In mid-March, as the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic had become undeniable to all but the conspiracy theorists and cranks, President Trump tried to backfill his earlier downplaying of the virus by claiming, with characteristic bravado, "I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic."
"I've always viewed it as serious," he said.
This occasioned howls of incredulous laughter and the inevitable official media fact check. Associated Press called B.S. on Trump thusly: [H]is claim doesn't match his rhetoric over the last two months before the World Health Organization declared the virus outbreak a pandemic. Trump instead repeatedly claimed COVID-19 was under 'control' in the U.S. and suggested it would incur little economic damage, possibly disappearing magically by April."
Politifact's Jon Greenberg rated Trump's claim a "Pants on Fire"-level lie: "Until late February, Trump spoke as though the U.S. problem was limited and well under control. That description is at odds with the nature of a pandemic. We can't know what was in Trump's mind when he aimed to reassure the public, but his words did not fit with the threat of a pandemic."
Now, thanks to explosive revelations in Bob Woodward's forthcoming book Rage, we do know what was on Trump's mind." As of February 7, according to a conversation recorded by Woodward, Trump knew COVID-19 was easily transmitted and more lethal than a seasonal flu. "This is deadly stuff," he told Woodward.
Worse, Trump admitted to what was obvious to everyone with eyes to see it: "I wanted to always play it down."
Which means that Donald Trump was telling the truth — sort of — when he made his mid-March pivot and began leveling with the American public.
Of course, Trump being Trump, he wildly overstated the extent of his foreknowledge. He didn't "feel it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," as though the facts had yet to cohere and he alone had spied the truth. He was informed by his national security staff in late January that COVID-19 had the potential to devastate the world like the 1918 flu pandemic and was the "biggest national security threat you face in your presidency."
In conversation with Woodward, Trump defended his rhetoric of minimization; he was merely trying to avoid creating a panic. This is no doubt what his apologists will claim, too, as fallout from the Woodward book continues throughout the next several news cycles.
This, too, is a lie.
Trump was concerned overall with the precipitous drop in the stock market — not street-level panic among average Americans. When it became clear that the market was going to plummet anyway — investors weren't dumb enough to believe Trump and Larry Kudlow on this score — the game was up.
If we need proof that Trump wasn't projecting a stiff upper lip to reassure a jittery public, look at what wasn't being done behind the scenes in January and February: No ramp-up of testing or contact tracing capability. No increase in the stockpile of personal protective equipment. No emergency manufacture of ventilators.
The Trump administration's private posture over the winter matched its public posture: His head was in the sand. No machines were going brrr behind the scenes.
His money, as it were, was where his mouth was: hoping for a miracle.
Just so there's no misunderstanding, I'm not saying Trump deserves retroactive credit for telling the truth back in March.
What's clear now is that even when he tells an approximation of the truth, Trump still manages to tell a lie.