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Trump says he knew coronavirus was deadly even as he played down the threat, audio reveals

President Trump.
President Trump.Sean Rayford/Getty

President Trump acknowledged privately as early as February that the coronavirus was much more deadly than the flu and was highly contagious, even as he later played down the threat to the American people and urged states to reopen businesses, according to audio of an interview with Bob Woodward reported on by the Washington Post on Wednesday.

“It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch,” Trump said during the interview in February, apparently referring to reports that COVID-19 could be spread through the air, rather than through touching contaminated surfaces. “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

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Trump then cited statistics that showed the virus had a five percent death rate, compared to less than one percent for the flu.

“This is deadly stuff,” he said.

A month later, during a separate interview on March 19, Trump also discussed his public messaging on the virus, telling Woodward he wanted to play down the threat.

“I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward.

The interviews were conducted as part of Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Rage," excerpts of which were released on Wednesday.

Critics immediately jumped on the comments as proof that Trump lied to the American people about the seriousness of the virus, as he compared it to the flu in tweets and interviews.

“He knew how deadly it was," Biden said during a campaign stop in Michigan on Wednesday afternoon. "He knew and purposefully played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”

“It was a life or death betrayal of the American people,” Biden added.

“6.3 million cases. 189,000 deaths. Tens of millions unemployed. Criminal--and willful--negligence from the Occupant of the White House,” Representative Ayanna Pressley tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

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Several critics cited a tweet Trump sent on March 9 comparing the coronavirus to the flu, 10 days before his interview with Woodward in which he said he tried to play down the threat.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Trump defended his comments, telling reporters he was trying to avoid a panic.

“Certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy,” Trump said. “We want to show confidence, we want to show strength, we want to show strength as a nation.”

During a White House briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president’s remarks as doing “what leaders do.”

“This president has done what leaders do, what good leaders do, and stay calm, and resolute, at a time when you face an insurmountable challenge,” she said.

The Washington Post, where Woodward serves as associate editor, reported excerpts of the book, “Rage” on Wednesday, as did CNN. The book also covers race relations, diplomacy with North Korea, and a range of other issues that have arisen during the past two years.

The book is based in part on 18 interviews that Woodward conducted with Trump between December and July.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.