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Bob Woodward: This is among ‘the saddest, most disturbing chapters in American history’

When journalist Bob Woodward asked President Donald Trump how he saw his job, “He said, ‘to protect the people.’” But, Woodward told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff on Thursday, “He failed in that and he failed to tell the truth. Tragically.”

Based on hours of personal interviews with Trump, as well as with other sources from his administration, Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” details how the president was informed about the gravity of the pandemic long before it reached America, but did not act on that knowledge, leaving the nation unprepared when it arrived.

When it comes to whether Trump feels that he has handled the pandemic well, Woodward said, “I’m not sure the truth matters.”

In the book, Woodward reports that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield had assessed the virus as it spread through China, and found, Woodward said, that “this is not going to be something that goes away or is dealt with in six months or a year. It is going to be a two- or three-year fight.”

“And that’s exactly what President Trump knew and did not tell us,” Woodward said. “One hundred and ninety-five thousand people have died from this on his watch,” referencing the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths.

Even as the virus spread in the U.S., Woodward claims Trump seemed uninterested in the crisis. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, reportedly said Trump’s “attention span is like a minus number.”

Woodward expressed concern for the ongoing pandemic response as flu season approaches.

“All the people who know the most about [the virus] say in the coming months, it’s going to converge with the flu and we are going to have a hail storm and a hurricane all at once.”

Other highlights from the interview:

  • On racial justice protests: Amid a wave of protests ignited by the deaths of Black Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police officers, Woodward said he confronted Trump on racism within the nation and white privilege and received a dismissive reaction. While Trump acknowledged that racism did exist in America, Woodward said, he was unwilling to understand the hardships Black people face in the country. “I said to the president, ‘That’s your job. You’ve got to understand people. You’ve got to get in other people’s shoes.’ And he said, well, he likes to be in his own shoes.” Woodward said this was part of the “calamity of this presidency,” that he won’t listen or understand the pain Americans are feeling.
  • On Trump and Russia: For his book, Woodward also spoke with then-Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who said he believed that Russia had something on the president, based on the intelligence and the way Trump responded to Putin. “Coats did not find evidence or proof of this,” Woodward said. “But he continued to harbor the absolute conviction that Putin did have something on Trump.” Coats was not the only high-level former Trump administration official to share concerns with Woodward during the course of interviews for the book. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, “The president has no moral compass” and said that as in his role, Mattis “was often trying to impose reason over impulse.”
  • On Trump’s reelection bid: Trump’s rhetoric about the November election has fueled some concerns that he may not accept the results if he loses. Woodward said that Trump’s lack of respect for norms is what made him popular in the first place: “He’s different. Of course he’s different. He was elected to be different. We shouldn’t be surprised at that at all.” When asked if Woodward believed Trump cares about the American people, he said, “Well, I think he’s not heartless. I think he’s driven toward reelection.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to the political fallout facing President Trump, amid new reporting from veteran journalist Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

    Woodward's newest book, "Rage," features 18 on-the-record interviews and recordings of President Trump, ranging from his handling of the coronavirus to racial injustice.

    And Bob Woodward joins me now.

    And, Bob Woodward, congratulations on this book.

    This is a president about whom so much has been written. What, of all the time you spent with him, do you think adds the most to our understanding of who Donald Trump is?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, it is a look into his mind. I asked him: What's the job of the president? He said to protect the people.

    He failed in that, and he failed to tell the truth, tragically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, these dire warnings that were given to him in January — he knew this. You cite Tony Fauci saying he had a minus number attention span.

    You also write at length about Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, who's back in the news right now because he is urging Americans to wear a mask. He is urging caution about a vaccine.

    The president is contradicting him. Take us to the essence of that relationship.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Redfield heads the overall CDC, which is responsible for tracking down the cause of some sort of health crisis.

    He realized that this could be some sort of pandemic. In fact, he told associates — and this is the key — he said, this is not going to be something that goes away or is dealt with in six months or a year. It is going to be a two- or three-year fight.

    We now realize that that's exactly the situation, and that's exactly what President Trump knew and did not tell us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is continuing to push back against even today.

    Bob Woodward, the United States has just 4 percent of the world's population, and yet the United States has almost a quarter of all the COVID cases in the world. We have by far more deaths than any other country on the planet. And yet, in essence, President Trump is telling you he's done a masterful job of managing it.

    Does he believe that? Has he convinced himself of that? Or does the truth matter?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I'm not sure the truth matters.

    And I pushed him on this just as much as you possibly can, and he actually said — in public, he said: There are things I said that are just great.

    And I let him have his say, because he deserves that, but I also press him on these issues, particularly the virus; 195,000 people have died from this…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Bob Woodward:

    … on his watch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to ask you about, so many revelations, conversations here.

    At one point, the then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats says he continued to harbor this belief, that it continued to grow, that he could never find proof, but he believes somehow that Russia's Vladimir Putin had something on the president.

    Is that something that is still an open question in your mind?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, it was in Dan Coats' mind. He had access to all the deep cover human sources, all the communications, intercepts, absolutely everything on this.

    And he sorted through it meticulously with his aides, and — because he felt, because of the way the president responds to Putin, that it looked like Putin had something on Trump.

    Coats did not find evidence or proof of this, but he continued to harbor the absolute conviction that Putin did have something on Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also have — you quote James Mattis as saying the president doesn't know the difference between the truth and a lie.

    You have Dan Coats, again former director of national intelligence, saying the president was played skillfully by people like Putin, China's leader, Xi Jinping, he said, because they lied to him.

    You quote the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying he was unstable.

    Why do you think they won't say it themselves?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I was — I had the luxury of time, 10, months to work on this, ask Trump all kinds of questions, ask other people. I have sources in the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department who will tell me what's going on.

    And all of the quotations from these officials are reported in-depth and are — I am confident are absolutely true.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another issue that is huge before the American people this year, Bob Woodward, of course, after the death of George Floyd, is the reckoning over race.

    And you did talk to the president at several points about his view of race. You asked him if he believed there's systematic racism in this country. He said there's less than in most other countries, than in many other countries.

    What did you conclude about his view when it comes to racism?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I pushed him on that.

    And I said: What about this country? And he acknowledged, said: Yes, there is. More or less, I'm sorry to say there is.

    But, more importantly, I flat-out asked him. I said, look: You are the son of white privilege. I — my father was a judge in Illinois, a lawyer, and I know I'm — I had this white privilege.

    And I asked Trump: So, in a sense, we're living in a cave, we're isolated, and do you understand, Mr. President, the pain and anger that Black people feel?

    And this tape has been released in which the president mocks me, essentially, says: Wow, you really drank the Kool-Aid, Bob. I don't feel that way at all.

    So, he rejects just openly this idea that Black people can feel this pain.

    And I said to the president: That's your job. You have got to understand people. You have got to get in other people's shoes.

    And he said, well, he — he likes to be in his own shoes. And this is part of the calamity of this presidency, that they — that the leader won't listen, the leader will not organize.

    I literally said to him: You need a Manhattan Project, like Franklin Roosevelt launched during World War II to build the atomic bomb. And where's the Manhattan Project? Where's full mobilization?

    And he failed to do that. And it's one of the saddest, most disturbing chapters in American history, as best I can tell.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think he cares about the American people?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I think he's not heartless. I think he's driven toward reelection.

    And, no, I'm not going to — I'm not — I don't know his motive, but his motive is clearly reelection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question.

    You mentioned law and order. As you know, there are Democrats, there are conservative Republicans, never-Trumper Republicans who are now saying they are concerned that this president has no respect for norms, for the rule of law, and they are seriously worried that he will not accept the results of the election, that he may do anything — they don't know what he would do — in the last six weeks of this election in order to win.

    Do you have that same…

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I asked him about that, and he said he wouldn't comment.

    But it's not the — I think it's a mistake to kind of look and say, oh, well, he's broken norms, he's different. Of course he's different. He was elected to be different. We shouldn't be surprised at that at all.

    And my judgment in the end that he's the wrong man for the job is not a political judgment at all. It's based on overwhelming evidence and the utter sadness I feel, in doing this reporting and spending all this time with him and the key people in the administration, that he has failed.

    And the failure, it doesn't end. We are on a moving train with this virus. And all the people who know the most about it say, in the coming months, it's going to converge with the flu, and we are going to have a hailstorm and a hurricane all at once.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Bob Woodward, thank you.

    The book is "Rage."

    We appreciate it.

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