Recordings, real or rumored, have been a leitmotif of the Trump era.
There was the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Donald Trump confessed to his proclivity for serial sexual assault. The fabled “pee tape,” the existence of which would have been pornographic proof of Russiagate, haunted the first few years of the Trump presidency.
James Comey hoped there were recordings of what he described as Trump’s mafialike efforts to suborn him. (“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”) Michael Cohen released a tape in which the president assented to a scheme to buy the silence of a former Playboy model he allegedly slept with. Omarosa Manigault Newman had a tape in which she and two other Black Trump staffers worried about the existence of another tape, which she claimed had caught Trump using the vilest of racial slurs. Actor Tom Arnold had a whole cable series about his search, ultimately fruitless, for incriminating Trump tapes.
Trump recordings loom so large because they offer the prospect of breaking through his alternative reality, of nailing down this most slippery and mendacious of presidents, of showing everyone who he really is. But even those that materialize are often quickly forgotten, as Trump’s approval rating stays low but stubbornly stable and one scandal is eclipsed by another. Our politics suffers no shortage of incontrovertible proof of Trump’s venality. What it lacks is accountability.
It’s possible, maybe even likely, that famed journalist Bob Woodward’s utterly damning tapes of Trump discussing the coronavirus will fall into this same nothing-matters cycle. But decent people with public platforms should try to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It’s not just that these tapes reveal the president lying about the pandemic that has ravaged America on his watch. What’s shocking — even after more than 3 1/2 numbing years — is the deliberate, willful nature of the lies. Unlike most Trump tapes, Woodward’s actually tell us something new about the president, rather than just confirming what we think we already know.
Because Trump is a prodigious consumer of propaganda as well as a creator of it, it’s not always clear how aware he is of spreading disinformation. People who’ve spent time with him often conclude that truth has no meaning for him. Woodward quoted Dan Coats, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, saying, “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.” Trump creates for his supporters a carapace of malignant fantasy, but he often seems to live inside it with them.
Yet in recordings Woodward has released of Trump talking about the coronavirus — excerpts from interviews conducted for Woodward’s new book, “Rage” — the president doesn’t sound ignorant or deluded. Rather, he sounds uncommonly lucid. On Feb. 7, Trump described the virus as airborne and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” adding, “this is 5% versus 1%, or less than 1%.” It’s not clear whether Trump thought that COVID-19 had a 5% case fatality rate — a number that seemed plausible in February — but he clearly knew that compared with the flu, it was several times more likely to kill.
And yet he told the country just the opposite. “The percentage for the flu is under 1%,” Trump said on March 7. “But this could also be under 1% because many of the people that aren’t that sick don’t report.” Despite knowing that the virus was airborne, he mocked mask-wearing and held several large indoor rallies. He told Woodward in March that “plenty of young people” were getting sick, but over the summer would insist that 99% of cases were “totally harmless” and that children are “almost immune.”
We know now that this wasn’t just Trump being buffoonish and engaging in magical thinking. It was conscious deception. Publicly, Trump kept insisting that the virus would disappear. Privately, he told Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Of course, Trump usually loves creating panic — about immigrants, about antifa, about low-income people invading the suburbs. But there is one place he wants to maintain tranquility: in the financial markets. “Just stay calm; it will go away,” he said on March 10. “We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry, cruise ships; we want to protect our airline industry.” He added, “A lot of good things are going to happen. The consumer is ready.”
And so Trump lied to the country about the calamity that would soon overtake it. His administration didn’t ramp up a national testing or contact-tracing program. He and his supporters pressured states to open up prematurely. A July Pew poll found that only 46% of Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party considered the coronavirus a major threat to public health, compared with 85% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Trump could have made Republicans take the virus seriously. He chose not to.
Not long after attending the president’s June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain died of COVID-19. In August, whoever is maintaining Cain’s Twitter account tweeted, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” It was Trump who made such a cultish commitment to denying the lethality of COVID-19 into a sign of loyalty. And all the time, he knew better.
Trump supporters may not care that their president has knowingly endangered them, withholding potentially lifesaving information that he readily confided to an elite Washington journalist. But that doesn’t change the importance of what Woodward has captured on tape. It’s now clear that just because Trump is lying to us, that doesn’t mean he’s lying to himself.
Trump’s lies sabotaged efforts to contain the coronavirus, almost certainly leading to many more deaths than it would have caused under a minimally competent and nonsociopathic leader. On Wednesday, there were 1,176 coronavirus deaths in the United States. In Canada, there were two.
When someone’s actions lead to the death of another, we evaluate that person’s intent and state of mind in order to assign the right measure of blame. When a president’s actions lead to the deaths of thousands, we should do the same.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.