The lesson of Bob Woodward’s book: When in a crisis, Trump resorts to lying | Mike Kelly

In late January, in what now seems like another lifetime, I found myself in the crowd at a rally for Donald Trump.

The nearly 8,000 Trump supporters that night inside the Wildwood Convention Center — and several thousand more outside — were charged up by the prospect of the president’s visit.

They cheered. They waved flags. They proudly displayed their hats and T-shirts inscribed with Trump’s campaign brands, “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great.”

President Donald Trump speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When Trump took the stage, I turned and looked into the eyes of a middle-aged woman next to me, wearing a MAGA baseball cap. She said this was her third Trump rally, then paused as if to anticipate my question: Why do you come?

“You never know what he’s going to say,” she said, chuckling.  

Those words hang like a warning sign now, all these months later, as America is left to make sense of the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book that Trump deliberately downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 because he did not want to set off a panic.

Appropriately, the book is titled “Rage.” And not surprisingly, several significant rage-infused questions are worth assessing here.

First — and this does not involve Trump: Why didn’t Woodward, who earned his stripes nearly a half-century ago in the Watergate investigation, disclose this information sooner?  

COVID-19 is a mass killer. Nearly 200,000 Americans have died — so far. Holding back vital information is not just a matter of journalistic pride; it’s a health issue. Journalistic scoops are not worth dying for.

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Woodward offers several excuses, some lame and some worthwhile. For instance, he worried that Trump might not have been telling him the truth. Fair enough. But the key issue is that any journalist with exclusive information that contradicts what an official is saying publicly ought to report that as soon as possible. Woodward’s delay makes you wonder if he was more concerned with the success of his book, not the growing death toll of fellow Americans.

He needs to speak more on this. Otherwise his well-earned Watergate-based reputation as one of the nation’s most influential journalists could be tarnished.

Woodward’s tactics, however, are secondary to the importance of what Trump actually said — and did. 

Less than two weeks after that Trump rally in Wildwood, Trump spoke to Woodward. 

“This is deadly stuff,” Trump said of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, adding: “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.”

We all know this to be true now. But in early February, most of us were barely focused on the potential threat of COVID-19. And whatever Trump was saying to Woodward in private, he was telling America the opposite from his podium or Twitter feed.

On Feb. 10, just three days after his “deadly stuff” comment to Woodward, Trump told one of his Fox News sycophants that “we’re in very good shape” as a nation. He said — falsely — that the U.S. had just 11 cases “and most of them are getting better very quickly.” 

Two weeks later, Trump announced that America had COVID-19 “very much under control.”

So began one of the worst examples of alternative facts in the history of this nation — surely on par with the train of falsehoods that came from the Pentagon and the White House during the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s lies about Watergate.

On Feb. 26, Trump said COVID-19 was “a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for.”  He went on to predict that “we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” (Yeah, right.)

Then, on Feb. 28, came the whopper of whoppers in which Trump said the rising concerns about COVID-19 by Democrats were “their new hoax.” 

I could go on. 

Remember Trump’s suggestion that Americans could ingest disinfectants? Remember his prediction that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away”? Remember that false proclamation that “anybody that wants a test can get a test”?  Or how about that other false prediction that for “the vast majority of Americans” “the risk is very low.”

It was all BS.

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Trump was just playing the role he is most familiar with: the blowhard salesman. He may be living in the White House, but he was talking like the star of “The Apprentice” or the guy who proclaimed that his silly casino with the turrets on the Atlantic City boardwalk that would eventually go bankrupt was the “Eighth wonder of the world.” 

Such was the public Trump. 

With Woodward, Trump offered a far different narrative. And what’s striking is not Trump’s lying. We expect that from Trump. What I found so much more interesting is Trump’s grasp of the inherent dangers of COVID-19.

This was not a man who misunderstood the nature of the enemy he was facing in the growing pandemic. Trump seemed to understand it all too well. 

So why did he push two narratives — the private one with Woodward in which he sounded alarms, and another with the public in which he seemed so dismissive of science?

Ever since the news of Woodward’s book emerged on Wednesday, Trump has been spinning out a series of explanations that mostly come down to his desire to avoid panic in America. If you believe him, he essentially wanted to con the American public into believing that nothing was wrong. You half-expected him to say, “Oh, don’t worry. This won’t hurt.” 

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The problem here is the reality on the ground in America. Apparently Trump did not notice all the bodies piling up in New York City and New Jersey hospitals and nursing homes. He didn’t notice the refrigerated trucks that were needed to hold those bodies until funeral homes could collect them. He didn’t notice all the graves being dug.

Or maybe he did.

Maybe Trump knew exactly what was happening. But he just chose to ignore it, hoping that the summer’s heat would kill off the virus just as it often does with the seasonal flu.

We know better now. As we slip into autumn and await the possible double-whammy health crisis of flu and COVID-19, we now have Donald Trump’s own words.

He didn’t want anyone to panic because of so much sickness in the nation. Of course, he doesn’t seem to mind trying to foment panic in America’s suburbs by the words he chooses to describe rising protests against police brutality.

So he lied.

This is Trump’s legacy. 

Whether he’s reelected or not will not change history. When America needed a president to tell the truth, Donald Trump resorted to lies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. This is the Donald Trump we’ve known for decades.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com Twitter: @mikekellycolumn