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Bob Woodward book reveals Donald Trump knew of Covid-19 shock in February but kept mum

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington DC

US President Donald Trump has hit a cold streak when it comes to stories and books that glamourise his behaviour and actions as the leader of the United States. Glamour is sometimes best viewed from a distance. Get too close and the makeup and stagecraft do not look so hot.

Now six weeks from the election Trump’s bravado and certainty that he would get four more years is shaky, not helped by his own admissions regarding the pandemic, with a death toll nudging 200,000 people.

In the new book Rage, author Bob Woodward asks Trump about February and March when the president kept assuring America the virus was going to disappear.

In a March interview with the writer, Trump admits that he knew it was dangerous, airborne, and contagious and would be bad. His rationale for saying nothing like that was but he didn’t want to cause panic, so he downplayed it. This was on February 7 before Americans knew anything about a pandemic. ‘This is deadly stuff,” he told Woodward maybe five times as deadly as the usual winter flu.

The panic he didn’t want to cause was a shuttered economy and thousands of people dying, which is exactly what he got by pretending. In his own words, Trump makes it clear that he betrayed the public trust and his responsibilities to keep the nation safe against all enemies.

Deniability now seems starkly limited. Woodward, with Trump’s permission, recorded the 18 interviews they had between December 5, 2019 and July 21, 2020.When Woodward was a young reporter at the Washington Post in the 1970s with Carl Bernstein, they investigated the Watergate burglary that ultimately led to then President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Considering all the insider books Woodward has authored in the past 46 years, Trump’s belief that he could charm him suggests how delusional his thinking has become.

The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a president who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In Rage, Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe”. But on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier, he said,  “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Trump supporters talked of the re-election like a sure sports bet, but doubts are written large in polling, in Trump’s increasingly ugly attacks on his opponents and in other statements. The man who proclaimed before the 2016 election “Only I can Fix it,” is now in a fix that may be irreparable.

There has been some backlash against Woodward in for sitting on this information when it could have changed the course of the virus and saved more lives.

Asked about the revelations in the book Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden slammed Trump, saying the president

“knew and purposely played it down. He failed to do his job on purpose; it was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people. It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.”

Reports this week suggested the Republicans have spent most of their campaign funds already and are short of cash. Trump’s latest email for fund-raising says: “Our Nation needs you. I am facing unprecedented challenges from the Fake News media and their Democrat Partners. With just over 50 days until the Election, they are coming after me more viciously than EVER before. It’s NEVER going to stop, which is why I’m counting on YOUR support during this critical time.”

There has been some backlash against Woodward in for sitting on this information when it could have changed the course of the virus and lessened deaths. Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture.

 Trump was asked did he “understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country.” Trump replied, “No,” and added: “You (Woodward) really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.” He writes that he tried to get the president to speak about his understanding of race, except that Trump would only say over and over that the economy had been positive for Black people before the coronavirus led to an economic crisis.

“Most Senate Republicans said they wanted to read the book before commenting. Yet some of the president’s top allies in Congress only   wanted to look on the bright side of political life.”

Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota: “I don’t feel like he was ever lying to anybody. He’s a hopeful, upbeat, positive person. … The gravity of it, when it was becoming clearer, was also reflected by him…. Trump wanted to give people hope rather than despair.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina similarly argued that voters should take more heed of Trump’s actions amid the pandemic rather than his erratic rhetoric.

Woodward’s report is only the latest in a string of embarrassing and shocking stories involving the president and his incendiary rhetoric in recent months. The Atlantic last week said Trump had repeatedly disparaged US service members, including when refusing to visit a World War I cemetery in France where American troops were buried. 

That magazine story on unnamed sources was confirmed by other news organisations, including the Associated Press and Fox News. Woodward’s interviews were recorded on audiotape. 

Senior people no longer working for Trump leveled with Woodward on the record: including former Defence Secretary James Mattis, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Mattis called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” to be commander-in-chief. In Woodward’s view, Coats “continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump.”

The tell-all book by his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen reads like the script for a Godfather movie about the mob’s inner workings.

A high ranking intelligence official in the Department of Homeland Security quit and filed a whistle-blower suit charging that intelligence briefings were being doctored to diminish Russian involvement in election propaganda to accommodate the president’s beliefs.

Polling data puts Biden ahead of Trump in all the electoral swing states. Trump supporters may be brandishing automatic weapons at street demonstrations but some are writing chain letters stressing loyalty. This one recalls American life in the 1950s. “We took oaths to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that’s an oath we plan to keep.  There are those who want to destroy this land we love but, like our founders, there is no way we are going to remain silent. It was mostly the young people of this nation who elected Obama and the Democratic Congress.  You fell for the “Hope and Change” which in reality was nothing but “Hype and Lies” from your college professors.  You youngsters need to taste socialism and see evil face to face to understand you don’t like it after all.”

The revulsion with Trump’s behaviour — separate from what few serious policy positions there may be — is likely to move votes away from his 2016 novelty act appeal. However, the big question marks is will it impact the electoral college vote that makes the popular vote meaningless, as Hillary Clinton discovered.

Summer has officially ended in the USA and the winds of fall will now blow across America as school children head back into classrooms, this Covid-19 battle is hardly finished here or anywhere.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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