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What Woodward recordings reveal about Trump’s pandemic response

A new book by legendary journalist Bob Woodward has sent shockwaves across the country -- and the 2020 presidential campaign. Woodward’s reporting includes audio recordings of on-the-record conversations with President Trump in which he admits he intentionally misled Americans about the danger posed by the novel coronavirus. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more details about Bob Woodward's new book, we're joined now by Washington Post reporter and moderator of PBS' "Washington Week," Robert Costa.

    Bob Costa, thank you so much for talking with us.

    You were just telling me you have read the book, you have listened to much of the audio recordings provided by Bob Woodward.

    How much does he say the president knew about this virus in late January, early February?

  • Robert Costa:

    He knew a lot, Judy.

    And Woodward recounts how, based on his reporting, President Trump was told on January 28 of this year by his top national security officials, Robert O'Brien and Matthew Pottinger, that the pandemic, the coronavirus, was the gravest national security threat he has yet seen in his presidency.

    Pottinger compared it to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed millions worldwide. And then, just a few days later, the president, who had been continuing to be briefed, he was — he told Woodward that the virus is very deadly. And you saw that in the clip shown by John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we — and we just showed, Bob, a portion of what the president was saying in public at that time.

    But what was the contrast then between what the president knew, what he was sharing with Bob Woodward, and what he was saying to the American people?

  • Robert Costa:

    So, one thing that comes through in Woodward's book "Rage" is that, it's Dr. Fauci, it's Dr. Redfield at the CDC, it's Matthew Pottinger, Robert O'Brien.

    A whole galaxy of national security and health officials are telling the president of the United States in January, February, in March that this pandemic is deadly, it's only going to grow in scope, it's not going to disappear. And they're urging drastic action, dramatic and sweeping action.

    Yet, as we all know, that action is not taken really until March in many states in terms of shutting down businesses and having people stay in their homes and social distance.

    The president was even thinking about having rallies at the same time he was being briefed about the seriousness of the virus. And he kept telling the American people that this virus were to go away, it's comparable or even not that bad compared to the seasonal flu.

    Yet officials behind the scenes were telling the president a different story. And Woodward was talking to the president simultaneously and hearing that real story from President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, according to Woodward's book, the president was also relating his conversations with China's President Xi Jinping, who was sharing some of the seriousness.

    Of course, the president later went on to be very critical of President Xi.

    But, Bob, what about the president's defense today, that he was doing this for a reason, he didn't want to frighten the American people?

  • Robert Costa:

    Well, that was the president's defense. He said he did not want to create a panic.

    And the president told Woodward in March of this year that he has deliberately played down the pandemic as a threat for that exact reason he stated today: He does not want to create a panic.

    As a reporter, it's not for me to say how the American people will judge this. But this comes less than two months before the presidential election. And you now have a president on tape — it's unprecedented to have this kind of Woodward-style interview, a series of presidential interviews on tape this close to an election about the biggest issue of this presidential season, the pandemic.

    And the book goes on in many other ways, about North Korea, about the president's flippant remarks, Woodward's terms, in terms of how he discussed race, how he discussed President Obama, Senator Harris, et cetera.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is remarkable. And we don't have time to get into all of that.

    But you're right, Bob. There were just stunning comments from people who were high up in the Trump administration before they left, James Mattis, the former defense secretary, Dan Coats, the former head of national intelligence.

    All of this adds up to a fairly damning picture.

  • Robert Costa:

    It's a picture that Woodward concludes shows that President Trump, in his words, is the wrong man for the job.

    And Woodward, who has spent a career reporting on the presidency and often has distance — he still has distance in the way he writes this book. But he has an assessment at the end of the book, saying the president, based on his own experience of interviewing him and watching him, is the wrong man for the job.

    That's Bob Woodward statement, the final sentence, actually, of his own book, this book so late in his career. He is saying to the American people: Here's what I know. Here's what I think.

    And he's also providing the tapes, something going back to Watergate with Woodward, the Nixon era so famous for the tapes inside the White House.

    The tapes once again becoming an issue in American politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just, again, so many things to bring out.

    But, Bob, one other thing that stood out to me was his comments praising the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, describing how smart he was, far beyond smart. It stands out how he praises someone like the North Korean leader.

  • Robert Costa:

    And we have seen in your own reporting, Judy, and others at PBS the relationship between Kim Jong-un and President Trump.

    But Woodward does is add detail. And he shows how Kim Jong-un, this dictator, is writing about — President Trump, about their relationship, calling it akin to a fantasy film, that it's this wonderful thing, it's a precious thing they want to preserve.

    And Woodward challenges, to a point, President Trump on these issues, and he says: Well, what's this all about, all this flowery language?

    And President Trump curses in the course of several interviews, saying: It's no big deal.

    And you can guess the phrase he used. And he said: I was just trying to meet with him, just trying to keep the peace.

    But there's this unusual, to say the least, rapport between a dictator and the president of the United States on page through letters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a lot of material here that I know we will continue to report on.

    But, Bob, Bob Costa, thank you very much for being with us tonight. We appreciate it.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

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