US President Donald Trump has defended his decision to downplay the risks of Covid-19, saying his answers to journalist Bob Woodward were « proper ».
Woodward, known for his reporting on the Watergate scandal, interviewed Mr Trump 18 times from December to July.
He tweeted on Thursday that Woodward did not report his quotes for months. « He knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic! »
Later he told reporters he never lied, when they suggested he deliberately misled the American public on how dangerous the virus was.
In a White House news conference on Thursday afternoon, he said in response to a reporter’s question: « I didn’t lie, what I said is we have to be calm, we can’t be panicked. »
He added: « I don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming, ‘death, death’, because that’s not what it’s about. »
Some 190,000 Americans have been recorded as dying with Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
« Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? » Mr Trump said.
« Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic! »
The president – who is running for re-election in November – on Wednesday told reporters the Woodward book was « a political hit job ».
Woodward has been criticised for withholding the president’s remarks on the pandemic, with some saying it was an unethical decision.
The journalist offered a defence in the Washington Post and Associated Press on Wednesday, saying he needed to check whether what Mr Trump told him was accurate.
« 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.
He also said that it was important for him to tell the story by the election, telling the Associated Press: « Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable. »
Mr Trump indicated that he knew more about the severity of the illness than he had said publicly.
According to a tape of the call, Mr Trump told Woodward in February that the coronavirus was deadlier than the flu.
« That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.
« And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. »
Later that month, Mr Trump promised the virus was « very much under control », and that the case count would soon be close to zero. He also publicly implied the flu was more dangerous than Covid-19.
Speaking on Capitol Hill on 10 March, Mr Trump said: « Just stay calm. It will go away. »
Nine days later, after the White House declared the pandemic a national emergency, the president told Woodward: « I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic. »
28 Jan: National security adviser Robert O’Brien tells the president: « This is the biggest national security threat you will face. »
26 Feb: On the 15 confirmed cases at the time, he tells a briefing: « within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done », implying that flu is far more dangerous.
10 March: « We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away, » the president says on Capitol Hill.
Woodward writes that he brought up the Black Lives Matter protests in a conversation with the president on 19 June, suggesting that « white, privileged » people like themselves ought to work to understand how black Americans feel.
The nationwide protests against police brutality and racism were sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minnesota in May.
Mr Trump also repeated the suggestion that he had done more for African Americans than any president aside from Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery.
Later, on 8 July, Mr Trump again reiterated that he had « done a tremendous amount for the black community » but was « not feeling any love ».
The Washington Post also cited an interview where Woodward asked the president about whether America has systemic racism.
Mr Trump said while these problems exist everywhere, « I think probably less here than most places, or less here than many places ».
The president also acknowledged racism affected the lives of people in the US, saying it was « unfortunate ».
Woodward’s book also cites dozens of letters between Mr Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. In the letters, filled with flowery language, Mr Kim reportedly referred to Mr Trump as « Your Excellency » and noted their « deep and special friendship will work as a magical force ».
According to US media, Mr Trump told Woodward of his connection with Mr Kim: « You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take you 10 minutes and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, whoa. OK. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second. »
In a tweet on Thursday, Mr Trump wrote: « Kim Jong Un is in good health. Never underestimate him! » There have been sporadic reports about Mr Kim’s health, including one in April that he was seriously ill or even dead.
The president also reportedly told Woodward about nuclear weapons systems in his conversations about North Korea. Other sources also confirmed the existence of a new weapons system, Woodward reported.
« I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about, » he said, according to the Post.
« We have stuff that [Russian President] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi have never heard about before, » Trump added.
Mr Trump also reportedly told Woodward that he felt his predecessor, Barack Obama, was « highly overrated ».
« I don’t think Obama’s smart, » Mr Trump reportedly said. « And I don’t think he’s a great speaker. »
According to CNN, Mr Trump told Woodward he made President George W Bush « look like a stupid moron, which he was ».
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