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Woodward Book: Trump Knew Virus was Deadly and Downplayed It. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 06:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via phone): I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.



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

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Trump tells Woodward just how dangerous, highly contagious, and airborne the coronavirus is.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: It's disgusting. He acknowledges it's in the air and won't put on a mask.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This president was consistent in saying that we needed to do everything we could. He shut down, literally, the economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is one of the great presidential felonies of all time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think of the panic of every single family I called on facetime to let them know their family member was dying. As a frontline provider, I'm furious.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Thursday, September 10, 6 a.m. here in New York. Fasten your seat belts. We have a lot to bring you in the next three hours.

First, the death toll in the United States has now topped 190,000 people. More than a thousand new deaths were reported just yesterday.

And this morning we're hearing stunning new audio from President Trump. It turns out he knew how deadly the virus was back in February, but he intentionally downplayed it. Legendary journalist Bob Woodward conducted and recorded 18 interviews

with the president for his new book called "Rage." They show the president misled the public about the virus at the very time when lives could still have been saved.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: CNN has obtained excerpts from the extensive recordings. No hiding behind claims of anonymous sources. This is the president's own voice, own words, own lies. And you will hear them at length throughout this special broadcast.

This is the headline from "The Washington Post" this morning: "I always wanted to play it down." That was 190,000 deaths ago.

This morning, we have new reporting on what's going on behind the scenes at the White House. New reaction from medical experts and victims' families on the devastating impact of the president's lies.

We also have a brand-new interview with Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Jake Tapper's exclusive, coming up.

We begin, though, with CNN's Joe Johns, live at the White House with the top headlines from this remarkable moment and the fallout, Joe, in the West Wing.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The president and one of the top journalists of our time. The president sat down with Bob Woodward 18 times, talked with him 18 times over ten months on a wide range of issues, including what he knew and when he knew it in the early days of the pandemic.

And now the president is calling the Woodward book a political hit job, but it's very difficult to argue with the president's own words on the record and Woodward's recordings, with the president's consent.


JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump, in his own words, admitting on tape that he understood just how dangerous the coronavirus could be. The revelation from a series of recorded interviews for journalist Bob Woodward's new book, "Rage."

In early February, Trump privately told Woodward the disease was deadlier than the flu, weeks before the first confirmed coronavirus- related death in the United States.

TRUMP (via phone): 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, even your strenuous flus.

JOHNS: But even 19 days later, here's what the president said to the public.

TRUMP (on camera): That's a little bit like the flu. It's a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for, and we'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.

JOHNS: By mid-March, Trump admitted privately he was downplaying the coronavirus.

TRUMP (via phone): I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.

WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

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

JOHNS: And despite the president's repeated claims, like this one last month about the effects of the disease on children --

TRUMP (on camera): If you look at children, I mean, they're able to throw it off very easily. Their immune systems are very, very strong. They're very powerful.

JOHNS: -- Trump told Woodward months earlier that the coronavirus wasn't only harmful to the elderly.

TRUMP (via phone): Now it's turning out, it's not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old -- older people.

WOODWARD: Yes, exactly.

TRUMP: It's plenty of young people.

JOHNS: The White House denied the allegations from the book, even after the recordings were released.

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has never lied to the American public on COVID. The president's been very -- the president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that. The president never downplayed the virus.

JOHNS: Hours later, the president responded to Woodward's book himself and defended his handling of the pandemic.

TRUMP (on camera): Well, the fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.

JOHNS: Trump's defense the same day the United States confirmed COVID- 19 death toll topped 190,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, a grim milestone the president says he prevented from being even worse.

TRUMP: So I think if we didn't do what we did, we would have had millions of people die.

JOHNS: In an interview with CNN, Joe Biden slammed Trump's leadership during the pandemic.

BIDEN: It's disgusting. We learned this on a day that 100 -- we turned 190,000 Americans dead, and he knew this?


He waved a white flag. He walked away. He didn't do a damn thing. Think about it. Think about what he did not do. And it's almost criminal.

JOHNS: The book reports some of Trump's top officials also questioned his abilities. Woodward writing former defense secretary James Mattis called the president "dangerous" and "unfit for office."

And Dr. Anthony Fauci said Trump's "attention span is like a minus number" and "his sole purpose is to get re-elected."

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: I don't really want to get involved in the kind of stuff -- that is very distracting to the kind of things that I'm trying to do and that we're all trying to do with this outbreak.

JOHNS: And as racial injustice has fueled protests and unrest across the country and is taking center stage as an election issue, Trump dismissed concerns about black Americans' frustration.

WOODWARD: Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it put me, and I think, lots of white, privileged people in a cave, and that we have to work our way out of that to understand the anger and the pain, particularly black people feel in this country? Do you --

TRUMP (via phone): No. You -- you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don't feel that at all!


JOHNS: So the biggest takeaway so far is that the president revealed all the way back that he knew, in fact, that this virus was contagious, that it was deadly, the seriousness of the situation, all the way back, February 4th of this year.

And why is that important? Well, a study by Columbia University says that, if the United States had put social distancing guidelines in place just one week earlier than we did in mid-March, 36,000 lives could have been saved. And if we'd put social distancing in place two weeks earlier, 84 percent of deaths and 82 percent of cases could have been prevented -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Yes, those are important numbers, Joe. Thank you very much.

All right, joining us now, we have Abby Phillip, CNN political correspondent. Dr. Peter Hotez, he's the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. And Miles Taylor, CNN contributor and former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security. It's great to have all of you.

You know, we just need to play a little bit more of this sound, again, just to drive it home for everybody. Because this is the moment -- OK, so February 7 is the moment that President Trump admits to Bob Woodward that he knows it's airborne, and he knows it's more deadly than the seasonal flu, OK? Most of the public did not know that on February 7. That's not what the administration was saying. So just listen to this exchange with Bob Woodward.


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

TRUMP (via phone): Well, we were talking mostly about the virus. And I think he's going to have it in good shape, but you know, it's a very tricky situation.

WOODWARD: Indeed, it is.

TRUMP: It goes -- 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 flus. You know, people don't realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?

WOODWARD: I know, it's --

TRUMP: It's amazing -- the same thing --

WOODWARD: -- you do for --

TRUMP: This is more deadly. This is 5 -- you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent, you know, so this is deadly stuff.


CAMEROTA: OK, so that's what the president knew on February 7. Well after February 7, here is what he was telling the American public.


TRUMP: This is like a flu. Of the 15 people, the original 15, as I call them, eight of them have returned to their homes.

We're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up. And again, when you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done.

And I think the virus is going to be -- it's going to be fine. And you know, in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather, and that's a beautiful date to look forward to.

We have it very much under control in this country.

People are getting better. They're all getting better. There's a very good chance you're not going to die. In fact, we're very close to a vaccine.

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


CAMEROTA: OK. So Dr. Peter Hotez, your thoughts this morning as you listen to those two different stories?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, DEAN, NATIONAL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Yes, Alisyn, this is devastating. You know, you mentioned that February 7 time. That's now, in retrospect, we know when this virus was entering into New York City from Europe and caused the single largest outbreak, single largest epidemic in the -- in the one year of this epidemic. It devastated New York City. And it went on undetected, despite all of the warnings that we had.

the one year of this epidemic. The one year of this epidemic. It devastated New York City. And it went on undetected, despite all of the warnings that we had. It was allowed to come in from Europe and remain undetected and cause that devastating epidemic.

And then, there was a refusal by the White House and by the White House coronavirus task force to launch a national strategy, allowing a massive resurgence across the south and devastated Houston and Texas.

And don't forget who paid the price the most for this: the Hispanic community, the African-American community, the Native American community. Twenty -- 20 percent of the deaths are under 65, but for Hispanics, African-Americans, probably Native Americans, as well, 35 percent under the age of 65.

Bottom line, this is the single largest public health failure in the modern history of the United States, certainly, in the last hundred years. And it happened because of the refusal by the White House to launch a national campaign and a national strategy against the virus. So it's beyond upsetting.

And we're moving pretty quickly, soon the 200,000 dead Americans by the end of this month, and we'll probably hit 300,000 dead Americans by December 1. It's -- there's almost -- there are almost no words for this.

BERMAN: Dr. Hotez, we heard on February 7, the president says, out loud, on tape, This is five times deadlier than flu. He said that on February 7. Yet for a month, if not longer, he was comparing it to the flu, suggesting it's no worse than the flu. In other words, he knew it was more deadly, and he lied about it.

So what was lost during that period when he was lying to the American people?

HOTEZ: Well, first of all, this was a horrible disinformation campaign that's still going on, right? I mean, you know, when -- when he pushed for the openings of schools in areas where this high transmission, putting teachers and staff at risk, it's more of the same. He tried to downplay it even then.

So this is a year-long disinformation campaign. Remember all the words: This is harmless, lowest death rate. The hospital admissions are just catch-up from not having elective surgery. They knew it was fake, and the scientific community knew it was fake, and yet they kept on putting it out there.

So they missed the boat when it came to the virus entering into New York from Europe. They refused to prevent the resurgence across the south. They deliberately put schoolteachers and staff in harm's way. This is beyond political failing. It's -- it's, you know, Vice President Biden said, used the word "disgusting." I could even use words stronger than that.

CAMEROTA: Miles Taylor, what do you hear here?

MILES TAYLOR, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, Alisyn, I would say this. I mean, to put it fully into context for viewers, I spent two and a half years in this administration. I thought I had seen it all. There's no amount of hyperbole that does this justice.

The president of the United States has effectively admitted his complicity in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Something I don't think any of us thought we would be saying on live television. But it's the truth.

And you don't have to take my word for it. The people around the president, as recently as yesterday -- I met with people who, at senior levels at the White House, have been charged with helping to manage the response. They also feel like the president's poorly mismanaged response to this crisis resulted in the deaths, needlessly, of tens of thousands of Americans.

And look, we can point back to something we developed in the Bush administration, back when I served in the Bush administration. Fifteen years ago, we developed pandemic response plans that should have been followed to the "T." The playbook was on the shelf. It was ready for the president to use.

But because he politicized the response, because he made it about him and himself and his self-interest, and because, more than anything, he was worried about his re-election, they didn't follow those playbooks. And again, we have dead Americans because of that failure.

I think that's what people should be concerned about, and Americans should be thinking about that in the run-up to November 3.

BERMAN: And as you listen to this remarkable audio, these recordings, remember, this isn't reporting on. This is the president's own voice. This is the president telling us what he was doing and why, and this was 190,000 deaths ago.

So we heard what he said on February 7. Let's hear what he said later in March about why he was doing this, Abby.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP (via phone): Now it's turning out, it's not just old people,

Bob, but just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just older --

WOODWARD: Yes, exactly.

TRUMP: -- people. It's plenty of young people. If you look at 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 in -- 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.

WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

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


BERMAN: "I always wanted to play it down," Abby. "I still like to play it down." That's like a witness in the courtroom just admitting that he was guilty of lying.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. And that's effectively the explanation the president is giving today, that he intentionally played it down because, in his -- in his view, this is how leaders lead.

The problem is that, you know, as public health experts -- and Peter knows this better than anyone -- you have to get people, including the millions of people who are followers and supporters of this president, to follow the public health guidance, to take steps to protect themselves and protect others. And by playing it down, the president clearly lost time in doing that.

You know, I was really fascinated, listening to this after having covered this president and talked to him behind the scenes, several times. He often says in private exactly what he says in public.

And what is striking about this is that the level of detail and specificity about the seriousness of the problem that he expressed behind the scenes, talking about how younger people are at risk, talking about how it is five times deadlier than the flu. These were very specific, clear things that should have been communicated to the public and weren't. I remember at a press conference, the president saying, you know, 99

percent of people are totally fine. They just recover. And -- and using that as an explanation for why the economy needed to open up as soon as possible, even before the pandemic had been contained.

This is really extraordinary, because it is not that typical for this president to -- to not, frankly, just say exactly what he thinks. And he clearly believed -- he clearly believed very early on that this virus was deadly and that it was a problem. And he didn't act on it. And I think that's what's causing so many problems.

You know, over in neverland where the president was on FOX News last night, they spent a lot of time trying to defend him by saying other Democrats were downplaying the virus. Well, the difference is, this is a president of the United States who has access to all of the information. All of the information that we don't have access to. And that's why the responsibility is greater.

BERMAN: You know, it's not neverland. It's through the looking glass. Jared Kushner says it's "Alice in Wonderland," that is the White House. But an interesting analogy, to be sure.

CAMEROTA: Also, I mean, we'll talk more about this in the program, but the idea that this president doesn't like to panic people. He recently said the suburbs are going up in flames and going away. I mean, he's President Panic. But we will dissect that, as well. Thank you.

Coming up, much more of President Trump saying things that we have never heard before about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.




WOODWARD: So now, I understand --

TRUMP (via phone): Because it was too early.

WOODWARD: -- your new national security adviser, O'Brien --

TRUMP: Right. Yes.

WOODWARD: -- said to you on January 28, "Mr. President, this is going -- this virus is going to be the biggest national security threat to your presidency." Do you remember that?

TRUMP: No. No.

WOODWARD: You don't?

TRUMP: No, I don't. No, I don't. I'm sure if he said it, you know, I'm sure he said it. Nice guy.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: Nice guy, I'm sure he said it. He conveniently doesn't remember it.

Matt Pottinger, who also works in the national security office, was comparing it to the 1918 flu at the end of January, so they knew.

That was more of Bob Woodward's explosive reporting, raising major questions about President Trump's handling of coronavirus, why he didn't listen -- well, you know what? He did listen to the dire warnings. He did hear the dire warnings. He admitted that he heard the dire warnings in February. That's what we know now, and he admitted he lied about it for months.

Back with us, Abby Phillip, Dr. Peter Hotez, and Miles Taylor.

And beyond that, now we have the president's defense of it all, saying the reason he lied for months was because he didn't want to create a panic. Really? President Trump says he didn't want to create a panic.

Now, I was going to call him Captain Panic. Alisyn promoted him to President Panic. Panic is his thing. It's what he does. Listen.


TRUMP: Your home will go down in value, and crime rates will rapidly rise. The end result is you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer.

We must never allow mob rule. Rioting, looting, arson and violence.

There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America.


BERMAN: So panic in suburbia, with every syllable pronounced meticulously, OK. Panic about a pandemic that has now killed 190,000 people, not OK.

Professor Hotez, this is not about panic. John Barry, who wrote the book about the great influenza, says the single most important lesson from the 1918 flu, the single most important lesson, tell the truth. Why is that so important? Panic be damned. Why is the truth so important?


HOTEZ: Well, it's clear that what the president did was by continuing -- continuing to downplay it. It's not the reality what the American people were seeing. They were seeing their parents, their brothers, their sisters go into hospitals, go into intensive care units; and they saw this day in and day out. And all you had was the president denying the problem.

Or you had the White House coronavirus task force never doing the fundamentals of what needed to be done, which was to, one, articulate the problem. Say, look, these are the three things that really worry us. These are the three -- this is where we think this could head if we don't do something. Here's what we're going to do about that. We never saw that either from the president or the White House coronavirus task force. They could never organize themselves to create a response. And that's what created the panic.

And we've said this on multiple times, John, about how the president has allowed what started as a public health problem to become a full- blown homeland security threat, to the point where people were terrified about going outside, terrified about sending their kids to school. And this is all, now, we know, the president engendered that by his absence of leadership.

And -- and again, we're still in this. It's not like this is something historical. We're heading towards 200,000 deaths very soon, and the numbers are continuing to climb.

CAMEROTA: I mean, Abby, there's one thing about trying to be a calming presence, which of course, we would hope that any president would be. Then there's the -- what ended up happening, which was actively misleading the public in terms of important public health information.

And because you've covered the White House and the president for so long, was there audible snorting when he said he doesn't like to panic people? He -- this is his M.O.! We've seen it throughout this presidential race. He does rely on fearmongering.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, there's -- there's very little credibility to that statement, considering that his entire re-election campaign, effectively, has boiled down to scaring people about the suburbs being invaded by Antifa and anarchists. You know, I think that's a not-very- credible explanation for all of this.

Because, obviously, the objective here is to keep people safe and to keep the country going. I mean, the president said it to Woodward himself in terms of what he thinks the No. 1 priority of being president is. It's keeping Americans safe and preserving the prosperity, effectively, of the United States.

On both accounts, the handling of the pandemic really has been a failure on both levels. You know, 190,000 Americans dead, the economy shut down for a protracted period of time, because the pandemic keeps leveling off at this extraordinarily high number.

And you know, President Trump never seemed to really understand the role of the government in taking early action to prevent that from happening. I think he's always wanted to just ignore it and pretend like this wasn't happening. Stop testing people so the numbers didn't look as bad as they were.

And the result was that, you know, his supporters -- you know, you would see them at rallies and at protests, protesting mask ordinances, protesting stay-at-home orders and using the language that he used, comparing it to the flu, saying that we don't shut the country down for the flu. Well, that rhetoric that he expressed publicly had real consequences; and it prevented people, his own supporters, the people who listen to him the most, from taking action early.

BERMAN: It did and it does. Look at North Carolina two nights ago. That crowd packed, you know, cheek-to-jowl if that's the actual farming term, thank you. People right on top of each other without masks. Obviously not a good thing.

You know, Miles, it strikes me. The president and some of his supporters like to compare him to Winston Churchill, which is absurd. I think some boob even wrote a book comparing Trump to Churchill.

This is anti-Churchill. All Churchill did was tell the people in Great Britain how bad things were and that they had to be courageous to get through them. All he did was outline the truth and then say, We're going to get out of it. This is the anti-Churchill, not telling the truth to begin with at all.

And Anthony Fauci, there are quotes in the book that Bob Woodward has. There's no sound on this. This is people say that Fauci told them, quote, that the president's leadership, or lack thereof, was "rudderless," "his attention span is like a minus number," "His sole purpose is to get re-elected."

Now, you've been in the room where it happens. What do you think of that analysis?

TAYLOR: Well, I'd point back to what Abby just said, which is that the man quite literally seems unable to do his job. And I will tell you, that's usually the sentiment we came away with. Whether it was leaving a meeting in the Oval Office or leaving a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Donald Trump, four years in, still does not know how to do his job.

Fundamentally, he doesn't know what cabinet secretary to turn to to get the job done in a national crisis. He tells the secretary.