Bob Woodward defends keeping revelations about Trump and coronavirus quiet until book release
The revelation President Donald Trump expressed serious concerns about the danger posed by the coronavirus outbreak, even as he downplayed the threat in public, drew outrage toward the White House and veteran journalist Bob Woodward for keeping the scoop quiet until the publication of his new book was imminent.
Woodward defended his decision not to share the revelation sooner in interviews with The Washington Post and The Associated Press after details from his upcoming book, "Rage," were made public Wednesday. In audio clips from the 18 interviews Woodward conducted with Trump, the president says the coronavirus is highly contagious and "deadly stuff" while admitting he "wanted to always play it down" because he didn't "want to create a panic."
When asked why he didn't share the discrepancies between Trump's private fears about the virus and his public statements minimizing the danger, Woodward told AP he needed time to determine if Trump's statements about COVID-19 were accurate.
"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?" Woodward told AP, referring to Trump's habit of stretching or misrepresenting the truth. And he said he had to determine, "What did he know and when did he know it?" borrowing a phrase from his reporting for The Post on the Watergate break-in.
"The biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true," Woodward told The Post.
Trump called "out of the blue" in early February to "unburden himself" about the potential severity of the coronavirus, Woodward told AP. And Trump's concerns seemed exaggerated at a time when public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci were telling Americans the risk of the virus reaching the U.S. was low.
Woodward said that it was not until May that he confirmed Trump's statements were based on reliable information and that at that point the virus was already widespread.
"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," he told AP.
Woodward told The Post and AP that he believed it was more important for him to provide a broader picture of the Trump administration ahead of the election than to file daily news stories.
"I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election," he told The Post.
Woodward told AP the election was "the demarcation line for me."
"Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable," he said.
Woodward told The Post that contrary to some speculation, there was no agreement requiring him to keep the content of the interviews secret until "Rage" publishes Tuesday.
When asked why he didn't share what Trump told him in February with Post reporters, Woodward told AP he had developed “some pretty important sources" on his own.
"Could I have brought others in? Could they have done things I couldn’t do?" he asked. "I was on the trail, and I was (still) on the trail when it (the virus) exploded."
Many critics said Woodward might have saved lives if he had shared the information sooner because people might have started to take precautions sooner to avoid becoming infected by the virus, which has killed more than 190,000 in the U.S. They accused Woodward of putting book sales over people. Similar criticism was recently leveled at former national security adviser John Bolton, whose book "The Room Where It Happened," which was published in June, included information related to the allegations that led to Trump's impeachment.
Trump said in a tweet Thursday that the fact Woodward sat on the revelations for so long indicates the journalist approved of his response to the pandemic.
"If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!" Trump wrote.
Some said Woodward should have come forward sooner.
"Isn't there a journalistic imperative to publish this information in a timely manner ... especially during a pandemic?" asked Adweek reporter Scott Nover.
"Nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed," wrote Esquire’s Charles Pierce.
"I‘m very upset by the withholding of info on #COVID19. Even in May when he corroborated Trumps comments, I believe he should have spoken out," tweeted infectious disease epidemiologist Beth Linas. "#COVID19 isn’t scoop – it’s life and death."
Left-leaning journalists David Sirota and Andrew Perez wrote, "America’s most famous journalist had a rare chance to sound an alarm about the pandemic the country was facing and instead chose to stay silent so he could preserve his access to the White House and sell a few more books to a nation locked down in quarantine."
"Imagine if Paul Revere had this attitude," joked "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah. "'Are the British coming? Find out by preordering my book on Amazon.'"
Contributing: The Associated Press