This was excerpted from the September 10 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
More than 190,000 Americans are dead. Millions have lost their jobs. Countless businesses are in ruins. A generation of kids hasn’t gone to school for months.
Yet despite knowing that the coronavirus was highly dangerous, viciously contagious and much worse than even the most severe flu, President Donald Trump delayed mobilizing the US government immediately. Worse, he refused to share what he knew and warn the American people, insisting everything would be fine.
Oh yes, and it’s all on tape.
A dark storm that has been building for weeks over the White House — in the form of a new book by reporting legend Bob Woodward — burst midmorning on Wednesday. Even by the standards of the Trump administration, this was a political blockbuster to end all blockbusters.
The book “Rage,” due to be published next week, lays bare the most staggering act of presidential negligence of modern times. Unlike the scandals of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, in which political corruption and personal failings mushroomed into cover-ups and abuses of power, Trump’s transgression shows that he abrogated the most basic duty of a president: safeguarding the health and safety of the American people.
It was clear from his actions for months that Trump publicly denied the potency of the virus and played down its impact. But to hear him say that he knew better in audio recordings made by Woodward is something else. By the way, Election Day is less than eight weeks away.
What we’ve learned
‘This is deadly stuff’
Trump told Woodward in a February 7 interview that Covid-19 was airborne and “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.” Yet for weeks afterward, the President told Americans that it was comparable to the flu and predicted that the virus would just go away.
Fears of nuclear war
Woodward’s reporting also delves into topics beyond the pandemic. He quotes top US security officials saying they feared a nuclear war with North Korea amid tensions in 2017. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis slept in his clothes in case of a launch by the isolated state, and repeatedly went to Washington National Cathedral to pray, according to Woodward.
Once they were talking, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un reportedly flattered Trump in what the President has called “love letters,” writing that another meeting would be like a scene from “a fantasy film” and describing their relationship as a “magical force.”
A secret weapon
Trump boasted to Woodward that the US has a new secret nuclear weapons system. Defense sources confirmed the mystery weapon.
‘We would have saved lives’
Reacting to the Woodward revelations, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Wednesday that he would have taken more drastic actions to curb the pandemic earlier. “If we had known that earlier, we would have shut the state meaningfully earlier. We would have gone to a mandatory masking policy meaningfully earlier. We would have had a stay-at-home mandate put in place, all of which we did and we did it about as early as any American state but we would have done it earlier and undoubtedly would have saved lives,” he told CNN’s Pam Brown. “I can’t tell you, as I sit here, how many we would have saved, but there’s no question in my mind we would have saved lives.”
A legendary nuisance
Every president since Richard Nixon has had a Woodward problem: Refuse to talk to the unparalleled muckraker, and risk letting others tell the story of their White House. Talk to him, and you may be caught out by what he already knows.
Trump didn’t speak to Woodward for the journalist’s first damning account of his administration, “Fear.” For the sequel, with characteristic egotism, the President defied his own aides, apparently sure that he could handle the veteran Washington Post reporter and often calling him in the witching hours.
But Woodward, 77, enjoys almost mystical status in Washington — not least because he was played by Robert Redford in the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men.” There are recent stories of Woodward knocking late at night on the door at the home of a senior official who’d been dodging him. He sits between daily journalism and the work of historians, seeking out what he and his Watergate partner, Carl Bernstein, describe as “the best obtainable version of the truth,” starting with lower level officials and working his way up to the top.
He has his critics, too. Some have complained that Woodward flatters his sources to such an extent that presidential factotums who agree to speak to him take on a far more prominent insider role in his books than they enjoy in reality. Others have questioned his method of using “deep background” anonymous sources sometimes. Still others, like Bill Clinton and former CIA chief George Tenet, have complained that his accounts lack context or dwell on gossip and not substance.
Nevertheless, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also led the CIA, once said he wished he could have recruited Woodward for his “extraordinary ability to get otherwise responsible adults to spill (their) guts to him, on background.” And with a President on tape this time, Woodward has got his biggest scoop since Watergate.
‘You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you’
“You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you,” Trump responded when Woodward asked if the President’s privilege — as a white man born with a silver spoon in his mouth — could have blinded him to the struggles of others, particularly Black Americans. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all,” he continued. Trump inherited tens of millions from his father, Fred Trump, who initiated him into the real estate business and reportedly funded his ventures, including Trump Tower. (Above: Father and son at a Trump development in Brooklyn in 1973 ).
‘First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us’
Thousands of miles away, another legendary journalist says she is being harassed at her home for standing up to a President known as “Europe’s last dictator.” On Wednesday, Belarusian writer and 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich announced that she was the sole remaining opposition figure in capital city Minsk not detained or in exile.
“There is no one left of my friends and associates in the opposition’s Coordination Council,” she wrote in a statement released by the Belarusian PEN Center. The council advocates a peaceful end to the 26-year rule of embattled President Alexander Lukashenko, in the wake of disputed elections last month.
“First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us. But hundreds of others will come and fill the places of those who have been taken from our ranks. It is the whole country which has risen up, not just the Coordination Council,” she wrote.
She ended the statement saying, “And now there is another unknown person ringing at my door.”
Orange skies above
Orange skies due to wildfires covered San Francisco on Wednesday, making Sneha Patil, who captured the images above, feel like she was on another planet. “It was surreal,” Patil wrote. “It felt like I had woken up to the skies in Mars!”