Bob Woodward Finally Got Trump to Tell the Truth About COVID-19
Whatever the political consequence, hearing the President’s cynical interview on tape is a revelation.
September 11, 2020
President Donald Trump began the day on Wednesday engaged in a bout of self-promotion, dreaming of the Nobel Peace Prize he might soon win. Delighted with the news that a right-wing crank in the Norwegian parliament had nominated him for the honor, Trump had the White House press secretary put out an official statement that hailed the President’s “bold diplomacy and vision.” Before 10 a.m., Trump retweeted stories about the Nobel nomination—and congratulations to himself for it—nearly two dozen times. I would not be surprised if he took particular delight in the tweet he passed along from @RealMattCouch, a self-described journalist and patriot: “Can you imagine the riots and temper tantrums from the leftist mob when President Trump is re-elected and he wins the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year . . . This is going to be glorious :)”
But, of course, there will be no Nobel, nor will there be a Middle East peace deal to end all peace deals, with Trump’s name emblazoned on it in gold. Do his followers in the maga bubble know this? Does Trump? By lunchtime, the fantasy was forgotten, or at least temporarily set aside. Reality, in the form of the President’s own words, taped by the journalist Bob Woodward with Trump’s permission, had intruded.
The coronavirus was “deadly,” he had told Woodward, on February 7th, “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” As we now all know, Trump then spent the next month publicly downplaying the danger, telling Americans the exact opposite of what he had privately confided to Woodward. By March 19th, after finally being forced to confront the reality of the escalating pandemic inside the United States, and having declared a national emergency, Trump admitted to Woodward the scale of his wintry deception. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, according to Woodward’s forthcoming new book, “Rage.” “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” This, too, is on tape, and as of Wednesday afternoon it was playing on a loop on CNN—the President, in his own words, confirming his calculatedly cynical approach to a public-health catastrophe that sometime in the next few days will have claimed two hundred thousand American lives.
This is one of those brutal weeks in the Trump Presidency—and there have been many—when the facts revealed about the President are so painful that it is not just his supporters in the Senate, perennially dodging reporters’ questions on their way to lunch, who might prefer to look away. Among Democrats and the liberal commentariat, there was the usual Woodward bashing: Why had he waited so long to publish this damaging information? But there was also another question: Will any of this new information matter, what with Trump voters so locked into their support of the President that no outrage, no matter how deadly, will sway them? For Trump’s defenders, it was just another time to dodge and deflect. On Fox News, the host Tucker Carlson opened his prime-time show with a long attack on Senator Lindsey Graham, the Presidential confidant whom Carlson blamed for convincing Trump to coöperate with Woodward. Carlson noted that Graham had sat in on the first interview, but did not offer his viewers any explanation for why Trump conducted seventeen subsequent interviews with Woodward.
I found a certain emptiness to the exercise, to the partisan vaporings and performative outrage of the political class. Everyone is suiting up for a fight, and they all think they know its resolution: Trump will deny and dissemble, and then some other thing will happen and the news cycle will move on. The strategy from Trump and his partisans was quickly apparent; this is a play they have run many times before. If the President can pretend the virus that he had called “deadly” is, in fact, not so bad, then he certainly can pretend that he never said those things to Woodward; that the book, like all the other books, is just a “political hit job”; and that it’s irrelevant, anyway, because he is doing such a terrific job and his enemies are terrible.
Sure enough, by Thursday morning, Trump was back to demanding that Democrats reopen schools, the coronavirus be damned. He was tweeting about his good friend Kim Jong Un, planning to hold a campaign rally in Michigan, and complaining about the “phony Russia, Russia, Russia HOAX.” A day after implausibly reacting to the Woodward book by claiming that, in lying, he was just acting responsibly, to avoid panicking the American public, Trump returned to scaring it. “If I don’t win,” the President tweeted, “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters’.”
Soon after that tweet, I heard a thwack at the front door. My copy of the Woodward book had arrived. Should I even bother to read it? In Trump’s nihilistic world, nothing matters. There is no point, no truth that is not partisan. The election is just under two months away. To Trump, that is all that counts. How will the book, or any other book, for that matter, change its outcome? I thought about all of that. I decided to start reading.
The reviewers at the Times and the Washington Post have already had their shots at Woodward’s book. His latest work has prompted as much fury on their part at the cowardly group of sycophants and enablers surrounding the President as at Trump himself. All of us already know that Trump is a charlatan, a con man, a fool. But isn’t it infuriating that these decorated generals and self-professed Christians have spoken privately with Woodward but have refused to level with the American people? Perhaps it’s “a tale not of character but of complicity,” as Jennifer Szalai wrote in the Times. “What makes the book noteworthy is Woodward’s sad and subtle documentation of the ego, cowardice and self-delusion that, over and over, lead intelligent people to remain silent in the face of Trumpian outrages,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, concluded, in a review for the Post.
It is hard to disagree with their assessment. At times, you may slam the book down in frustration as you read, yet again, about Trump’s enablers telling a journalist how paranoid and narcissistic, foul-mouthed and foolish, the President is. These are people who have worked closely with him, and who apparently believe that Trump is a mortal danger to the nation, but they never say anything about him to the public. Still, the problem is this: as enraging and perplexing as their self-imposed silences and self-serving leaks appear to be, Jim Mattis and Dan Coats and all the rest are not running for President. They are, in the end, not responsible for the follies of the Trump Presidency, any more than Bob Woodward is responsible for the outrageous things that Trump told him. Does anyone seriously believe that, had Woodward published an article based on his February phone call with the President, Trump would have chosen any different course of action toward the pandemic? At every step along the way, the President has been called on his public misstatements and untruths about the virus. It did not make one bit of difference. Trump is unrepentant, now and forever.
By late Thursday afternoon, the Woodward news cycle had made its inevitable way to a Trump press conference, the ritual moment wherein the President would denounce the book, deny wrongdoing, and say a whole lot of other words.
“Why did you lie to the American people?” the ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl asked, when Trump gave him the first question.
“There’s no lie,” Trump responded. “And the way you asked that question is very disgraceful.”
Perhaps even more to the point, Trump repeated, over and over, that what he told Woodward essentially does not matter. Because America’s response to the coronavirus has been right, terrific, amazing. Better than Europe. Better than anywhere. “I think we did a great job,” he told Karl. And also, “We’re rounding the final turn.” The pandemic, to hear Trump tell it, is practically over.
This is the same mix of fantasy and lies that Trump was spreading publicly in February, while privately telling Woodward the truth about the coronavirus’s deadliness. The difference is that nearly two hundred thousand Americans are dead now, and few of them had any inkling that their lives would soon be in danger because the President chose neither to tell the country the truth nor take actions that would empower the government to properly respond to a pandemic of this scale and lethality.
Will it make any difference in the election? I doubt it. But the awfulness of the latest Trump revelations is no less awful for having been both anticipated and completely consistent with what we already suspected. In fact, it might be even worse than a surprise bolt from nowhere. Through sheer repetition, Trump has defeated the idea of the game-changing disclosure. Just in the past few days, weeks, and months, we’ve learned that his former national-security adviser considered him “unfit” for office; that his first defense secretary called him “dangerous”; that his first director of National Intelligence thought Vladimir Putin must have had damaging kompromat on him; and that his own sister was secretly taped saying that he was a “cruel” man “with no principles.”
None of these disclosures significantly altered the landscape of American politics in this election year. Why would it change anything to know how cynical Trump has been with American lives—to have the confirmation of what you already knew and believed? By now, that’s the thing about these disclosures: the awfulness is not only in the knowing but in the instantaneous awareness that the knowing probably doesn’t much matter. It just makes it a bit more awful.