President Trump on Thursday sparred with reporters as he defended his newly-reported comments in author Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book that show him downplaying the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic in its early stages.
Facing repeated questions by reporters during a press briefing at the White House, Trump pushed back on claims that he was the American public during the early days of the pandemic in the country and said he was trying “to show strength as a leader.”
“I want to show a level of confidence and I want to show strength as a leader,” Trump said. “There was no lie here, what we’re doing here is leading and we’re leading in the proper way.”
“I don’t want to jump up and down and shout ‘death, death’” he added. “I have to lead a country.”
Trump also took personal aim at Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent, after he asked the president why he “lied to the American people and why should we trust what you have to say now?”
“That’s a terrible question and the phraseology. I didn’t lie,” Trump responded. “Your question, the way you phrased that is such a disgrace. It’s a disgrace to ABC television network. It’s a disgrace to your employer.”
According to excerpts of Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” that were published Wednesday by the Washington Post, Trump told the journalist during a recorded telephone interview that the situation regarding the virus was much more dire than he was admitting publicly.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward during a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president said. Though this conversation happened in February, it was not reported until now.
At that time, Trump was saying that the contagion was no more virulent than the seasonal flu, that the government had the virus under control and that it would soon disappear.
“I wanted to always play it down,” the president told Woodward in a March conversation.
As of Thursday, COVID-19 has sickened more than 6.3 million Americans and killed more than 191,000, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The coronavirus – and the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak – has become arguably the most important issue as Americans prepare to vote in November’s general election
Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, and his supporters have sought to blame Trump for the massive spread of the contagion in the country and for the economic toll it had wreaked.
Trump has hit back Biden for opposing the ban on travel from China in late January and for the former vice president’s own handling of the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
“Joe’s decision to publically attack the China ban so he lacks the character, intelligence or instinct to do what is right,” Trump said as he accused Biden of using the virus for “political gain.”
Trump added: “The swine flu was a disaster. His failed approach to the swine flu was disastrous.”
The swine flu, or H1N1, outbreak in 2009 did sicken many more people in the U.S. than the coronavirus so far has – 60.8 million compared to 6.3 million – but it only killed 12,469 people in the country compared to the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 191,000 lives in the U.S.
Besides answering questions about his handling of the pandemic, the president also announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was traveling to Qatar to discuss participate in intra-Afghan peace negotiations.
The long-awaited peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government’s negotiating team are to begin on Saturday.
The talks were laid out in a peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February, also in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office. At the time, the deal was seen as Afghanistan’s best chance at ending more than four decades of relentless war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.