WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump acknowledged in February he knew how deadly and contagious the novel coronavirus was but did not convey that information to the American people because he did not want to create a panic, according to Trump interviews cited in a new book.
The recorded interviews, obtained by CNN and based on a new book entitled Rage by journalist Bob Woodward, came out just weeks before the Nov 3 presidential election and as Trump's efforts to battle Covid-19 have come under intense criticism as being too little too late.
The Republican president, who has been hammered by Democratic opponent Joe Biden over the slow US government response to the coronavirus, played down the virus for months as it took hold and spread quickly across the country.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward on March 19, days after he declared a national emergency.
"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
In that conversation, Trump also told Woodward that some "startling facts" had just come out about the virus' targets: "It's not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people."
Trump on Wednesday defended his handling of the virus, which has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States so far, with new cases spiking in the Midwest.
"The fact is I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don't want people to be frightened," Trump said at a White House event.
"We've done well from any standard," he added.
According to the interviews, CNN and The Washington Post reported, Trump knew the virus was especially deadly in early February.
"It goes through the air," Trump said in a recording of a Feb 7 interview with Woodward.
"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."
A week after that interview, Trump said at a White House briefing that the number of US coronavirus cases "within a couple days is going to be down close to zero."
Some Senate Republicans defended Trump's coronavirus response on Wednesday.
"His actions of shutting the economy down were the right actions," Trump ally Lindsey Graham said. "And I think the tone during that time sort of spoke for itself."
Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for the book, due to be released Sept 15.
Other revelations in the book include Trump's disparaging remarks about US military leaders. He drew criticism this week following reports that he denigrated fallen military personnel and veterans.
In Woodward's book, an aide to former Defence Secretary James Mattis heard Trump say in a meeting, "my f***ing generals are a bunch of p***ies" because they cared more about alliances than trade deals.
Mattis asked the aide to document the comment in an email, CNN reported.
Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, Woodward asked Trump his views on the concept of white privilege and whether he feels isolated by that privilege from the plight of Black Americans.
"No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you," Trump replied, according to media reports on the book.
"Wow. No, I don't feel that at all."