President Donald Trump admitted to downplaying the severity of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in conversations with famed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, a series of tapes released on Wednesday by CNN show. The interviews, which are chronicled in Woodward’s new book, Rage, show that Trump said one thing in private and another in public about the virus. It didn’t take long for legal commentators to call this evidence of a “clearly impeachable offense.”
According to the tapes, Trump told Woodward in early February that COVID-19 was “deadly stuff,” adding that it was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” Trump reiterated that comparison on the same call, telling Woodward the coronavirus spread faster and could potentially be five times “more deadly” than the seasonal flu.
But a month later, in hopes of preventing the nation from shutting down to stymie the spread of the disease, Trump painted the threat in a very different light using the same comparison.
“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!,” the president tweeted on March 9.
Ten days later, on March 19, Trump told Woodward that COVID-19 didn’t just effect the elderly but “young people too, plenty of young people.” During that same conversation, the president also admitted that he understated the risks to temper public anxiety over the pandemic.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said, despite having declared a national emergency six days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist and UCLA law professor Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general, said Trump’s conduct was “clearly an impeachable offense.”
“Remember the high crimes and misdemeanors debate?” Litman wrote. “This is clearly an impeachable offense, albeit not a crime. The POTUS lied to the American people for political purposes & easily tens of thousands deaths ensued. How more stark and harmful a dereliction of public duty can you get?”
Litman later added that the president’s conduct amounted to a “clearly impeachable offense/violation of public trust with horrendous deadly consequences.”
Washington, D.C.-based national security attorney Brad Moss similarly said the tapes “should end [Trump’s] presidency,” adding, “If it doesn’t, god help us.”
Former federal prosecutor and top Mueller team lieutenant Andrew Weissmann joined the chorus of criticism. He said that Trump’s words were an admission to endangering U.S. citizens.
“Will this break through? If there are explicit tapes, will Trump still falsely claim, as he did with the Access Hollywood tape, that it is not his voice? As these statements endangered American lives, they certainly can’t be ascribed to ‘locker room banter,’” he tweeted.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who’s also an attorney, went so far as to categorize Trump’s behavior as “reckless homicide”—which, as a legal matter, is too extreme.
“Having read more of the excerpts in the Woodward book where [President Trump] is on tape, I’ve concluded this is not just dereliction of duty by POTUS. Trump repeatedly lied to the American people and that resulted in preventable deaths,” Lieu wrote. “This is reckless homicide.”
[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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