By:
September 10, 2020

President Donald Trump knew about the dangers of the coronavirus back in February. By March, he admitted he was purposefully downplaying the virus to the American people.

Today, the country is on the brink of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths. And counting.

Just when we thought news of the coronavirus in the U.S. could not get any more controversial, a new book by legendary journalist Bob Woodward proves that Trump knew the coronavirus was more deadly than the flu, that it was passed through the air and that Trump “always wanted to play it down.”

It’s all on tape.

The new book called “Rage,” set to be released Sept. 15, has plenty of compelling information, but it’s Trump’s knowledge of the coronavirus that made news Wednesday. Woodward interviewed Trump 18 times for the book and writes, “Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states. There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced.”

And yet Trump seemed to know the seriousness of it almost from the start.

Woodward writes that Trump was told in January by national security advisor Robert O’Brien that the virus would be the “biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.” O’Brien’s deputy, Matt Pottinger, told Trump that it could be as bad as the influenza pandemic of 1918.

On Feb. 7, he told Woodward, “This is deadly stuff.”

A little more than a month later, on March 19, Trump told Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

There’s much to discuss about the Woodward book, what’s in it and the reaction to it. So let’s start …

Did Woodward sit on valuable information?

Trump told Woodward in February that the virus was deadly and in March that he was purposefully downplaying it. Yet, we are just finding out about that now as Woodward gets set to release a book.

Was Woodward wrong for having sat on this information for six months? Many are criticizing Woodward, as you can read about here and here.

At first glance, we’re talking about a deadly virus and the president admitting to purposefully misleading the American people. So, yes, it’s completely fair to at least wonder if Woodward held on to such news because he was saving it for personal gain in the form of what’s sure to be a best-selling book.

However, Woodward made a good point during an interview with the Associated Press’ Hillel Italie: “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?”

In other words, why should Woodward have trusted what Trump was telling him in February? Why should Trump ever be trusted without a thorough fact-check? It wasn’t until May, Woodward said, that he was satisfied that what Trump told him in February was based on reliable information. And by May, the whole world was aware of how deadly the coronavirus was.

Woodward said, “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.”

And that’s really the crux of the whole thing. To somehow pin this on Woodward or to accuse him of harming anyone is unfair. As the nation watched tens of thousands of people dying each month and then watched what the president said and did, how could you not be aware that Trump was downplaying the virus? Do you really need a book to tell you that Trump has spent months misleading the American people? You’re telling me that if Woodward didn’t write a book, you would have been unaware of how bad the virus was because you only listened to Trump?

Now, if the president knew the country was in grave danger about something the American public was completely unaware of, then I would say, yes, Woodward had an obligation to share what he knew. But that’s not the case at all.

By the time Woodward was confident that what Trump said was true, the country had known, or should have known, the truth of the coronavirus. If you didn’t then that’s on you.

That’s not to say that Trump downplaying the virus — and, especially, admitting he did so on purpose — is not important. Woodward’s book does prove that Trump was willing to lie and mislead to either keep his job, to avoid responsibility or because he thought that if he kept saying it would go away, it actually would. That’s what is important, and Woodward’s book succeeds in telling us that.

To that point, check out this passage from a column by The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan: “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.”

Sullivan’s take

This is how Sullivan ended her column on Woodward holding on to the quotes: “Still, the chance — even if it’s a slim chance — that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long.”

Meantime, my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins weighed in, writing, “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?”

And there’s this, too …

There’s one more thing to note about Woodward waiting to use the Trump quotes for his book. In a really smart Twitter thread, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote:

“Seeing a lot of arguments that Bob Woodward did something unethical or untoward in ‘holding’ on to his scoop about Trump’s admission that he played down the coronavirus. I disagree with the criticism. 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.”

Woodward told Sullivan that there was no embargo or agreement with Trump about holding back quotes for the book. He did tell Trump he was writing a book, but he would never promise to not publish in real time. “I don’t do that,” he told Sullivan.

But Wemple is right. No way Woodward continues getting to interview Trump time and time again — and gathering more critical information that the American people need to know — if he wrote a story every time he talked to Trump.

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The interviews

There were a ton of stunning revelations when details about the Woodward book started leaking out on Wednesday. One of the most stunning: Woodward interviewed Trump 18 times from December to July. Eighteen! The natural question was: Why would Trump agree to that many interviews with Woodward, whose 2018 book on Trump, “Fear,” painted Trump as ill-equipped to be president?

Well, actually, it might have been that first book that convinced Trump to talk to Woodward this time around. It has been reported that Trump regretted not talking to Woodward for “Fear” and felt that’s why he came out looking bad. Perhaps Trump believed he would come out looking more favorable by talking to Woodward this time around.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza has other theories. One is that Trump, who is obsessed with media coverage, was flattered that Woodward, one of the most famous journalists to ever live, was writing a book about him — just as he wrote books about past presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Cillizza wrote, “Every president who has cooperated with Woodward to some extent or another has been driven by the appeal of dealing with someone with the sort of influence they believe can shape how they are not just perceived in the moment but remembered. The appeal of telling the ‘real’ story to a journalist of Woodward’s stature, bringing him in behind the curtain, is irresistible.”

And then there’s Trump. Cillizza wrote that Trump “is not only obsessed with how he is covered and what his legacy will be but also has a superhuman belief in his ability to talk his way in or out of almost anything. Trump views himself as a master manipulator, someone who is so good at reading other people that he knows how to get what he wants even as they think they are getting what they want.”

McEnany contradicts the president

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In her very first press conference as White House press secretary on May 1, Kayleigh McEnany told the media, “I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.”

That promise didn’t last long. She has long proven that she is overmatched in her role. She prefers to use many of her press conferences to go after the media with written and pre-planned attacks as opposed to doing her job of actually answering questions.

And, again on Wednesday, she crossed the line she promised she would never cross. She actually said “the president never downplayed the virus” on the same day we had audio proof of the president saying he purposefully and “always wanted to” downplay the virus.

While the media has to attend and ask questions of the White House press secretary, McEnany has shown over and over that her answers simply cannot be trusted and might not be worth the time.

Woodward on “60 Minutes”

Woodward will discuss his book on Sunday’s “60 Minutes.” He will be interviewed by CBS’s Scott Pelley.

McFadden’s important story

NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden, right, reporting on refugee camps in February. (Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC News’ senior legal and investigative correspondent Cynthia McFadden will have a special report on this morning’s “Today” show in the 8 a.m. Eastern hour about how COVID-19 has pushed refugees in Bangladesh and Yemen to the breaking point. McFadden has been reporting on the camps since well before the coronavirus, and she recently followed up with authorities who described just how much grimmer the conditions have become since the pandemic started.

In an email, McFadden told me, “There are now 80 million refugees worldwide, over half of them children, the largest number ever recorded. Our reporting digs into the crisis facing two groups of children who have been widely ignored by the world since the outbreak of the coronavirus: the Rohingya in the overcrowded camps of Bangladesh and the children in war-ravaged Yemen. We traveled to the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh in February just weeks before COVID-19 struck and witnessed how perilous the children’s lives were even then. And now, aid workers in Yemen and Bangladesh bring us the latest information about the crushing needs faced by the children in these places where there is no running water and tremendous food insecurity, providing insight into how Americans can help during the pandemic.”

This is important work. Be sure to seek it out.

The Athletic passes a million subscribers

Apparently, The Athletic — the (mostly) ad-free, subscription-based sports website — has survived the months that went without sports because of the coronavirus.

Co-founder Adam Hansmann told CNBC’s Alex Sherman, “It should have been the end for us. There were some dark moments.”

But now on the other side, news is good if you believe Hansmann’s claim that The Athletic has passed one million subscribers.

Does that mean The Athletic is making money? Maybe not. According to Sherman’s story, the company makes more than $60 million in pure subscription revenue and ad sales from podcasts. Co-founder Alex Mather said that makes the newsroom profitable. But, Sherman writes, when you include sales, marketing, human resources and other costs, the company overall is not profitable.

However, that could change if those who signed up for subscriptions at discounted rates renew at full price. And, new subs should start picking up again now that sports have returned.

One other note: The Athletic hopes to improve its homepage to include more breaking news, to go along with the longer feature-y pieces that are the staple of the website.

“So much of the breaking news is happening on Twitter right now, but it should be on The Athletic,” Mather said in the CNBC story. “If something happens, you should know on The Athletic. Part of our product is bringing in tweets, but we need to bridge that gap between the initial tweet and that deep story that gets published six to 10 hours later.”

Hume’s home

Brit Hume isn’t going anywhere. Fox News announced Wednesday that it has signed Hume to a new multi-year deal to remain as the network’s senior political analyst. In a statement, Hume said, “After decades of reporting and anchoring, I wanted to try it as an analyst. Fox News allowed me to do that, for which I am most grateful. I love the work and I’m very excited to continue doing it.”

Hume has embraced the “analyst” position, offering strong opinions. Those opinions have clearly leaned into what Fox News viewers want to hear and he often defends and supports President Trump and the Republican Party. (Just follow him on Twitter.) That certainly is his right, especially since his title is “analyst.” However, it has been a striking difference from most of his career when he was seen as a just-the-facts reporter.

New boss at Refinery29

Refinery29, the fashion and beauty site whose editor resigned after reports emerged about what has been described as a “toxic work environment,” has named a new global editor-in-chief. It’s Simone Oliver, formerly of The New York Times and Condé Nast, who currently leads partnerships with magazines and lifestyle brands at Facebook and Instagram.

Oliver replaces Christene Barberich, who co-founded Refinery29 but resigned after allegations of workplace discrimination. Oliver told The New York Times’ Marc Tracy that she has spoken to staffers at Refinery29 about the workplace environment and said, “We can push even more on giving new and diverse voices — and not just race and gender — a seat at the table.”

Hot type

The cover art of Kara Swisher’s new podcast for The New York Times. (Courtesy: The New York Times)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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