September 10, 2020

We will never know how America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic might have been different if Bob Woodward revealed in February what we know now: that President Donald Trump considered the virus to be deadly and that the president underplayed his concerns so as not to alarm the public.

In the first published report of the contents of Woodward’s new book, titled “Rage,” The Washington Post provided a taste of how much the president knew about the virus, even while denying and downplaying the threat that was about to befall America:

President Trump’s head popped up during his top-secret intelligence briefing in the Oval Office on Jan. 28 when the discussion turned to the coronavirus outbreak in China.

“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”

Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed. He told the president that after reaching contacts in China, it was evident that the world faced a health emergency on par with the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

The president called Woodward 10 days later, on Feb. 7, and said in a recorded interview, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” and that it is “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

So we now know that the president knew and believed that a pandemic was coming. Still, on Feb. 28, Trump called COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” In that same speech in South Carolina, he downplayed COVID-19 as being comparable to the seasonal flu. But Woodward’s reporting shows he knew that what he was saying publicly was not the whole truth.

In March, President Trump privately told Woodward that young people were being infected, but publicly he said “young people are almost immune” to the virus.

The journalism ethics question here has to do with loyalty. Critics are already lining up to accuse Woodward of withholding vital information — information that might have stopped COVID-deniers in their tracks — in order to sell books in the weeks before the election. Critics essentially cite Woodward’s loyalty as being toward his book, not reporting news that the public needed to know at the moment.

On Wednesday evening, Woodward told the Associated Press that he waited to publish the president’s comments because he needed time to check them out.  

“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 during a telephone interview.

By the time he was satisfied that President Trump’s version of events was true, the depth of the pandemic has already been well-reported. 

The AP’s story pointed out:

On Twitter and elsewhere online, commentators accused Woodward of valuing book sales over public health. “Nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed,” wrote Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce.

The AP asked whether Woodward could have or should have shared what he knew with other Post reporters to pursue while he continued his reporting:

If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” Woodward said. At that point, he said, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.

“That was the demarcation line for me,” he said. “Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable.”

Asked why he didn’t share Trump’s February remarks for a fellow Post reporter to pursue, Woodward said he had developed “some pretty important sources” on his own.

“Could I have brought others in? Could they have done things I couldn’t do?” he asked. “I was on the trail, and I was (still) on the trail when it (the virus) exploded.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple took to Twitter Wednesday afternoon to offer a defense of his Post colleague’s long-term work:

Woodward is a book author and the implicit understanding with his sources is that he’ll interview them, interview them again and again and again until he can stitch together something authoritative, in book form. That method explains how he gets officials and presidents to cooperate with him. If he were doing daily dispatches and attending all the White House briefings, he wouldn’t be getting 18 on-the-record interviews with President Trump.

So, it strikes me that the choice isn’t between Woodward publishing this revelation in September and, say, March. It’s between Woodward publishing this in September or not at all.

Also Wednesday night, Wemple interviewed Woodward about whether it was ethical for Woodward to hold off writing about his conversations with the president. Wemple wrote:

Asked directly whether earlier publication of his interviews would have saved lives, Woodward responded, “No! How?” He pointed out that Trump made that comment on March 19, and he had already made an Oval Office address on March 11. Confirmed cases were taking off.

Woodward did say that if anything he gathered was a legitimate public health issue, he would have gone to The Post and sought to have it published forthwith. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t,” he told me.

Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said she had spoken with Woodward about the ethics of holding important newsworthy details for a book release:

Woodward told me that — contrary to speculation — he did not have any signed agreement or formal embargo arrangement with Trump or the White House to hold back their conversations until the book published.

“I told him it was for the book,” he said — but as far as promising not to publish in real time, or signing such an agreement, “I don’t do that.”

Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.”

Sullivan added:

But why not then write such a story later in the spring, once it was clear that the virus was extraordinarily destructive and that Trump’s early downplaying had almost certainly cost lives?

Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.

Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication.

Woodward will be on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday, so we may soon know more about how he weighs urgency versus depth. In an excerpt of that interview, Woodward told CBS’s Scott Pelley, “The president of the United States has a duty to warn.”

President Trump has wasted no time attacking the book, despite the 18 recorded interviews, calling it a “hit-job.”

In the next 24 hours, President Trump’s supporters will, without a doubt, be asking why, if Woodward knew the president was not telling the truth about the virus, he didn’t report it then and not wait until the election was on the horizon?

But the key question is really whether Woodward knew anything that the public had a vital need to know and was not getting from other sources. Even in February, the evidence was clear that the coronavirus was deadly, that the threat was imminent and that the president was underplaying the danger. That also slowed the national response. Those who chose to ignore the threat did so because they chose to ignore the bounty of evidence and remain loyal to the president.

The most important question today is not why Bob Woodward withheld the information until now. The most important question is why did President Donald Trump keep what could have been lifesaving information from the American public?

And now that we know it, will Americans trust him to level with us in the future?

Woodward’s long practice of mixing his association with The Washington Post while writing books has arisen as a point of friction before. In 2005, Woodward apologized to Post editors for withholding for two years information that a senior official with the George W. Bush administration told him about CIA operative Valerie Plame.

The Post reported in 2005 that Woodward “told Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. that he held back the information because he was worried about being subpoenaed by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel leading the investigation.”

The article continued:

“I apologized because I should have told him about this much sooner,” Woodward, who testified in the CIA leak investigation Monday, said in an interview. “I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources. That’s job number one in a case like this.”

“There is no ethical or moral defense of Woodward’s decision to not publish these tapes as soon as they were made,” tweeted John Stanton, the former Washington bureau chief for BuzzFeed. “If there was any chance it could save a single life, he was obligated to do so. Bob Woodward put making money over his moral and professional duty. Even if you don’t believe in service journalism or that we have an ethical duty to speak truth to power and expose wrongdoing, even if all you care about is scoops, this is an abject failure. It’s just gross profiteering off death and misery on the part of Woodward.”

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

This article has been updated to include additional quotes and reactions.

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  • I don’t understand why Woodward is the one getting criticised here, when his revelations aren’t really news.

    We all watched Trump and his right-wing media machine work to downplay the very real and deadly threat, in real time. We saw them ignore a mountain of published reports and expert recommendations, trying to first twist the crisis to fit their anti-immigration agenda (the famous and way-too-late “travel ban”, which happened after the first US case had already been detected.) We saw them resisting taking stronger action until they were dragged kicking and screaming into taking this seriously. We saw them almost immediately begin minimizing the threat again and pushing to ‘reopen” too early. All of this was very well reported and commented on, at the time. All Bob Woodward did was condense all that reporting into a book and get verbal confirmation of Trumps duplicity. He just confirmed another few of Trump’s lies. Add them to the 20,000 and counting tally over at the Post, and focus on the real story.

    The story, then and now, is that Trump is a mass murderer of Americans, responsible for at least half (and realistically, more than half) of the (undercounted) US deaths from this virus. Trump is giving us a 9/11 sized death event, twice a week. The debate should not about about what Bob Woodward knew, and when. It should be “How many of these deaths is Trump responsible for” or, “How much worse is President Trump compared to other mass murderers of Americans, like Osama Bin Laden? 30X? 50X?”

    Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose Bob Woodward had said “Hey guys, Trump is saying one thing in private, and another in public! He’s lying!” Do you think Trump would have been chastened by being caught in a lie, and changed his behavior? Of course not. He would do what he’s doing now. Deny, obfuscate, and attack. And… CONTINUE to downplay the dangers of the virus, even while claiming he’s not. He’s still setting a counter-example by not wearing a mask, he’s holding rallies, and putting pressure on politicians to keep reopening even in the face of the inevitable increase in infections. The continued lies and deaths are all the evidence we need that Trump will keep being Trump, no matter what damning revelation comes out. The only way to stop him is to vote him out, and maybe not even then.

    Elsewhere on Poynter is an EXCELLENT pair of articles about how the Left needs to stop attacking itself, and how journalism should change in the age of Trump. I direct people who are upset about Woodward to read those articles. The problem is not the guy who got the mass murderer to confess. He does that in public all the time. The problem is that the mass murderer keeps killing.

  • I’m a huge Woodward fan, but the minute I heard Trump’s audio confession to him, my mind screamed, “Bob! WTF didn’t YOU out Trump?” As a graduate student in a journalism program I was appalled and angered. Woodward has not provided ANY convincible reasoning for remaining silent. My view of him will be forever tarnished unless it’s proven he suffers from some form of dementia and even then it will be tough to trust his motives.

  • I am not convinced of Woodward’s rationale but … when China shut down a region (Hubei province) the size of a small country on 23 January it was pretty damn obvious to me that this thing was deadly serious. Exactly why anyone didn’t feel the need to crack open the pandemic playbook right there and then is a mystery to me.

    Trump’s attempts at playing it down were transparent and ludicrous from the start.

    How did anyone not see that?

    I am not an epidemiologist, I don’t have a CDC to call on, nor a intelligence infrastructure to check on the details of what is going on in a different country – but I got it without needing all that.

    There was plenty of reporting at the time of Trump playing it down. Set Google to search up to end February 2020 for “Trump plays down Covid 19” – you will find ample reporting making the exact point that he had it wrong. Possibly it would’ve made some difference outing his words at the time. But this is a person very skilled at spinning his way out of a lie.

  • Yes, Bob Woodward had information that — in hindsight — we now realize *could* have saved possibly tens of thousands of lives. At the time, I’m not sure how much it would have helped at all (maybe one news cycle?). In May, it probably would have been very helpful, but there’s no way to know for sure. The problem here is the application of a false equivalence. The president and the journalist have different ethical responsibilities. The presidents has a fiduciary duty to the country and its people — he’s supposed to put the country’s interests before his own. The journalist has an ethical duty only to the truth. The journalist is unelected and has no actual power other than to report the truth, not to act upon it. The ethical duties are nowhere near the same. Additionally, Woodward plays more the role of historian than journalist. Do we hold Truman’s biographer responsible for the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (even if he knew in advance), or do we hold Truman accountable?

  • Thanks for your note. Seriously, thanks for reading and writing.

    Tonight I went back to the Posts’ coverage of the virus around the day that the President told Woodward for the first time about the size of the problem. I found dozens (really dozens) of stories about the spreading virus, quarantines in China, people stuck on cruise ships. There were dozens of reports of false information circulating linking the virus to bat soup and other craziness. The point is, journalists, including the Post were already reporting the size of the outbreak. Trump declared a health emergency in January 31, when he banned travel from China.

    On the 31st, the White House said, “The CDC has confirmed that the virus has spread between two people in the United States, representing the first instance of person-to-person transmission of the virus within the United States. The CDC, along with state and local health departments, has limited resources and the public health system could be overwhelmed if sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus occurred in the United States. Sustained human-to-human transmission has the potential to have cascading public health, economic, national security, and societal consequences”

    Imagine that message had been repeated–by the President. But I think Woodward could easily point to this and say- hey, the public knew there was a big problem coming. It was no secret.

  • The penultimate paragraph summarizes the writer’s point of view. And it is a pretty reprehensible one for a so=called journalism watchdog. The president’s language held sway for millions. That Woodward knew he was gaslighting the country and said nothing is beyond unethical. We’re talking about a deadly pandemic that the administration knowingly allowed to be politicized and minimized. Woodward’s arrogant and self-serving excuses don’t hold water. Poynter should not be giving him a pass.