President Trump on Wednesday acknowledged that he downplayed the novel coronavirus earlier this year, arguing that he wanted to "reduce panic" about the spreading disease by publicly minimizing its threat.
Trump's remarks to reporters came as he faced renewed scrutiny over his handling of the pandemic following the release of audio recordings of his interviews with Bob Woodward for the journalist's new book.
In the recordings, the president privately acknowledged that COVID-19 was "deadly" in early February, despite publicly dismissing concerns about the virus around that time.
"If you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that's so," Trump said Wednesday afternoon when asked if he downplayed the virus or misled the public to avoid panic.
"The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country," Trump continued. "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. We want to show strength as a nation," he added.
Trump did not contest the idea that his efforts to downplay the threat of the virus was part of an intentional strategy.
"We don't want to have to show panic. We're not going to show panic, and that's exactly what I did," he said. "And I was very open, whether it's to Woodward or anybody else — it's just another political hit job — but whether it was Woodward or anybody else, you cannot show a sense of panic or you're going to have bigger than you ever had before."
The remarks marked Trump's first response to the uproar over his comments to Woodward in the journalist's forthcoming book, "Rage," due out next week. Audio recordings from Woodward's interviews with Trump were released earlier Wednesday. In them, Trump tells Woodward that he "wanted to always play [the virus] down" to avoid creating a panic.
But the president was privately aware of the threat of the virus as early as February, before it was known to be widespread in the U.S.
"It goes through the air," Trump said of COVID-19 on Feb. 7, according to audio published by CNN. "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."
Publicly, Trump downplayed the threat of the virus repeatedly. He compared it to the common flu in February, and he predicted that the virus would dissipate in April when the weather warmed. He has on multiple occasions argued the virus will be "going away," even as scientists note it will not be eradicated without widespread vaccine distribution.
Trump on Wednesday defended his response to the virus, saying the government had done an "incredible job" and questioning why administration officials had not gotten more media praise.