The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, said on Thursday that Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was “almost criminal” as the fallout continued over book revelations that the president admitted in early February that the disease was “deadly stuff” but deliberately played it down.
As the death toll from Covid-19 nears 200,000 in the US, the world’s highest, Biden excoriated his opponent in November’s election, in an interview with CNN, over the way he did not address the dangers of the pandemic early and fully.
“He waved the white flag. He walked away, he didn’t do a damn thing, think about it, and it’s almost criminal,” Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview scheduled to be aired in full on Thursday afternoon.
Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, highlights of which were revealed in his newspaper the Washington Post on Wednesday, features many one-on-one interviews with Trump from late 2019 and into the early summer of 2020, covering the start and the peak of the pandemic in the US.
The journalist who helped break the early 70s Watergate scandal that eventually brought down Richard Nixon discloses that in early February this year, just as the first infections were emerging in the US, Trump knew the extent of the deadly coronavirus threat.
And Trump had been told that it was an airborne disease, and much deadlier than influenza, but he intentionally misled the public by deciding to “play it down”, saying it was under control when it wasn’t and predicting the virus would “disappear”. At the same time he was telling Woodward in taped interviews that “this is deadly stuff”.
On 7 February he told Woodward in a phone call: “It goes through the air. 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.”
Biden said that Trump’s public advice downplaying the virus has “cost lives”.
Biden has spent much of the election season campaigning online from his home in Delaware and has only recently taken to holding in-person campaign events, at which he largely wears a mask.
And he has been unequivocal in his statements that, now and if he became president, he would follow the advice of public health officials and scientists, which Trump has frequently overridden or ignored.
Biden wears a mask in public and strongly advocates that people should follow the advice of the federal science experts to wear masks and keep social distance, whereas Trump largely eschews wearing a mask himself and has supported protests against mask-wearing and social distancing, holding rallies where neither of those measures were observed by most.
“He acknowledged you breathe it and it’s in the air and he will not put on a mask, he said masks are ridiculous, what do you need social distancing for?” an exasperated Biden told Tapper on Thursday.
Biden cited a report by Columbia University Medical School that said if Trump had acted one week earlier in March to curb the virus, about 31,000 people would have been saved, and if he had acted two weeks earlier, more than 50,000 deaths would have been prevented.
“This caused people to die,” Biden said.
Biden asked, rhetorically, why didn’t Trump follow experts’ advice on rules about public behavior.
“It’s all about making sure that the stock market did not come down and his rich friends didn’t lose money and that anything that happened had nothing to do with him.”
On Wednesday, Trump acknowledged that he had played down the dangers of the virus to the public to stop people panicking, and that leadership was about showing confidence.
When asked about this by CNN, Biden said: “Yeah, and that’s why we have no confidence in his leadership.”