"This is deadly stuff," Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in an on-the-record, taped interview on Feb. 7.
Trump was talking about the novel coronavirus, weeks before the first confirmed U.S. COVID-19 death. He also told Woodward, one of the two journalists who more than 40 years before unraveled the mystery of Watergate which eventually prompted the resignation of President Richard Nixon, that the virus then ravaging China was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and "more deadly than even your strenuous flus."
He called the virus "pretty amazing" and "a very tricky one" and maybe five times "more deadly" than the flu. "You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed."
But to us — the Americans Trump is supposed to serve and protect — he made light of it, saying it was like the flu and insisting it was "going to disappear" and "all work out fine." He even mocked those who wore masks.
On March 19, after Trump had, days before, declared a national emergency, the president told Woodward, "It's not just old people, Bob. ... It's plenty of young people. ... I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
He plays it down to this day, refusing to wear a mask more often than not.
And now more than 191,000 Americans are dead. More than 6.3 million of us have been sickened, 30 million have lost jobs, thousands have been evicted from their homes, the economies of our cities and states are strained, our colleges and schools are struggling to stay open.
All because Donald Trump can't make a rational decision. And when he tries, he acts in his own political interest, not America's. If, instead of lying about what he knew, Trump had acted decisively in early February with a strict shutdown and a consistent message to wear masks, social distance and wash hands, how many lives and livelihoods could have been saved?
Experts tally those lives in the hundreds of thousands. They say 84% of deaths and 82% of cases could have been prevented had the country locked down even just two weeks earlier than it did.
Those percentages were known even in May, long before Trump's 18 interviews in all with Woodward were finished and made public. Researchers at Columbia University disclosed them when they announced they had built a model to depict the transmission of the virus throughout the U.S. to gauge transmission rates.
Trump's comments in those two conversations — and Trump called Woodward for both — were among the first between the two men from December to July for a book Woodward will release on Sept. 15.
The book, titled "Rage," also covers conversations about race relations, diplomacy with North Korea and a range of other issues that made headlines over the past two years. Woodward also includes what The Washington Post calls "brutal assessments" of Trump's conduct from former defense secretary Jim Mattis, former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and others, as well as some "deep background" conversations with sources who are not named.
The conversations with Trump are not only taped and on-the-record, they are included in the book by way of podcasts. We can hear them, not just read them.
Woodward writes: "Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states. There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced."
On the other hand, on June 3, two days after federal agents forcibly removed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to make way for Trump to stage a photo opportunity outside St. John's Episcopal Church, Trump called Woodward to boast about his "law and order" stance.
"We're going to get ready to send in the military slash National Guard to some of these poor b------s that don't know what they're doing, these poor radical lefts," Trump said.
"Rage" is a follow-up to Woodward's 2018 bestseller, "Fear," which depicted a chaotic White House in which aides hid papers from Trump to protect the country from his frightening impulses. Trump slammed "Fear," complaining that he didn't speak to Woodward for that book, which resulted in Trump agreeing to the extensive interviews for "Rage."
Of course, in mid-August, after publicists announced the release of the new book, Trump preemptively attacked it in a tweet, saying "The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been."
That was to be expected. Trump is Trump, after all. What shouldn't have been expected is the way the Republican Party is reacting.
"I don't think he needs to go on TV and scream that we're all going to die," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-South Carolina.
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, redirected questions to the White House, adding, "You know, I have not paid that much attention."
Republican Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy was asked on CNN: "Is that acceptable to you? Is that misleading the public? ... He's recorded. You hear his voice." Kennedy answered the persistent reporter three times: "These gotcha books don't really interest me that much."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told MSNBC the president's comments showed weakness and a disdain for science: "What he was actually saying is, 'I don't want anybody to think anything like this happened on my watch so I'm not going to call any more attention to it.'"
And as a matter of fact, that's pretty much what Trump told Woodward in their final interview: "The virus has nothing to do with me. It's not my fault. It's — China let the d--n virus out."
Nothing this president has ever done or not done is more maddening and sick than this.