Trump told Bob Woodward he knew in February that COVID-19 was 'deadly stuff' but wanted to 'play it down'

"It's not just old people," Trump told Woodward, acknowledging the gravity of the disease, The Washington Post reported.
President Trump Accepts Nomination During Republican National Convention
President Donald Trump speaks during the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 27.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News
By Dareh Gregorian

President Donald Trump acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic in a February interview with journalist Bob Woodward and acknowledged downplaying the threat in an interview a month later, according to an account of Woodward's new book.

“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic," Trump said in a March 19 call with Woodward, according to an audio clip posted Wednesday on The Washington Post's website. The newspaper obtained a copy of the book, "Rage," which is scheduled to be released next week.

In the same interview, Trump acknowledged that the disease was more deadly than he previously thought.

"Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob. But just today, and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old, older," Trump said, according to an audio clip, and then added, "young people, too, plenty of young people."

Woodward will talk to Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Monday for his first exclusive live interview to talk about his book and his conversations with the president.

Trump is locked in a difficult re-election battle against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, with his poll numbers sagging as he continues to get low marks from voters for how he handled the response to the virus.

Trump, speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, said he'd been trying to avoid "panic" and was showing "leadership."

"We have to show calm," he said. "Certainly I'm not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We have to show strength."

He sidestepped a question about whether lives could have been saved if he had been more forthright about the dangers posed by the virus.

"I think if we didn't do what we did, we'd have had millions die," Trump said.

Of his approach, Trump said, "We don't want to go around screaming, 'Look at this, look at this.'"

Biden noted Wednesday that over 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and called Trump's words "beyond despicable."

"It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people," Biden said.

Woodward's book is based on 18 on-the-record phone calls he had with Trump from December to July. Woodward, a highly respected veteran journalist who is an associate editor of The Post, also attributes details about the internal workings of the White House to a series of interviews with unnamed aides.

Woodward details that Trump was briefed on the virus in January.

"This is deadly stuff," Trump told Woodward in a Feb. 7 phone call.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward, according to The Post. “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 book says Trump was given dire warnings in January about the virus that would lead to a worldwide pandemic in March.

“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump on Jan. 28, according to the book. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”

Trump blocked some Chinese nationals from coming into the country in the days after the briefing, but he continued to play down the danger posed by the virus and repeatedly compared it to the flu.

“We only have five people. Hopefully, everything's going to be great,” Trump said Jan. 30. A few days later, he said, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”

Despite the early warning about the virus's deadliness and its ability to be transmitted through the air, Trump continued to hold packed political rallies throughout February and told reporters at the White House on Feb. 27: "This is a flu. This is like a flu."

On March 9, weeks after he told Woodward that the coronavirus was more than five times deadlier than the flu, Trump tweeted: "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 & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calf., slammed the president Wednesday in an interview on MSNBC, saying his "downplaying" cost lives.

The "denial about the threat is responsible for many of the deaths and infections that we have today, not all of them, but many of them, could have been prevented,” Pelosi told Andrea Mitchell.

The book also sheds further light on how much distrust some of Trump's top officials had in the president.

Woodward recounted a conversation — which he attributed to unnamed sources — between Dan Coats, then the director of national intelligence, and James Mattis, who was the defense secretary at the time, in which Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass.”

Coats agreed, according to the book.

"To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie,” Coats is quoted by Woodward as saying.

According to the book, Trump — who came under fire last week for having reportedly referred to dead U.S. service members as "losers" and "suckers" — had little regard for his own generals.

In a conversation with trade adviser Peter Navarro, Trump complained: "My fucking generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.” The sources for that account were not named.

Navarro told reporters later Wednesday that Woodward had put "words in my mouth" that he had never said for his last book. "I don't believe a word of what Bob Woodward says," Navarro added.

Woodward also drew some criticism on social media, as well, where some complained that he should have spoken up about Trump's comments much earlier. Woodward told The Associated Press that he was initially skeptical that Trump wasn't being truthful.

“He tells me this, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, but is it true?’ Trump says things that don’t check out, right?” Woodward told the AP. He said that Trump called him “out of the blue” in early February to “unburden himself” about the virus and that he wasn't satisfied that Trump’s comments were based on reliable information until May.

Trump did not sit for an interview with Woodward, the legendary Watergate reporter, for the author's previous book, "Fear."

Trump sought to discredit the new book before it was published, tweeting last month that the book "would be a FAKE, as always," despite his own involvement.

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com.