As I suspect all that wish to be aware are aware, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has published a new book, Rage, including many hours of interviews with President Trump in the early months of this year in which the President made plain that he understood the Coronavirus’ virulence and its potential for spread among Americans much more clearly than he publicly articulated at the time or for months thereafter (or arguably, given his inconsistency, to this day). I haven’t yet read the book [I have signed up to get it upon its general release ;)], but the interview recordings Mr. Woodward has made available along with the book’s preliminary release – tapes undeniably bearing Mr. Trump’s voice – seem to warrant some initial impressions.
On March 19, after months of scoffing at the severity of the disease or the likelihood that it would spread in America, Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward, “I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Sometimes Presidents have to lie. It’s a part of the job. I am confident that if President Harry Truman had been asked the day before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima whether he had approved use of such a weapon at that time at that site, he would have denied it. If President Barack Obama had been asked the day before the raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden whether such a raid was imminent, he would have denied it. I suspect that President Franklin Roosevelt felt less optimism about a successful outcome of the war against Japan than he expressed the day after Pearl Harbor, with the American Pacific Fleet then in tatters and little between the Sea of Japan and San Francisco Bay to defend us against the Imperial Japanese Navy.
I would submit that Mr. Trump’s false representations fall into a completely different category. He was neither lying in the interest of national security nor seeking to maintain the mood of our people at a time – such as the day after Pearl Harbor – when there was nothing they could realistically do but hope. I would suggest that what Mr. Trump really meant when he spoke to Mr. Woodward on March 19 was, “I don’t want to create a panic in the financial markets, since my only hope for re-election is a healthy economy.” I would assert that the Coronavirus, unlike Hiroshima, bin Laden, or Pearl Harbor, presented a danger akin to a hurricane, in which affirmative efforts by our people, had they been told the truth, could have saved thousands upon thousands of lives. If told a Category 5 hurricane is coming, coastal Americans evacuate, board up windows, collect supplies. If they’re told a light tropical storm is approaching … they don’t.
Although Americans live in different information silos and I doubt that Mr. Woodward’s revelations – any more than recent reports that Mr. Trump was advised early this year that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American soldiers in the Middle East or that Mr. Trump has declared those that served in Vietnam “suckers” and those that have died in battle “losers” — will have an adverse impact on Mr. Trump’s cult support. I would venture, however, that Mr. Woodward’s account could have a pivotal impact upon the election because of the effect that it might have on those reluctant 2016 Trump voters not entirely in the right-wing information silo who polls indicate were leaning toward Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden in the first half of the summer but have more recently been considering returning to Mr. Trump. Mr. Woodward’s book turns the nation’s eyes back from our sporadic urban unrest to the Coronavirus, and appears likely to command the media spotlight for days. It seems a prime subject for inquiry at the first presidential debate on September 29. If the attention on Mr. Woodward’s reports reduces wavering 2016 Trump voters’ return to the President by even 1% in pivotal states, such could have a decisive electoral impact.
As to Mr. Woodward: notwithstanding my extremely high regard for – and frequent references to — the late Author and New York Times reporter David Halberstam, I would submit that if the tapes of Mr. Woodward’s interviews of President Trump indeed help persuade significant segments of independent voters to repudiate Mr. Trump, Mr. Woodward’s work here, taken together with his Watergate reporting, will mark him as the most influential political journalist of his time.