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Trump Says He Downplayed Coronavirus Threat In U.S. To Avert Panic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Moving to politics now, President Trump admitted that he downplayed the risk of the coronavirus for a very specific reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...

BOB WOODWARD: Yes.

TRUMP: ...Because I don't want to create a panic.

MARTIN: That's what Trump told journalist Bob Woodward for his new book. And what you heard was an excerpt from a recording released by The Washington Post. But the president's claim of not wanting to create panic doesn't ring true when you look at his messaging over the last four years. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It's hard to even count all the times President Trump has told the public not to worry about the corona virus, like this from March 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And we're prepared. We're doing a great job with it. And it will go away. If you stay calm, it will go away.

KEITH: Trump defended this approach yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I don't want to jump up and down and start screaming death, death because that's not what it's about.

KEITH: Though more than 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and the number keeps rising. The president says he sees himself as a cheerleader for the nation, keeping panic at bay. But that is at odds with the way he's talked about other threats, those where fear might work to his political advantage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Caravan after caravan after caravan of illegal aliens.

(BOOING)

KEITH: That was President Trump campaigning in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, talking about Central American migrants seeking asylum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: To flood into our country and overwhelm your communities. That's what's happening. Have you seen the pictures?

KEITH: More recently, he said that everyone should be afraid, very afraid of low-income housing destroying the suburbs and anarchists coming to people's towns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The protections of American citizenship will be stripped away, and your community will be left at the mercy of the mob. I mean, I'm saying these things, but I mean them.

KEITH: If he loses the election and Democrats win, Trump claims in apocalyptic terms that the currently struggling economy will crash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Your stocks will be down to nothing. And we will have a depression like you've never seen before.

KEITH: And then there are hurricanes, where, like with a pandemic, a dose of fear and preparation can save lives. And with storms, Trump is there to play up the potential for danger, the likes of which you have never seen before - every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It seems to be one of the biggest hurricanes we've ever seen. And that's a problem. That's a problem.

JENNIFER MERCIECA: It's incongruous on its face.

KEITH: Jennifer Mercieca from Texas A&M University has written a book about how Trump wields language.

MERCIECA: Trump routinely uses fear appeals. He routinely tells you who to be afraid of, whether it's an internal threat or whether it's an external threat to the nation. He uses fear appeals to try to motivate voters.

KEITH: But she says with this truly frightening pandemic, Trump never settled on a way to make it work for him. He went from war-time president leading America into battle with the invisible enemy to again saying it would all just go away eventually and urging everyone to return to normal life. Trump yesterday insisted he was taking it seriously and then in the next breath returned to cheerleading.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're going to get through this. And we're right now, I hope - really think we're going to - we're rounding the final turn.

KEITH: Though on the same day Trump said, we're rounding the final turn, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned, quote, "We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter because it's not going to be easy." Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "REACTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.