White House Denies Trump Downplayed Covid Even Though He Admits It on Tape

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on September 9, 2020. MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty

"I wanted to always play (coronavirus) down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," Donald Trump admitted to journalist Bob Woodward in a March 19 interview that was taped.

Despite that admission, revealed Wednesday along with other excerpts and tapes from Woodward's 18 interviews with the president since December, the White House claims Trump never downplayed the disease.

"The president never downplayed the virus," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday.

Referencing a stack of detailed notes and timelines, McEnany set out to refute the damning admissions contained in Woodward's forthcoming book, Rage.

"The president has never lied to the American public on Covid," she said.

According to Woodward's book and recorded conversations made public Wednesday, Trump knew that the virus was highly-contagious and deadly—even before the United States had reported a single Covid-19-related death.

"This is deadly stuff," Trump told Woodward on February 7.

Three days later at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, Trump told his supporters, "I think it's going to all work out fine," and suggested that it would "go away" by April.

McEnany described Trump's efforts as trying to keep Americans calm.

"He makes clear he doesn't want to see chaos," she said. "This president does what good leaders do."

But health officials have scrutinized the Trump administration's slow response to the virus—it was slow to warn people fully about the dangers, frequently compared it to a seasonal flu, and didn't encourage preventive measures like mask-wearing until months after Trump's first admission to Woodward.

"No one is lying to the American people," McEnany said, when asked about the president's frequent claim. "One day Covid will go away.... that is a fact."

Woodward writes in his book, which CNN and the Washington Post acquired copies of along with tapes ahead of its September 15 release, that national security adviser Robert O'Brien gave Trump a "jarring" warning about the virus during a January 28 intelligence briefing. He warned Trump it would be the "biggest national security threat" of his presidency.

"Hopefully, everything's going to be great," Trump told supporters at an Iowa rally two days later. "They (China) have somewhat of a problem, but hopefully, it's all going to be great."

McEnany stood by the president's response before cutting off the briefing after about 25 minutes.

"The president was expressing calm," she said. "The president was hopeful."