Republican lawmakers on Wednesday defended President Donald Trump after the revelation that earlier this year, he knowingly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in millions of job losses and the deaths of some 190,000 Americans.
Trump told Bob Woodward ― as recounted in the renowned journalist’s upcoming book, “Rage” ― that the coronavirus posed a unique threat to the United States and that it was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
At the time, however, the president was repeatedly downplaying the virus in public as no more dangerous than the flu and saying it would soon “go away” and “disappear.”
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward in a series of taped interviews, according to a copy of the book obtained by CNN.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he said on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Most Senate Republicans declined to comment on Wednesday when asked about the revelations, saying they wanted to read Woodward’s book first. But some of the president’s top GOP allies on Capitol Hill tried to mount a defense.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told reporters. “I don’t feel like he was ever lying to anybody. He’s a hopeful, upbeat, positive person. ... The gravity of it, when it was becoming clearer, was also reflected by him.”
Cramer said that Trump “wanted to give people hope rather than despair” and pointed to his travel ban on China as proof that the president took the virus seriously.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina similarly argued that voters should take more heed of Trump’s actions amid the pandemic rather than his rhetoric ― which has been all over the place in recent months, from briefly encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing to mocking Democrats and reporters for wearing masks.
“I don’t think he needs to be on TV screaming, ‘We’re all going to die,’” Graham said Wednesday. “His actions shutting the economy down were the right actions.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who, like Graham, is seeking reelection in November, agreed.
“When you’re in a crisis situation, you have to inform people for their public health but you also don’t want to create hysteria,” Tillis said, declining further comment because he had not yet read Woodward’s book.
In the past, Trump has stoked public hysteria over threats of undocumented immigrants, the Ebola virus, crime and terrorism.
Only one Republican senator on Wednesday offered a very gentle criticism of the president: Mitt Romney of Utah, who frequently speaks out against Trump’s behavior.
“It doesn’t sound ideal to me,” Romney told reporters before entering a caucus lunch.
Woodward’s report is only the latest in a string of embarrassing and shocking stories involving the president and his incendiary rhetoric in recent months. Last week, The Atlantic quoted unnamed military officials who said Trump had repeatedly disparaged U.S. service members, including when refusing to visit a World War I cemetery in France where American troops were buried.
Unlike The Atlantic’s story, which relied on unnamed sources ― though it was confirmed by numerous other outlets, including The Associated Press and Fox News ― Trump’s many interviews with Woodward were recorded on audiotape.
Democrats on Wednesday accused Trump of lying to the American people early on in the pandemic by issuing statements that may have cost lives.
“There is damning proof that Donald Trump lied. And people died,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Addressing the revelations at a campaign stop in Michigan, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden slammed Trump, saying the president “knew and purposely played it down.”
“He failed to do his job on purpose,” Biden added. “It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people. It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.”