At a time when this administration’s lies have been honed and weaponized to the point of functioning as the single most potent source of their ammunition, it’s been long overdue for the kind of reckoning that gets captured behind closed doors and on tape. Three years and eight months into this Presidency is better late than never.

During their 1980’s correspondence, Richard Nixon wrote to Donald Trump, “As you can imagine, she [Pat Nixon] is an expert on politics and predicts that whenever you decide to run for office, you will be a winner!”. The revelation of Bob Woodward’s taped conversations with Trump continues to cement the President’s connections to Nixon, with both men revealing the extent of their behind-the-scenes lies, despite knowing they were being recorded. It’s difficult to divorce Nixon’s White House tapes from Trump’s Woodward tapes; both Presidents are now inextricably tied to Woodward; both knew they were being taped when they let their guards down; both lied to the public and obstructed justice to coverup their crimes. The key difference being that Trump’s lies were a matter of life and death.

“Some Startling Facts Came Out”

Below are just some of the most damning admissions of what Trump told Woodward. It isn’t necessary to list here all the times that Trump contradicted himself publicly within the same timeframe; we know that nearly all of his comments about COVID-19 have been rooted in full throated, head-in-sand denial. Whereas on the Woodward tapes, this private, not-at-all-in-denial version of Trump lays out a near total understanding of COVID-19 with detail and degree as revealing as it is disturbing. Imagine if he, in public and on camera, had shared any of these painfully insightful (reality-based) observations about the magnitude and scale of the virus.

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FEBRUARY 7: “It’s a very tricky situation. It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, 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. You know, people don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?… This is more deadly. This is five percent versus one percent and less than one percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.”

MARCH 19: “Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. Just today and yesterday some startling facts came out. It’s not just older. Young people, too. plenty of young people.”

MARCH 19: “Well I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

APRIL 13: “Bob, it’s so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it….A guy sneezed, innocently, not a horrible – just a sneeze. The entire room bailed out, OK? Including me, by the way.”

APRIL 13: “This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance…So this rips you apart. It is the plague.”

What We Knew In April

While Woodward’s tapes reveal Trump’s full cognizance of COVID-19’s threat, it’s important to recall that there had never been any serious doubt as to whether a U.S. President, who waited until March 11 to both address the nation and the reality of Coronavirus, was not being regularly briefed in earlier months. By April, the investigative reports were pouring in, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien’s and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger’s early warnings. Woodward has fleshed out their attempts to spell out the imminent danger, writing of O’Brien’s attempts to implore Trump, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency”. This is seconded by Pottinger, who “compared it to the 1918 flu pandemic”. When Woodward asked Trump on May 6th about this, the President claimed that he just could not recall being briefed on nothing less than the single most pressing national security threat, saying, “No, no. No, I don’t. No, I don’t. I’m sure if he said it – you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”

We knew on April 6th, when the New York Times reported “Trade Adviser Warned White House in January of Risks of a Pandemic – A memo from Peter Navarro is the most direct warning known to have circulated at a key moment among top administration officials.” The first memo on January 29, stated, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil. This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” The second memo, dated February 23, warned, “There is an increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”  Both memos were leaked the following day and employ the kind of dire language totally at odds with the Administration’s company line of downplaying.

We knew on April 11th, when the New York Times posted, He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus” which revealed a conversation that took place close to Trump’s March 11 televised address announcing the European travel restrictions, “O’Brien, the national security adviser, who had been worried about the virus for weeks, sounded exasperated as he told [Treasury Secretary, Steve] Mnuchin that the economy would be destroyed regardless if officials did nothing.”

We knew on April 27th when the Washington Post published,“President’s Intelligence Briefing Book Repeatedly Cited Virus Threat” which confirmed, “U.S. intelligence agencies issued warnings about the novel coronavirus in more than a dozen classified briefings prepared for President Trump in January and February, months during which he continued to play down the threat, according to current and former U.S. officials.”

The Other Long-Running Lie Trump Admitted To Not Believing, Revealed the Same Day as The Woodward Tapes

There was yet more seismic evidence that another one of his biggest lies was fully exposed just in the last few weeks. Lost in the headlines, Trump’s former lawyer / fixer Michael Cohen recently shed light on Trump’s mindset during his years-long crusade of laundering racism through birtherism. On September 9th, the same day the Woodward story dropped, Cohen spoke with Rachel Maddow about his book, Disloyal: A Memoir.

Image of Cohen’s book during MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow on Sept. 9.

Maddow: “There’s something you described in terms of the President’s mindset that stuck with me in a way that I feel like resonates as very true and I can’t quite put my finger on how it works. It’s about the birtherism thing…you said in the book that the President didn’t necessarily actually believe that President Obama was born in a foreign country, but he liked the effect that it had for him to advance this theory…On page 114, you said he liked doing things like that, “The more divisive the better. Because it would arouse strong feelings for those who took his side.” I think a lot of us observing the Trump Presidency have seen how incredibly divisive he is. How he tries to pit people against each other whenever he can. Why does that redound to his advantage? How does that work in his favor?”

Cohen: Donald Trump is like a cult leader. And he’s very Stalinistic in the fact that he repeats things over and over and over again with the theory that if you continuously say the same thing over and over, people will believe it…He’s devoid of empathy. He doesn’t care what he says. He doesn’t care who gets hurt so long as he wins. And when he saw his poll numbers and popularity and the number of times that he’s gracing the front cover of the newspaper is increasing, he just added on to it. All of a sudden, he was “sending people to Hawaii to go check”. That’s a lie, he never sent anybody anywhere…He just said it and everybody sort of bought into it…He didn’t want to spend the money and he didn’t believe it.”

The discussed passage from the book: “Trump recognized a great marketing opportunity when he saw one…Like an old-timed carnival barker, really like the greatest showman and promoter of all time, P.T. Barnum, Trump recognized the potential instinctively. No matter what anyone says, including Trump, I know for a fact that he didn’t care if the conspiracy theory was true or not. He didn’t care where Obama had been born or the insult it was to the President and his family, let alone the crude racism lurking barely below the surface. What he cared about was identifying an issue that he could exploit to his advantage, no matter how divisive. In fact, the more divisive, the better. Because it would arouse feeling for those who took his side.”

The Under-Reported Reason That Makes These Lies Different

There are two pressing reasons why the lies matter, but only one seems to have broken through. The first one is straightforward: what he told Woodward was the polar opposite of what he said to the public. Which, in turn, means that had the President issued the same harrowing warnings of the virality and lethality of COVID-19 to the American people, and not Bob Woodward, the state of the nation could have been better off by all metrics.

The second, undercovered reason why the lies matter is because we now know that Trump was fully cognizant of the lies that he was telling everyone since January about all things COVID-19. That is brand new information. Take another look at his quotes – his ability to articulate, rather remarkably, to Woodward unveils a full and total grasp of the gravity of the situation. The extent of his full command of the pandemic’s unique threat is also brand new information. On top of all of that, he spelled out for Woodward that he knew he was lying, he spelled out the reasons why he lied and then articulated what he was thinking to coverup his lies. In other words, consciousness of guilt, which the public did not learn of until September 9th.

This is something separate and apart from the ongoing debate about whether the media should call Trump’s lies “lies”;  it’s understood that the default argument is that we don’t know what’s in someone’s head. We can even sidestep when all common sense, logic and evidence points to someone offering bad faith arguments and disingenuous takes. Setting all of that aside, the media has a new incentive to cover this part of his presidency markedly different now that there’s documented evidence about his self-awareness of downplaying nothing less than a full blown global pandemic.

How The Tapes Offer A Reset For The Media, Especially The Debate Moderators

All journalists (and debate moderators) who ask him questions from this point forward have just been given a significant opportunity; the directive to press him as to whether his answers would be different behind closed doors. For quite some time, one of the biggest challenges for the media has been how to cover the way his conspiracy theories (like birtherism) and dangerous downplaying (anything related to COVID-19) appear to be conscious, willful lies. The September 9th revelations have the potential to change both of those things.

So, in light of the news that he never believed his racist conspiracy theory of birtherism, but spent years pushing it right up until the 2016 Election, there’s a newfound opportunity for reporters to ask him if he pretended otherwise in order to get more votes.

“All journalists (and debate moderators) who ask him questions from this point forward have just been given a significant opportunity; the directive to press him as to whether his answers would be different behind closed doors.”

Now that we know he didn’t believe that COVID-19 was Democrats’“new hoax” which,One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear, but instead definitely subscribed to sentiments like, “it’s more deadly than even your strenuous flus… deadly stuff…that it’s not just old — it’s plenty of young people… it’s so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it… This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance…So this rips you apart…It is the plague”, journalists can take advantage of this revelation and ask if his private comments differed from his public comments in order to get more votes.

Before citizens cast their ballots, debate moderators have a new chance to clarify whether he believed it when he peddled climate-change-as-Chinese-hoax propaganda with statements like, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”, or if instead, he’s ever said anything differently about the dangers of climate change in private, to the effect of, “to be honest, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down,” in order to get more votes.

If a President is going to use the awesome powers of the office to delude millions of voters while aligning himself with wildly dangerous conspiracy theories like QAnon that explicitly promote violence, journalists have newly substantive purpose to ask him if he’s doing so because he’s a true believer, or if he’s repeating their talking points in order to get more votes.

Why This Time Could Be Different

Millions of people believe that the President means what he says when he tweets it. All the while, he says things not because he believes them, but because they’re provocative, will drive social media algorithms / search engine traffic and provide distracting headlines for the media. In other words, we already know the lies are to get more votes.

The idea behind putting these questions to him, based on filtering what we know through this new lens of his not believing his own lies when it comes to birtherism and COVID-19, is not with a naïve expectation that he’ll suddenly admit to making things up in order to get more votes. The purpose is to not normalize and not lose sight of the fact that as of two weeks ago, this President can no longer cling to denying that he did not believe what he knew and when he knew it.


Brent Korson
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Brent Korson is a writer / documentary producer living in NYC whose work runs the gamut from environmental justice to spotlighting corruption. His production experience includes projects for PBS, NBC, Nat Geo, The History Channel, MoveOn.org, The Sundance Channel and Pennebaker Hegedus films. Editorial and writing experience includes work with Interview, Time Out NY and AV Network and Zoetrope: All Story. He’s known for his passion towards climate-related issues, interest in seeing journalism and news continually course correct itself and belief that Damon Lindelof is the premiere storyteller of our times.