if you don't shut down the economy tell people you need to socially distance, you need to protect yourself. We're going to get you the masks as opposed to we'll be down to zero in a few days. It's stunning. He's night and day. He gets it, but he's not communicating it to the people who need to know it meaning, his own citizens.

Another theme throughout the book is to all of these senior officials' people of stature, Defense Secretary, Director of National Intelligence. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who just come away after working closely with this president with the impression, the belief, that he's just not up to the job.

GANGEL: That is correct. And what I want to say is, we talk a lot about anonymous sources that are very good, but Bob Woodward has these people on the record. There were names and they were being quoted, and just to go through a couple, Former Defense Secretary James Mattis says about the president, he is "Dangerous, unfit and has no moral compass."


GANGEL: Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats says "Trump doesn't know the difference between the truth and a lie" and from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who we've all gotten to know, one of the most respected scientists and member of the Coronavirus Task Force says that "Trump the attention span is like a minus number" and that "His sole purpose is to get re-elected."

KING: Again, three men of stature there in the case of Senator Coates, a respected conservative Republican Senator. General Mattis, the Defense Secretary, Dr. Fauci, has been at this for 40 years people of stature who have these damning opinions of the president.

Another thing that's in the book, relates to something else that's in the news right now. There has been a lot of tension. The president lashing out at a report that says he called American war dead losers and suckers then airing some grievances with the Generals in Washington suggesting that the top people at the Pentagon are out to get him in some way or that they just love wars. This is something Woodward also explored the relationship with the Generals.

GANGEL: Correct. Woodward describes in his book that one of the Defense Secretary Mattis' top aides who is named and quoted, not anonymous, was in a meeting in the Oval Office with President Trump. It was a meeting about trade, and he heard President Trump say and then he told Defense Secretary Mattis, and I think we have a full screen up here because it is hard to say some of this but Trump said my "F-in generals are a bunch of - and you can read the word right there".

What's interesting is when the aide came and told Mattis about it, Mattis has been around. And he said send me an email documenting that knowing Bob Woodward I'm guessing he may just have a copy of that document, which was done in real time.

KING: And we talk frequently, sadly about the reality TV Presidency. Maybe we should talk about the fairy tale presidency in that Woodward has this exchange about how the president's son-in-law, his trusted Adviser Jared Kushner views his boss the president.

GANGEL: This is one of the most unusual parts of the book, because Woodward says there's no question that Jared Kushner is a cheerleader for his father, but when he explains in the book, and he's quoted, about the best way to understand Donald Trump, he quotes four texts, one of which is "Alice in Wonderful"

And he paraphrases the Cheshire cat and he says that the way to understand Trump is "If you don't know where you're going, any path will get you there". And then Woodward goes on to write that it was clear that Kushner wasn't meaning to criticize his father-in-law, but Woodward writes, when combined Kushner's for text painted President Trump as crazy, aimless, stubborn and manipulative.

I could hardly believe anyone would recommend these as ways to understand their father-in-law much less the president they believed in and served.

KING: And the book shelves next week.

GANGEL: Next week. September 15th. And I just want to remind people; President Trump did not participate in Bob Woodward's first book on him, "Fear." This time, he gave him 18 interviews, and there are audiotapes. Even for President Trump, it's going to be a little hard to say he didn't say what he said.

KING: I'm guessing now that people at the White House are learning about this. I'm going to bet that most of them don't understand the extent to which he talked to Bob Woodward because the president-- GANGEL: Many calls relate at night. President Trump would call Woodward unexpectedly. The White House normally records a president's conversations with journalists. I don't think we know whether all of these interviews were recorded.

KING: I think we soon will. Jamie Gangel, breathtaking reporting. Thanks for sharing it first here. We appreciate it. And I want to bring in for some perspective here, our Chief Medical Correspondent CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Dr. Gupta, we can't rewind the tape. We can't go back to the beginning. But we now hear the president in his own words in early February at a time he was telling you and me and the American people and anybody watching around the world, no big deal. China's got it.

We're good. Soon down to zero. There is nothing to worry about. I got this. China's got this. He was telling Bob Woodward, this is incredibly deadly, it is way worse than any flu you have ever seen. Again, we can't rewind the tape.


KING: But if that had been communicated publicly, if the president had put that urgency into his people back then, those sad numbers that are most often on the right sort of our television screen would without a doubt be lower. Would they not?

DR. SANJAT GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No doubt, John. I mean, we know that some of the most basic public health measures, the earlier you do them, they have an exponentially larger impact in the long run.

Whether it is the, you know, the mask ordinances, whether it is the sort of stay-at-home order, slowing down of the spread orders that went out middle of March. Remember, that was middle of March, John, when that happened.

I think I was really struck beginning of Jamie's report just by what you said. This idea that at first I was - you know, in the briefing room with the president when he talked about this. At first he said, I'm sort of very surprised that flu actually kills so many every year.

Tens of thousands of people, 37,000 people as it turns out in the year prior. So that was what he was sort of really fixated on. When I asked him specifically about the comparisons between Coronavirus and flu, on February 27th, again, 20 days after he told Bob Woodward he knew it was far more dangerous than the flu, listen to what he said.


DR. GUPTA: The flu, in comparison to the Coronavirus. Flu has a fatalities ratio of about 0.1 percent.

TRUMP: Correct.

DR. GUPTA: This has a fatality ration somewhere between 2 percent and 3 percent.

TRUMP: We don't know exactly and the flu is higher than this, the flu is much higher than that.

DR. GUPTA: Just the flu, more than the flu, spreading, going to spread within communities.

TRUMP: It may - it may.

DR. GUPTA: That's the expectation. Does that worry you because that seems to be what worries the American people?

TRUMP: No because we're ready for it. It is what it is. We're ready for it. We're really prepared. As I said we have the greatest people in the world and we are very ready for it. We hope it doesn't spread. There is a chance that it won't spread, too, and there a chance that it will and then it is a question of at what level?

So far we've done a great job. You have 15 people with this whole world coming into the United States and the 15 people are either better or close to being better, that's pretty good.


DR. GUPTA: So, again, that's February 27th. And now we know on February 7th he knew that this was, he said, five times deadlier than the flu. He knew this close to three weeks earlier, John. That's quite striking. And then just show you why?

To your point earlier, if we had acted even a week earlier, if we had put in some of these social distances mechanisms even a week earlier according to a study out of Columbia, by May we know it would have prevented at least 36,000 deaths. Just acting one week earlier.

John, two weeks earlier could have prevented 84 percent of deaths by that point in May. So, yes it makes a difference and it makes a bigger difference if you enact these things early.

KING: And this may be somewhat unfair question, but as a medical professional yourself, as someone who has to sometimes decide what do I tell my patients? I have some really tough news to deliver. How much do you tell? How transparent are you? How optimistic?

In terms of getting people to change their behavior, to deal with a serious risk, they need the information. Do they not? The president here deliberately withholding and he says it in his own words, this is not the fake news. This is not CNN, in his own words, it was a strategy, he said I'd do it.

And I continue do dot it to keep information from people, information which they could have used, whether that is John King or Dr. Sanjay Gupta or a Republican Governor who was reluctant to impose a mask mandate or social distancing or just an average citizen out there, information they critically could have used to changed their behavior in February or March, not July or August, right? DR. GUPTA: Yes, absolutely. And you know, the thing about, that you're asking about if you're talking to a patient. You're right, John. What you're alluding to I think is, there's always an inflection point bean being hopeful and honest. But honesty absolutely has to lead the way, full and transparent.

You have to keep in mind that the entire world was going through this at the same time. So it wasn't like we're talking about an isolated event here in the United States. I want to minimize the United States so we don't look like we're dealing with this alone in some way.

The whole world was going through this. We saw that that if you implemented some of these public health measures, the idea of staying at home for a few weeks at the beginning to get the viral spread under control it could have had a huge difference. Tens of thousands of people may have still been alive.

So we don't know. These are models and I think there is going to be a huge sort of discussion about this after this is all over in terms what differences these things would have made. But it is very clear that acting earlier would have made a big difference.

KING: Pretty clear that a president who was honest and transparent with his people might have helped change behavior a lot earlier especially among those reluctant to listen so the government might have listened to him.


KING: Dr. Gupta, grateful for your insights and a very important prospective. A very quick break for us when we come back we'll continue this conversation. The Woodward book says the president was briefed in early February that he knew the depth of the Coronavirus crisis. What he told you was very different more of our conversation and more of the exclusive reporting in just a few minutes.


KING: More now on the bombshell new book from Bob Woodward, the award winning writer revealing what went on behind the scenes at the White House in the early days of the pandemic the president in his own words downplaying the dangers to the public, concealing the truth from the American people.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent for "The Washington Post" Dana Bash is CNN's Chief Political Correspondent. Thank you both for being here on this important day. I want to go back and listen to, again, the president in his own words.

This is early February. At a time the administration is telling including the president, telling the American people this is not a big deal China's on top of it. We got this. There's not a lot to worry about. Listen how the president describes the threat in ones his 18 conversations with Bob Woodward.

[12:25:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOODWARD: And so what was President Xi saying yesterday?

TRUMP: Bob, we were talking mostly about the - the virus, and I think he's going to have it in good shape, but, you know, it's a very tricky situation. It's--

WOODWARD: Indeed it is.

TRUMP: It goes through air, Bob that's always tougher than the touch. You know? The touch you don't have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one.

It's also more deadly than your, you know, your, even your strenuous flu. You know, people don't realize. We lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?


TRUMP: That's pretty amazing. And then I say, well, is that the same thing?

WOODWARD: And do for--

TRUMP: This is more deadly. This is five per, you know, 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So this is deadly stuff.


KING: Dan Balz that's February 7th, 2020. It would be March 13th more than a month later that the President of the United States finally declared a national emergency and we can show you the track of cases in the United States. It was March 16th when they first appeared in the White House briefing room to announce 15 days to slow the spread.

If you listen to him talking to Bob Woodward on February 7th, it's airborne. It's way more serious than any flu. Dan Balz, the word inexcusable comes to my mind. It's just in terms of leadership and communicating with the American people of the gravity of the threat, what the president was telling the American people versus what he was telling Bob Woodward right there literally night and day.

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: John, I mean, Bob's reporting is unbelievable in many ways. And as he has reported it in this book, it is a dereliction of duty on the part of the president.

If he knew and believed what he was telling Bob in February, and did not act on it, and, in fact, deliberately played it down, then we see the consequences that have flowed from that. I mean, he was providing the rosiest of scenarios through that whole period at a time when he believed or was told that that was not the case. KING: And, Dana, to continue that point, Woodward notes and he has memos to back this up, on January 28th the president given a top secret intelligence briefing by his National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and top deputy on China.

It was jarring warning about the virus telling the president would be "The biggest national security threat of his presidency." That's on January 28th the biggest national security threat of his presidency. On February 4th, the president gave a State of the Union address to the American people in which he barely mentioned the Coronavirus.

He mentioned it passing essentially again saying, I got this we're on top of this. There is nothing for you to worry about. Dereliction of duty, fine words used by Dan just a moment ago just how? How? Why?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think any of us has answers to that, but you were mentioning earlier when you were talking to Jamie as she unveiled this incredible reporting based on Bob Woodward's book that you bet that there are people around the president who didn't really know how extensively he spoke with bob Woodward, which is proven, as we have played by audiotapes that Woodward had.

I just got a text from somebody close to the campaign who says that they're shocked that the president not only did that but much more importantly the content and the specific part where the president said that the virus was deadly. This is deadly stuff, is the quote from the president to Bob Woodward.

But that was not widely disseminated even internally. Never mind to the public at large. And we're obviously going to get a lot more information from people around the president about how much they knew that the president spoke to Woodward?

But I think the key thing to kind of zero in on is what you were saying. That the president knew this, not only did he not tell the American public, he told the American public the opposite. Nothing to worry about here and I do think it's possible that people out there have outrage fatigue.

Every day we hear something that is just unbelievable that comes from the president or about the president. And this should stand on its own, and separate from that, and people really need to listen and to read what Bob Woodward has from the president's own words back early in the year.

KING: Right. Companies have been wiped off the planet. Small businesses have had to close. People are now debating about whether it's safe to send their children back to school. Corporations are debating can I bring people back to work? And if you listen to the president, let's listen to him again he - it was deliberate. It was not an either/or, not I'm not convinced - not I'm waiting for more information.

You hear the president right here in his own words, A.; say more things very contrary to what he was telling the public. But, B, saying that he was concealing this information. My word here, misleading the American people on purpose.