An interview with top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro on Sunday went off the rails after he was pressed about revelations last week that President Donald Trump intentionally downplayed coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic.
Clashing with host Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Navarro’s interview cut out as the two men began shouting over one another.
Tapper confronted Navarro about Trump’s tape-recorded comments in journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” set to be released this week. In it, Trump told Woodward in a Feb. 7 phone call that coronavirus “is deadly stuff” and worse than the flu. After that conversation, though, Trump publicly downplayed the virus and repeatedly compared it to the flu.
“In February nobody knew,” Navarro said of the novel coronavirus’ potential impact, despite Trump’s comments to Woodward, which were taped. “No, nobody knew. Not the president, not you, not Nancy Pelosi, not Bill de Blasio.”
Navarro then accused Tapper of “cherry-picking” comments the president made. Tapper responded by saying that Trump “was not honest with the American people” about the virus’ impact.
“You’re not honest with the American people,” Navarro said. “CNN is not honest with the American people.”
Navarro also pointed to Trump’s decision to bar some travelers from China in late January, a step he said proved the president viewed the virus as “a serious, serious matter.”
Navarro described the White House strategy from this time as “hope for the best, prepare for the worst, stay calm and begin to attack” the virus. He added that he authored a memo on Feb. 9, two days after Trump’s phone call with Woodward, outlining the need for personal protective equipment and therapeutics.
The Woodward revelations have reverberated in Washington, D.C., and on the campaign trail in recent days. Faced with the conflicting statements and recorded remarks in which Trump said he intentionally downplayed the virus publicly, the president has said doing so was necessary to maintain “calm” and that he didn’t want people to “panic,” insisting Thursday he “didn’t lie” to the American public.
“What I said is we have to be calm,” he said of painting a rosier picture than the reality. “We can’t be panicked.”
Speaking to reporters at the White House then, Trump sidestepped a question on why he was telling the public the virus was “like a flu” when he knew earlier it was much more lethal.
“What I went out and said is very simple: I want to show a level of confidence, strength as a leader,” Trump said.
Trump told Woodward in that February call that he knew the virus was airborne, which was not widely known to the public at the time. In March, 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,” Trump said in a recorded March 19 call with Woodward.
More than 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus so far.
“It was a life-and-death betrayal of the American people,” 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said during a campaign stop in Michigan last week. “It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty, a disgrace.”
“He knew how deadly it was. He knew and purposely played it down,” Biden added. “Worse, he lied.”