“In early February, Trump privately told Woodward that the new coronavirus was “more deadly” than the flu, and that it “goes through air” — as he was publicly suggesting that the virus was similar to the flu. Then, as the virus ravaged New York City in mid-March, Trump told Woodward that he had wanted to “play it down.””
“Woodward rose to fame as half of the Washington Post’s “Woodward and Bernstein” reporting duo that helped expose the Nixon administration’s Watergate cover-up — triggering a scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation. But in recent decades, Woodward’s main reporting interest has been using his Washington connections to report and write books about what’s going on in the highest levels of the US government, especially the presidency. (He has written two books on the Clinton administration, four on the George W. Bush administration, two on the Obama administration, and now two on Trump.)
The books have tried to put readers “in the room,” depicting what happens behind closed doors. To do that, Woodward relies on the cooperation and anonymized accounts of top-level government officials. He then presents a narrative, based on sources and sometimes documents, in an omniscient style, but largely focused on certain characters.” …
“his critics have long argued that his accounts, far from being neutral, are heavily skewed toward his major sources’ points of view and priorities, and portray those who didn’t talk as ciphers or villains. The reality is a bit more nuanced (talking a lot doesn’t guarantee you a good portrayal, as Trump found here), but his readers are absolutely getting a particular version of what happened, as told by particular people.”
“On February 7, Trump called Woodward and surprisingly brought up the coronavirus when there were few confirmed cases in the US, and when impeachment had been dominating the news. Trump opened by saying that there was “a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going on in China,” and that he’d spoken with President Xi Jinping the previous night.
“We were talking mostly about the virus, and I think he’s gonna have it in good shape, but it’s a very tricky situation,” Trump said. “It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch. … You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”
He continued: “That’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” Apparently speaking about mortality rates, he says: “This is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.” However, he went on to say that he thinks the Chinese have it under control, and that “I think that that goes away in two months with the heat,” because “as it gets hotter that tends to kill the virus.”
Here, and notably early, Trump is saying (in private) both that the virus can spread through the air and that it’s very deadly and dangerous. This is quite different from what he was saying in public. In the coming weeks, Trump would publicly say the virus was similar to the flu, and would argue that mortality rates wouldn’t be so high.
Then, in another conversation with Woodward on March 19 — once New York City was reeling from the virus, the country had begun to shut down, and Trump’s public commentary had become more pessimistic — Woodward asked Trump when his thinking on the seriousness of the threat had changed. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.””
“It’s also possible that Trump was misled by the Washington conventional wisdom that people who talk to Woodward get rosier portrayals in his books. There’s some truth to that, but the problem is that Trump didn’t really cooperate in the way Woodward prefers — by walking through his decisions and mentality at key moments in an orderly way, to provide building blocks for the book’s narrative.
Instead, Trump repeatedly ignored Woodward’s specific questions to instead talk about whatever he wanted. For instance, Woodward asked him what he was thinking at the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, and Trump said there were a lot of cameras there. Woodward pleaded repeatedly that this would be for “the serious history,” but Trump was unmoved. “He was on his track and he would stay there,” Woodward writes.
The overall effect is that Trump hijacks the book as soon as he starts talking. As a result, much of the book’s second half is an authentic portrait of what it’s like to have a rolling, months-long conversation with Donald Trump: scattershot, tedious, frustrating, and occasionally outrageous.”