The revelation that Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the coronavirus pandemic forced key aides on to desperate defence on Sunday, barely 50 days from the presidential election.
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, and Jason Miller, a campaign senior adviser, tried to mitigate the damage caused by Trump’s taped confessions to Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, for his book Rage, by playing up the president’s handling of a crisis that has killed more than 190,000 in America.
“The president was calm and steady in a time of unrest and uncertainty,” McDaniel insisted on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“What would it mean if the president came out and said, ‘The sky is falling and everybody should be panicked’? He presented calm and a steady hand and a plan. And that is what a president should do.”
On ABC’s This Week, Miller said Trump had always taken the coronavirus “very seriously” and claimed: “We encourage people very strongly to wear the masks.”
The majority of attendees at a Trump rally in Nevada on Saturday were neither distanced nor wearing masks. At another rally in North Carolina earlier in the week, the president mocked social distancing as a tool to prevent the spread of infection.
Trump, who granted Woodward 17 on-the-record interviews, knew the extent of the Covid-19 threat in February, recordings released this week revealed.
The president knew the virus was deadlier than “normal” flu and that it was transmitted quickly and easily in the air. Trump even told Woodward there was “dynamite behind every door”.
But instead of presenting the truth, Trump decided to deliberately mislead the public by claiming separately that concern about the coronavirus was a Democratic hoax, that he had the crisis under control and that the virus would soon go away.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t like to create a panic.
“And certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence, we want to show strength as a nation, and that’s what I’ve done.”
The comments caused a firestorm of controversy, with Joe Biden, Trump’s challenger in the 3 November general election, calling the president’s actions “almost criminal”.
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, told ABC: “Donald Trump had information that could have made a difference not just seven months ago but could have made a difference for us right now.
“I’m thinking about the folks who are sending their children to schools tomorrow not knowing if they’re safe, the parents who are trying to juggle working from home or setting up childcare because their children cannot go to school.
“I’m concerned about the folks going to work in grocery stores and person-to-person services who do not have the proper personal protective equipment because Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has not moved to ensure that it is so.”
McDaniel was asked if Trump’s downplaying of the threat was a political gambit, suggesting his dire warnings of anarchy and lawlessness in the wake of recent protests against racism and police brutality showed “this isn’t a president who shies away from trying to incite panic or trying to fire folks up”.
“Think what would have happened if he’d have gone out and said, ‘This is awful, we should all be afraid, we don’t have a plan’,” McDaniel said.
“It would have been a run on the banks, a run on the hospitals, a run on the grocery stores. As it was, it was already hard to get some of the things we needed in the grocery stores. So the president was calm and steady in a time of unrest and uncertainty. And I think history will look back on him well as how he handled this pandemic.”
Another Trump loyalist, trade adviser Peter Navarro, was challenged on CNN’s State of the Union over the administration’s assertions it had acted swiftly in response to the pandemic, specifically in shutting down travel from China.
“[On] 31 January [he] pulls down the flights, saves probably hundreds of thousands of American lives,” Navarro claimed, even though the “ban” was only a partial restriction that still allowed tens of thousands to travel, while travel from Europe was not shut down till later, allowing the virus in that way.
Navarro also attempted to claim Trump had been “straightforward” with the American people, even though the president’s own words on tape confirm he was purposefully withholding information. The Trump adviser also attacked CNN, saying without apparent irony it was “not honest with the American people”, before being cut off.
“The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population,” host Jake Tapper said, “and the United States has more than 20% of the world’s coronavirus deaths. That is a fact. It does not matter how many times he insults CNN.”
Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, which has been badly affected by deadly wildfires, linked Trump’s handling of the pandemic to the disaster unfolding in his state. At his rally in Nevada, Trump blamed poor forest management for the blazes, and ignored scientific evidence of the role of the climate emergency.
“[He] has downplayed climate change just like he’s downplayed Covid, and for Donald Trump to say he’s a hero of climate change is like saying he’s a hero of masks against Covid,” Inslee told ABC.
“It is way too late to be debating this. This is not a debate. The time for excuses, for denial, for downplaying this, those days are over. The days of consequence are upon us.”