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Photos: Trump at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images; Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Black Lives Matter rally in Washington Square Park in New York: Noam Galai/Getty Images.
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The Latest Blow to Trump’s Presidency
Legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s book Rage exposes how the president misled America about the coronavirus / BY Kim Honey / September 17th, 2020
It was unprecedented access to a president of the United States. In Bob Woodward’s five decades as an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, he had never had so many interviews – 18 in all – with one of his presidential subjects.
Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 after Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein reported on the Watergate scandal in their Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé, refused requests for interviews. President George W. Bush talked to Woodward for three of four books he wrote about the administration, “but never in the way I was able to talk to [Donald] Trump.”
Yet, after the legendary reporter told the U.S. president he was writing a book about him and all their conversations would be on the record and taped, Trump spoke to him 18 times (their 19th conversation was Aug. 14, after the book went to the printer). About seven calls were initiated by the president himself, often late at night, Woodward told his colleague, White House bureau chief Philip Rucker, in an interview streamed on Washington Post Live Sept. 15, the day his Trump book, Rage, came out.
“I started thinking of him as the night prowler,” Woodward told Rucker. “He likes to talk with people at night and he’s walking around the White House and he’ll pick up the phone and he would call me and he’d say, you know, ‘How you doing? I just wanted to check in.”
The calls were so unpredictable that Woodward always carried his trusty Olympus digital recorder in his pocket and left two backups at home – one by his beside and the other by the downstairs phone – just in case the mood struck and the president called.
The first conversation was Dec. 5, 2019, when Woodward plunked the Olympus down on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and said, “This is all on the record. This is for the book that will come out before the [Nov. 3] election.”
But the big revelation, the one Woodward starts the book with, came on Feb. 7, although he didn’t know how important it was at the time. That’s when Trump told him the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spread through the air and “it’s more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
In another conversation they had a little more than a month later, on March 19, Trump told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Meanwhile, Trump was telling the country, “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for us … that I can assure you (Jan. 30 in Michigan) and “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” (Feb. 27 at the White House) and “We’ve done a great job because we acted quickly. We acted early” (March 13 Rose Garden press conference).
Woodward thought Trump was talking about the threat in China, not in the U.S. The president had spoken to Chinese president Xi Jinping the night before the Feb. 7 call, and Woodward spent a lot of time chasing that transcript, so much so that he was making the Trump administration nervous. He never did get his hands on it but he did uncover a bombshell.
On Jan. 28, just eight days after the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. was confirmed in Washington state, National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien told Trump at a top-secret intelligence briefing in the Oval Office, “This is going to be the biggest national security threat to your presidency,” Woodward said. He found out Matthew Pottinger, O’Brien’s deputy, not only agreed with the conclusion drawn from intelligence reports but told the president it was going to be a pandemic because the virus was transmitted via droplets spread in the air and by people who had no symptoms.
That meant when he spoke to Trump on Feb. 7 and March 19, the president was telling him he not only knew the coronavirus was more deadly than the 1918 Spanish flu, but he decided to deliberately mislead the American public about how lethal it was.
“I later – three months later – learned of this Jan. 28 conversation, which is the key,” Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, told Rucker.
Since The Washington Post and CNN published those details from the book a week before its release, Trump tweeted that if Woodward thought what he had done was so bad, he should have published it in the newspaper. But by the time Woodward found out, it was too late. The World Health Organization declared the virus that causes COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11 and, by the beginning of May, 1.2 million Americans had been infected and more than 67,000 were dead.
“This is the key fact,” Woodward told Rucker. “This was going to be not just another health problem. It was going to be like the 1918 pandemic, the Spanish flu, in the United States that killed 675,000 people.”
Now the death toll is nearing 200,000 and 6.64 million people have been infected, but still Trump insisted he made the right call in their last conversation on Aug. 14.
“I asked about the virus, and he said, ‘Well, nothing more could have been done, nothing more could have been done.’ That just does not check out,” Woodward said. “So much more could have been done. The responsibility was on him to inform the American public in an honest, straightforward way. And he did not do it.”
When Rucker asked why Trump’s White House advisers didn’t intervene and try to change the president’s mind, Woodward said, “There was denial across the board.”
The problem is Trump is “a one-man band” and “he’s going to do what he wants to do, on impulse or information.” Woodward said Trump is “a bulldozer to his staff and, quite frankly, to the country.” Woodward believes this is the Trump administration’s biggest weakness.
“He doesn’t build a team, he doesn’t plan, he doesn’t sit down and say, ‘How are we going to tackle things like the pandemic?’”
Trump, for his part, gave a press conference Sept. 10 where he asserted that he “took action in early January to ban the travel … to and from China,” but Woodward said his medical advisers and the national security team advised him to do it, and Trump agreed. To clarify: It was actually a restriction, not a ban, since it only applied to non-U.S. residents, with The New York Times reporting nearly 40,000 travellers from China arrived in the U.S. in the two months after it was imposed on Feb. 2.
“This is one of the things that doesn’t check out …. if this was such a big deal, he would have gone out and announced it,” Woodward said. “Instead, he sent the Secretary of Health and Human Services – [Andrew] Azar – out to announce it,” Woodward told Rucker.
When an ABC News correspondent asked the president at the press conference why he lied to the American people and told them the novel coronavirus was not a national threat, Trump said he hadn’t. “What I said was we have to be calm, we can’t be panicked … I want to show a level of confidence and I want to show strength as a leader. And I want to show that our country is going to be fine one way or the other.”
And on Sept. 15, the day Rage was released, Trump told George Stephanopoulos on a televised ABC Town Hall that he actually “up-played” the threat of the coronavirus “in terms of action. My action was very strong.”
Again, he cited as proof the Feb. 2 travel restrictions between China and the U.S. and the March 13 restrictions to and from Europe (which again exempted U.S. citizens).
“Whether you call it ‘talent’ or ‘luck,’ it was very important,” Trump said, “so we saved a lot of lives when we did that.”
Meanwhile, Trump has asserted COVID-19 was no worse than the flu; undermined his own experts at every turn by saying he would not wear a mask even as he was announcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending Americans wear them in public; mocked his Democratic rival Joe Biden for wearing one; and continues to hold indoor and outdoor rallies across the country where attendees are not required to wear masks in violation of state-mandated limits on gatherings.
These “super spreader events” have led to surges COVID-19 cases in Tulsa, Oklahoma in July, for example. One attendee, 74-year-old former Republican presidential candidate and co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, Herman Cain, was hospitalized with COVID-19 at the beginning of July and died on July 30. That the president himself is contributing to the caseload and death toll – which just surpassed 200,000 – is “the great tragedy, the great sadness of all of this,” Woodward says.
Here are some key subjects covered in Rage that Woodward addressed in conversation with Rucker.
Black Lives Matter
Writing the book gave Woodward the luxury of time to sort through the chronology of events and put things together, but it also allowed him to talk to the president about issues cropping up in the country in real time.
By the time Woodward talked to Trump on June 19, the President had angered Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser when he dispersed peaceful protesters outside the White House in Lafayette Park on May 29 with tear gas and rubber bullets fired by the National Guard. When the dust settled, it was obvious the people – who were protesting the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn., four days before – were removed by force so that Trump could stage a photo op with a Bible on the steps of nearby St. John’s Church. A week later, Bowser retaliated by commissioning artists to paint Black Lives Matter in massive yellow letters on the street in front of the White House, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio personally helped do the same on Fifth Avenue outside the Trump Tower in Manhattan on July 9, after Trump tweeted that the words were “a symbol of hate.”
On June 19 Woodward asked the president’s thoughts on the white privilege both men share. It is one of several audio recordings Woodward released to the Washington Post, which he called “quite revealing” and “very disturbing.”
“Mr. President, do you have any understanding about the anger and the pain that Black people feel in America?” Woodward asked. “And you can hear it on the tape. He just goes, ‘Wow, you sure drank the Kool-Aid,’ and went on to say, ‘Listen to yourself, Bob, listen to yourself.’ And he said, ‘I don’t feel that at all.’”
Woodward feels one of the qualities that an American president must have is the ability to empathize, to put themselves in another’s shoes.
“I would argue it’s one of the president’s chief responsibilities to understand not just his own experience but to understand the experience of others,” Woodward said.
Love, North Korea
Woodward obtained the so-called “love letters” between Trump and Kim Jong- un, which he quotes extensively in the book. The U.S. president bragged to Woodward about how close they were, saying he is the only one Kim will smile with in a photograph and has shared the gruesome details of how Kim displayed the headless body of his executed uncle to officials.
Woodward said it was an interesting “original experiment in diplomacy” because, in the foreign relations “playbook,” negotiations for a summit meeting between leaders would be organized by emissaries. Instead, Trump told Woodward it took two days to set it up.
“I won’t quote him directly, but he said, “What did I do with Kim? I gave him an effing meeting, and that’s all I did,” Woodward said, adding that they did charm each other. “As I point out [in the book], you have to give him credit. At this point, there’s been no war,” although the reporter noted that their relationship has since deteriorated, and that may not hold true in the future.
Trump told him Kim said he was ready to go to war, a fact Woodward corroborated with more reporting, where he learned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also heard the same thing from the president.
When Woodward got the correspondence between Trump and Kim, he was blown away and thought, “Wow, this is a book in itself,” although he condensed it in Rage.
Rucker asked Woodward about the part of the book where he writes about how Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence who oversees the CIA among 15 other intelligence-gathering organizations, always thought Russian President Vladimir Putin had something on Trump.
“They look through all the intelligence about Russia and Putin, and they have deep cover sources – human sources – and Coats concluded there must be something because of Trump’s public behaviour and acquiescence to Putin,” Woodward said. “He found no proof, but the suspicion lingered and did not go away. [It was] stunning that the top intelligence person would have this suspicion.
Woodward reveals that Jared Kushner – one of the leaders on the government’s response to the pandemic and the president’s son-in-law (he is married to Ivanka Trump, also an adviser to the president) – was part of a circle of people who would reprimand pandemic experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and an immunologist who is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In the book, he describes meetings in the Oval Office where Fauci and others would challenge the president, and Kushner “and some others in the room, they’d stiffen – ‘You can’t talk to the president like that’ – very defensive [and] erected a wall around the president.
“I report that Fauci felt very much that the president really had a negative attention span and that the only thing the president was interested in was re-election,” Woodward said.
After Woodward quoted Kushner saying, “The most dangerous people around the president are the overconfident idiots,” he writes that Kushner was referring to Defense Secretary James Mattis (who resigned in 2019), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who resigned in 2018) and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn (who resigned in 2018).
But Kushner appeared on the Today show on Tuesday, the day the book was released, to dispute that, saying Woodward had mischaracterized his comment, and Kushner had a recording of the conversation that proved he was not talking about those three men.
“If you look at Jared Kushner’s quote, he said, ‘Well, there were people in the campaign,’ and then suggests that he was referring to these overconfident idiots in the campaign,” Woodward said. “In the transcript, it’s clear he’s talking about the administration. The administration is half the campaign and the key people that Trump told me, like Gen. Mattis, who was secretary of defense.”
Trump told Woodward directly that Mattis was “nothing more than a PR guy” and Tillerson “was dumb as a rock.”
“I report accurately what [Kushner] said in the book,” Woodward told Rucker. “And there are some much more important quotes from him quite frankly. He says that Trump executed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, that the platforms are written by people who were extremists, and it is a disparagement of the Republican Party. I wonder if Trump has lost the support of the Republican Party. Do they look at Trump as a hostile takeover? Certainly he’s different, but is it hostile?”