Is Bob Woodward’s story from his book Rage on how Donald Trump deliberately played down the coronavirus threat while knowing it was deadly really the blockbuster that journalists are making it out to be?
Or had the gist of the story already come out?
Here’s a headline from the publication Business Insider based on Mr. Trump’s press conference on March 31:
"Trump just acknowledged downplaying the coronavirus threat: ‘I knew it could be horrible.’ "
The first paragraph reads as follows: "President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he knew from the start that thousands of Americans could die from the novel coronavirus but downplayed the threat because he wanted to stay positive and be a “cheerleader” for the country."
At that press conference more than five months ago, reporters peppered the President with questions. "So you knew it was going to be this severe when you were saying, “This is under control?”
“I thought it could be,” Mr. Trump responded. “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible and I knew it could be maybe good.”
But he added that he didn’t want to be negative and frighten the American people. “It’d be so much easier for me to come up and say, ‘We have bad news. We’re going to lose 220,000 people, and it’s going to happen over the next few weeks.’”
While all this was on the record in Business Insider and other publications, the media responded to the same basic points made in Rage with rage. Like they were, to use CNN’s words, a “startling revelation.”
Mr. Woodward’s book has Mr. Trump making the points in stronger, starker language. There is more detail. It fleshes the story out. His interviews with the President make it clear that Mr. Trump was willfully lying.
But it was hardly a bombshell meriting such media fury.
It was the force of Mr. Woodward’s reputation that helped stoke the story. He is, legitimately in my view, regarded as the pre-eminent American journalist of the past half century. In Rage, he solidifies that reputation, gaining fantastic access to the President and his associates – access other journalists can only dream of – and delivering an abundance of intriguing material.
It wasn’t his doing that the media went bananas over the segment on the playing down of the virus. Chalk it up to journalist amnesia.
The Democrats weren’t complaining. What a gift to them. Joe Biden was quick out of the gate. “It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people,” he said of how Mr. Trump behaved. “It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty, a disgrace.” Mr. Trump knew “how deadly it was. He knew and purposely played it down,” Mr. Biden added. “Worse, he lied.”
The story has far-reaching importance because it brings the President’s performance on the coronavirus back to where it deserves to stand – at the top of the pack of election issues.
In the face of his feeble response to the pandemic, a failure that has likely cost the country thousands of lives, Mr. Trump has been trying to change channels and make law and order the dominant story, even though it has nowhere near the equivalent seriousness.
The Democrats can also be thankful for the media feeding frenzy touched off by The Atlantic magazine’s assertion that Mr. Trump in 2018 called fallen American troops “losers” and “suckers.”
The story, based on anonymous sources, contained those two explosive adjectives and not much else. It was from a virulently anti-Trump publication.
Some other journalistic organs have corroborated the story, but with only anonymous sources as well. My suspicion is that Mr. Trump did use the appalling descriptives. He habitually engages in flights of hyperbole and brutal name calling.
But I think editors of most publications would have demanded names to go with the words before publishing the piece, especially as it appeared during an election campaign.
Gaining far less media focus, as it is overshadowed by the Woodward book, is the memoir Disloyal, by Mr. Trump’s former long-time confidant turned squealer, Michael Cohen. It depicts Mr. Trump as “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man.”
What impact all the pummelling will have on the President’s standing is not certain. The state of play in American politics is such that most alleged wrongdoing gets attributed to partisanship. The people and the players don’t examine it on its merits as much as on its origins.
The condemnations in The Atlantic and by Mr. Cohen will be written off to a large extent as bias. Though the big news from the Woodward book is old news, it will carry more weight. The legendary journalist has eighteen taped interviews with Mr. Trump. He lets the President’s own words do the talking. And the slaying.
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