Woodward Fools Trump—Twice

It's not surprising to learn that Trump played down the pandemic in his interviews with Bob Woodward. But it is shocking he talked to him for another book.

So I was almost done with this “news”letter when the Woodward story broke. We try not to do fast “hot takes” around here, but it just feels weird not to say something about all this. So I’m calling an audible and doing this on the fly. 

I am not surprised that Trump admitted to playing down the pandemic, because we already knew that. He said the virus would disappear. He admitted that he didn’t want COVID-stricken cruise ship passengers to disembark because it would make the numbers look bad. He said it would go to zero. In June, he said it was “fading away.” In July, he said it was “under control.”  

But as we learned this afternoon, Trump admitted to Woodward—in February—that COVID was much worse than the flu, saying it was “much more deadly.” 

Yet on March 9, he was pushing the “it’s-just-the-flu” narrative:

The next day at a briefing, Trump said, “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

You get the point, but here’s a pretty good, albeit partial, list of his public statements playing down the virus.

What I don’t really believe is that he was afraid of a “panic.” My own theory has always been that Trump thinks he can wish, bluster, spin, and bully away inconvenient narratives, in large part because he has had so much success at it in the past. It’s also how he’s wired. This is the guy who said under oath that he pegs his net worth to how he’s feeling on any given day. 

The problem with the virus is that it doesn’t care if he changes the subject on cable news channels. To paraphrase Ben Shapiro, the virus doesn’t care about his feelings. If you want to be generous, you can theorize that he didn’t want the public to panic—he does say so, after all—but it just seems obvious to me that what he meant by “panic” wasn’t a concern about runs on grocery stores; it was the changing of public opinion and the national conversation. Not only that, but he didn’t like the idea of having to do the very hard work of dealing with it responsibly.  Why is that? Well, because Trump has made it manifestly clear that he doesn’t think he’s the president of the whole country, nor that his job should create obligations for him that are incompatible with, or inconvenient to, his self-styled role as Heckler-in-Chief.

There’s plenty of evidence for this: From the Tulsa rally, to his disdain for masks, to his willingness to let his surrogates peddle disinformation about COVID with no correction. 

The tragic irony for the country in all this is that if Trump had actually let himself be guided by the requirements of the job, fewer people would have died. The not-quite-tragic irony for Trump is that he would have been in much better shape if he had done the job properly and consistently. Every governor, Republican and Democrat, got a sustained bounce in their approval just by taking the pandemic seriously, even if they made mistakes. Trump briefly got a similar bump when, after his disastrously bad address from the Oval Office, he recovered by creating the coronavirus task force. The problem is that he couldn’t stay in character. The challenge was too hard, too depressing, and too off-brand. So he opted instead to turn mask-wearing into a culture war crotch-punching national donnybrook of asininity. He tweeted about “liberating” states—run by Democrats—and pretended that the pandemic would just disappear. If he would’ve just stayed focused, the economy would be in better shape, and in all likelihood, the death toll would have been lower. 

All that said, if I had to guess, this won’t be the silver bullet the media is playing it up to be. Trump can hang his defense entirely on the claim—as he already did this afternoon—that not forestalling panic was an example of leadership. The people who want to uncritically believe that will likely believe it. The people who don’t, certainly won’t. 

What is legitimately shocking to me is that he talked to Bob Woodward in the first place. Remember, this is Woodward’s second book about the Trump administration. When the last one came out, full of damning revelations and quotes, Trump denounced it as a pack of lies. He said that Woodward fabricated a quote from Trump saying that Jeff Sessions was “retarded.” Woodward, according to Trump, "made this up to divide!"

Back then, Trump relied on the credibility of Gens. Mattis and John Kelly to refute Woodward. (Now that Kelly and Mattis are out—and speaking freely—the last thing Trump wants to do is claim they are credible. Just last week, he belittled Kelly in the wake of the Atlantic story on the mere assumption that he might be a source.)

Why talk to Woodward, again? And not just once, but in 18 separate interviews? If I honestly believed a reporter fabricated evidence against me the way Trump claimed, I would probably sue. I definitely wouldn’t agree to 18 interviews. If the recordings are any indication, Trump was actually quite friendly with him. Why?

I can think of a few answers. None of them are particularly consistent with the idea that Trump is a political mastermind. Nor are they consistent with the widespread belief in certain quarters that his denials and attacks on the press are grounded in the truth. 

One last point: If the context of these recordings is as Woodward suggests, there is something profoundly immoral about sitting on the story about Trump’s early response to COVID until his book came out. I say immoral, because it isn’t necessarily unethical. I don’t want to get too deep into Philosophy 101, but ethics are guidelines about proper procedure. Morality is about objective standards of right and wrong. The two are supposed to complement each other, but it doesn’t always work that way. Woodward is an industry unto himself, and he’s developed all sorts of carve-outs with the Washington Post and his sources. The ground rules for his interviews usually stipulate that the material won’t be released until the book comes out—and both his sources and the Post agree to those rules. 

But here’s the thing: If you’re sitting on a story that could have the effect of spurring the government to take actions that would save arguably thousands of lives, your ethical rules are in conflict with larger moral ones. Lawyers, priests, and psychologists have special dispensations to violate normal ethical procedures if doing so will likely save just one life. Why should the equation change in favor of Woodward's book sales when the number of lives at stake is thousands of times greater?

I’m not saying this is all clear-cut. It’s not obvious that if Woodward went with this stuff earlier it would have changed anything. But, in principle, you see the point. 

Here endeth my quick take.