Trump admitted to downplaying COVID-19 threat in taped interviews with Bob Woodward

President Donald Trump knew that the coronavirus was a serious, deadly threat to Americans early into the pandemic, despite publicly downplaying the virus, according to journalist Bob Woodward.

At a news conference Wednesday, Trump said he downplayed the threat of COVID-19 out of fear of causing panic.

“I’m a cheerleader for this country," the president said. "I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic.”

The Washington Post and CNN shared audio from interviews between Woodward and Trump which were used for the reporter’s upcoming book, “Rage.” The book is set for release on Sept. 15.

According to Woodward, national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned Trump about the threat of the virus in a Jan. 28 top secret intelligence briefing. He told Trump that COVID-19 would be “the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”

Days later, Trump told Woodward that the coronavirus “is deadly stuff” and could be as many as five times deadlier than the flu, CNN reported.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, according to the Post. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

Around the same time, the president publicly suggested that the virus would likely “go away” in April and insisted that, “We have (the virus) very much under control in this country.”

“It’s going to disappear,” Trump told reporters on Feb. 27. “One day -- it’s like a miracle -- it will disappear.”

In a March 19 interview with Woodward, Trump acknowledged that growing evidence showed young people were at risk of serious complications from COVID-19, and not just older people, as initially thought. Still, he told Woodward that he “wanted to always play it down.”

“I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” he said.

An analysis released in May by Columbia University showed that if the U.S. had implemented broad social distancing measures a week earlier than it had in March, about 36,000 deaths related to COVID-19 could have been avoided, according to NPR.

At a news conference Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that Trump never downplayed or lied about the threat posed by the virus.

“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID,” she said. “The president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that. … One day, COVID will go away. That is a fact.”

The United States leads the world with the most coronavirus cases and the highest death toll. Since the start of the pandemic, officials have confirmed more than 6.3 million infections and reported more than 189,000 deaths nationwide, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins.

As of Wednesday, more than 27.6 million COVID-19 cases have been reported worldwide and more than 898,000 people have died of the viral infection, according to Johns Hopkins.