Bob Woodward may have just handed Joe Biden the election — but at what cost?

Did the famed journalist ever consider how much of an impact his Trump tapes could have had during the pandemic’s early stages? 

Griffin Connolly
Washington DC
Wednesday 09 September 2020 23:28
Trump admits downplaying coronavirus danger 'to reduce panic'
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Donald Trump may become the second president whose political career Bob Woodward ruined.

In his new book, Rage, set to hit bookshelves next Tuesday, the famed Washington Post reporter — whose relentless reporting stung Richard Nixon during the Watergate affair in the 1970s — provides shocking details about how Trump intentionally misled the public about the health risks of Covid-19 to avoid a national "panic."

You know Democratic ad-makers and the anti-Trump GOP ex-pats over at The Lincoln Project are already splicing together side-by-side clips of the what the president was saying in public in February and March and what he was telling Woodward in those private, recorded conversations.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has already harangued Trump for his comments in the Woodward tapes, the easiest political attack in recent memory, backed up by irrefutable audio evidence.

"He knew how deadly It was. It was much more deadly than the flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat posed to the country for months," Biden said at a campaign speech at General Motors in Warren, Michigan today.

"He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose," the former vice president added.

But never mind, for now, how Woodward's book will affect November's election. We'll have a better idea about that when public polls release new data next week.

And set aside, for the time being, how intentionally clueless and dangerous the president's public messaging strategy was — how telling everyone, essentially, not to worry about the virus has cost thousands of American lives and made the US one of the most unsafe places to live during the pandemic. Anyone who trusted scientific opinion knew what was up months before Woodward's book reignited the debate on the president's coronavirus response.

No, right now I have a few questions for Bob Woodward himself.

Starting with this: What the hell were you thinking, dude?

Why, for half a year, did you keep a lid on these tapes, which you knew contradicted and undermined what the president was saying at the podium about the pandemic in its crucial early stages?

Did you consider for a moment that reporting in real time on the president's comments to you about the "deadly" coronavirus could have pressured him to take stronger actions in the public sphere, helping protect thousands of Americans from irreparable respiratory damage and death?

Woodward knew for months, according to reports about his book, that as early as 28 January, national security adviser Robert O'Brien warned the president the coronavirus pandemic would be the "biggest national security threat" of his first term in office.

In a phone call on 7 February, Trump told him: "This is deadly stuff, Bob," explaining how experts were saying the disease could spread through the air and not just by touch.

"You just breathe the air, and that's how it's passed. And so, that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu," the president told Woodward at the time.

But then, in the following weeks, in an apparent attempt to assuage Americans' apprehensions about the virus and let them think they had nothing to worry about, Trump publicly compared Covid-19, on multiple occasions, to the very thing he knew it was more deadly than.

On 26 February: "This is a flu. This is like a flu. ... It's a little like a regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner."

On March 9: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

Don't worry. I got this. Nothing to see here. Carry on.

When Trump began speaking more gravely about the threat of Covid-19 in March, Woodward asked him about the sudden shift in rhetoric.

"To be honest with you, I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic," Trump said in a follow-up interview on 19 March.

More than seven months after their initial conversation about the Covid-19, nearly 200,000 Americans have died from it.

The disease is not letting up: In just the last eight days, it has killed nearly 6,000 more people.

To be abundantly clear, Woodward is not the culprit for the Trump administration bungling its response to the health crisis. He's not even one among the thousands of people in Washington most accountable for it. Woodward has no say in crafting government policy. He does not have the ear of Trump in the way the president's Fox News sycophants Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs do.

And we can never know for sure whether reporting on his conversations with the president at the time instead of saving them for a bombshell book — knowing that people's lives were at stake — would have had any effect on public opinion or whether they would have pressured Trump to take more prompt action.

Perhaps the president had agreed to speak with Woodward on the basis that his words be published in his forthcoming book and nowhere else. Even that, though, doesn't excuse sitting on the tapes — at a certain point, one must sacrifice antiquated notions of journalistic protocol if it means you could help save lives.

Donald Trump has much more to answer for in Rage than Bob Woodward.

But that doesn't mean the author should escape some tough questions as he makes the rounds on TV next week publicizing his long-awaited book.

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