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'Play it down': Trump admits to concealing the true threat of coronavirus in new Woodward book

Washington(CNN) President Donald Trump admitted he knew weeks before the first confirmed US coronavirus death that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and "more deadly than even your strenuous flus," and that he repeatedly played it down publicly, according to legendary journalist Bob Woodward in his new book "Rage."

"This is deadly stuff," Trump told Woodward on February 7.

In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. "Pretty amazing," Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times "more deadly" than the flu.

Trump's admissions are in stark contrast to his frequent public comments at the time insisting that the virus was "going to disappear" and "all work out fine."

The book, using Trump's own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In "Rage," Trump says the job of a president is "to keep our country safe." But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

If instead of playing down what he knew, Trump had acted decisively in early February with a strict shutdown and a consistent message to wear masks, social distance and wash hands, experts believe that thousands of American lives could have been saved.

The startling revelations in "Rage," which CNN obtained ahead of its September 15 release, were made during 18 wide-ranging interviews Trump gave Woodward from December 5, 2019 to July 21, 2020. The interviews were recorded by Woodward with Trump's permission, and CNN has obtained copies of some of the audio tapes.

"Rage" also includes brutal assessments of Trump's presidency from many of his former top national security officials, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Mattis is quoted as calling Trump "dangerous" and "unfit" to be commander in chief. Woodward writes that Coats "continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump." Woodward continues, writing that Coats felt, "How else to explain the president's behavior? Coats could see no other explanation."

In this White House photo from December 2019 provided by Bob Woodward, President Donald Trump is seen speaking to Woodward in the Oval Office, surrounded by some aides and advisers, as well as Vice President Mike Pence. On Trump's desk is a large picture of Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The book also contains harsh evaluations of the President's leadership on the virus from current officials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration's top infectious disease expert, is quoted telling others Trump's leadership was "rudderless" and that his "attention span is like a minus number."

"His sole purpose is to get reelected," Fauci told an associate, according to Woodward.

Fauci responded to the quotes in a Fox News interview on Wednesday, saying he would question the account.

"If you notice, others have said that. You know, you should ask others. I don't recall that at all," Fauci said, adding that he "didn't get any sense" Trump was distorting things.

Trump responded to the Woodward book at a White House event Wednesday afternoon, defending his response to the pandemic and confirming he did not want to create a panic.

"Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so," Trump said. "The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic, as you say, 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."

'The virus has nothing to do with me'

Woodward reveals new details on the early warnings Trump received -- and often ignored.

In a January 28 top secret intelligence briefing, national security adviser Robert O'Brien gave Trump a "jarring" warning about the virus, telling the President it would be the "biggest national security threat" of his presidency. Trump's head "popped up," Woodward writes.

O'Brien's deputy, Matt Pottinger, concurred, telling Trump it could be as bad as the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. Pottinger warned Trump that asymptomatic spread was occurring in China: He had been told 50% of those infected showed no symptoms.

At that time, there were fewer than a dozen reported coronavirus cases in the US.

Three days later, Trump announced restrictions on travel from China, a move suggested by his national security team -- despite Trump's later claims that he alone backed the travel limitations.

Nevertheless, Trump continued to publicly downplay the danger of the virus. February was a lost month. Woodward views this as a damning missed opportunity for Trump to reset "the leadership clock" after he was told this was a "once-in-a-lifetime health emergency."

"Presidents are the executive branch. There was a duty to warn. To listen, to plan, and to take care," Woodward writes. But in the days following the January 28 briefing, Trump used high-profile appearances to minimize the threat and, Woodward writes, "to reassure the public they faced little risk."

During a pre-Super Bowl interview on Fox News February 2, Trump said, "We pretty much shut it down coming in from China." Two days later during his State of the Union address, Trump made only a passing reference to the virus, promising, "my administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat."

Asked by Woodward in May if he remembered O'Brien's January 28 warning that the virus would be the biggest national security threat of his presidency, Trump equivocated. "No, I don't." Trump said. "I'm sure if he said it — you know, I'm sure he said it. Nice guy."

The book highlights how the President took all of the credit and none of the responsibility for his actions related to the pandemic, which has infected 6 million Americans and killed more than 185,000 in the US.

"The virus has nothing to do with me," Trump told Woodward in their final interview in July. "It's not my fault. It's — China let the damn virus out."

'It goes through the air'

When Woodward spoke to Trump on February 7, two days after he was acquitted on impeachment charges by the Senate, Woodward expected a lengthy conversation about the trial. He was surprised, however, by the President's focus on the virus. At the same time that Trump and his public health officials were saying the virus was "low risk," Trump divulged to Woodward that the night before he'd spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the virus. Woodward quotes Trump as saying, "We've got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China."

"It goes through the air," Trump said. "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."

But Trump spent most of the next month saying that the virus was "very much under control" and that cases in the US would "disappear." Trump said on his trip to India on February 25 that it was "a problem that's going to go away," and the next day he predicted the number of US cases "within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero."

By March 19, when Trump told Woodward he was purposely downplaying the dangers to avoid creating a panic, he also acknowledged the threat to young people. "Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people," Trump said.

Publicly, however, Trump has continued to insist just the opposite, saying as recently as August 5 that children were "almost immune."

Even into April, when the US became the country with the most confirmed cases in the world, Trump's public statements contradicted his acknowledgements to Woodward. At an April 3 coronavirus task force briefing, Trump was still downplaying the virus and stating that it would go away. "I said it's going away and it is going away," he said. Yet two days later on April 5, Trump again told Woodward, "It's a horrible thing. It's unbelievable," and on April 13, he said, "It's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it."

'Dangerous' and 'unfit'

Woodward, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, conducted hundreds of hours of confidential background interviews with firsthand witnesses for "Rage," and he obtained "notes, emails, diaries, calendars and confidential documents," including more than two dozen letters Trump exchanged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Woodward is known to record his interviews with the permission of his subjects and sources.

He writes that when he attributes exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions, that information comes either from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge or documents.

Trump's conscious downplaying of the coronavirus is one of numerous revelations in "Rage." The book is filled with anecdotes about top Cabinet officials blindsided by tweets, frustrated with Trump's inability to focus and scared about his next policy directive because he refused to accept facts or listen to experts:

-- Mattis is quoted as saying Trump is "dangerous," "unfit," has "no moral compass" and took foreign policy actions that showed adversaries "how to destroy America." After Mattis left the administration, he and Coats discussed whether they needed to take "collective action" to speak out publicly against Trump. Mattis says he ultimately resigned after Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, "when I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid."

-- Woodward writes that Coats and his top staff members "examined the intelligence as carefully as possible," and that Coats still questions the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Coats saw how extraordinary it was for the president's top intelligence official to harbor such deep suspicions about the president's relationship with Putin. But he could not shake them."

-- Trump has come under fire in recent days for reportedly making disparaging remarks about US military personnel and veterans. Woodward's book includes an anecdote where an aide to Mattis heard Trump say in a meeting, "my f---ing generals are a bunch of pussies" because they cared more about alliances than trade deals. Mattis asked the aide to document the comment in an email to him. And Trump himself criticized military officials to Woodward over their view that alliances with NATO and South Korea are the best bargain the US makes. "I wouldn't say they were stupid, because I would never say that about our military people," Trump said. "But if they said that, they -- whoever said that was stupid. It's a horrible bargain ... they make so much money. Costs us $10 billion. We're suckers."

-- Woodward reports that Trump's national security team expressed concerns the US may have come close to nuclear war with North Korea amid provocations in 2017. "We never knew whether it was real," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quoted as saying, "or whether it was a bluff." But it was so serious that Mattis slept in his clothes to be ready in case there was a North Korean launch and repeatedly went to the Washington National Cathedral to pray.

-- Trump boasted to Woodward about a new secret weapons system. "I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before," Trump said. Woodward says other sources confirmed the information, without providing further details, but expressed surprise that Trump disclosed it.

-- Woodward obtained the 27 "love letters" Trump exchanged with Kim Jong Un, 25 of which have not been reported publicly. The letters, filled with flowery language, provide a fascinating window into their relationship. Kim flatters Trump by repeatedly calling him "Your Excellency," and writes in one letter that meeting again would be "reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film." In another, Kim writes that the "deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force." CNN has obtained the transcripts of two of the letters.

-- Trump's son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner also weighs in with some unusual literary insights about his father-in-law. Kushner is quoted as saying that four texts are key to understanding Trump, including "Alice in Wonderland." Kushner paraphrased the Cheshire Cat: "If you don't know where you're going, any path will get you there."

-- Woodward pressed Trump on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Once again, Trump dismissed the US intelligence assessment and defends bin Salman: "He says very strongly that he didn't do it."

-- Trump insulted his predecessors, saying Woodward made former President George W. Bush "look like a stupid moron, which he was." Trump said of former President Barack Obama: "I don't think Obama's smart ... I think he's highly overrated. And I don't think he's a great speaker." He also tells Woodward that Kim Jong Un thought Obama was an "asshole."

-- Woodward discussed the Black Lives Matter protests and suggested to the President that people like the two of them -- "White, privileged" -- need to work to understand the anger and pain that Black people feel in the US. "You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you," Trump responded, repeating his outrageous talking point that he's done more for the Black community than any president besides Abraham Lincoln.

-- Woodward reports new details on Russia's election meddling, writing that the NSA and CIA have classified evidence the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, St. Lucie and Washington. While there was no evidence the malware had been activated, Woodward writes, it was sophisticated and could erase voters in specific districts. The voting system vendor used by Florida was also used in states across the country.

'Dynamite behind the door'

"Rage" is a follow-up to Woodward's 2018 bestselling book "Fear," which portrayed a chaotic White House in which aides hid papers from Trump to protect the country from what they viewed as his most dangerous impulses.

While Trump slammed "Fear," he also complained that he didn't speak to Woodward for the book, which resulted in his agreeing to extensive interviews for "Rage."

However, on August 14, Trump preemptively attacked Woodward's new book, tweeting, "The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been."

Throughout the book, Trump provides insights into his view of the presidency. He tells Woodward when you're running the country, "There's dynamite behind every door."

After his 18 interviews, Woodward issues a stark verdict: Trump is the "dynamite behind the door." Woodward concludes his book with a declaration that "Trump is the wrong man for the job."

This story has been updated.