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Excerpt: Bob Woodward's Rage

Rage is a non-fiction book by the American journalist Bob Woodward about the presidency of Donald Trump, published by Simon & Schuster. Here is an excerpt of the book. Click here to order your copy.


by Bob Woodward

During the Top Secret President’s Daily Brief the afternoon of Tuesday, January 28, 2020, discussion in the Oval Office turned to a mysterious pneumonia-like virus outbreak in China. Public health officials and President Trump himself were telling the public the virus was low-risk for the United States.



“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, told Trump, expressing a jarring, contrarian view as deliberately and as strongly as possible.

Trump’s head popped up. He asked the intelligence PDB briefer, Beth Sanner, several questions. She said China was worried, and the intelligence community was monitoring it, but it looked like this would not be anything nearly as serious as the deadly 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

“This is going to be the toughest thing you face,” persisted O’Brien from his seat around the Resolute Desk, well aware that Trump was only midway through his impeachment trial in the Senate, which had begun twelve days earlier and was consuming his attention. O’Brien believed the national security adviser had to try to see around corners, a duty to warn of an impending disaster. And this problem was urgent, not some geopolitical issue that might happen three years down the road. This virus could develop very quickly in the United States.

O’Brien, 53, a lawyer, author and former international hostage negotiator, was Trump’s fourth national security adviser. He had been in the key post only four months and did not consider himself a pound-your- st-on-the-table kind of person, but he felt passionate that the outbreak was a real threat.

“I agree with that conclusion,” said Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, from a couch further back in the Oval Office. Trump knew Pottinger, 46, who had been with the National Security Council sta for three years since the beginning of the Trump presidency, was uniquely, almost perfectly, qualified to deliver such an assessment.

His warning was authoritative and carried great weight. Pottinger had lived in China seven years and been a Wall Street Journal reporter there during the SARS outbreak. A China scholar, he spoke ùuent Mandarin.

A able, profane and a workaholic, Pottinger also was a decorated former Marine intelligence o cer, a job that culminated in coauthoring an in uential report about the inadequacies of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Pottinger knew firsthand that the Chinese were masters at concealing trouble and covering it up. He had written over 30 stories about SARS and how the Chinese had intentionally withheld information for months about its seriousness and vastly understated its spread, a mishandling that allowed SARS to move around the globe. The Journal had submitted his work for a Pulitzer Prize.

“What do you know?” Trump asked Pottinger.

For the last four days, Pottinger said he had been working the phones calling doctors in China and Hong Kong he had maintained contact with and who understood the science. He’d also been reading Chinese social media.

“Is this going to be as bad as ’03?” he had asked one of his contacts in China. “Don’t think SARS 2003,” the expert replied. “Think in uenza pandemic
1918.”

Pottinger said he had been oored. The so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide with about 675,000 deaths in the United States.

“Why do you think it will be worse than 2003?” asked the president. Pottinger’s contacts told him three factors were dramatically accelerating the
transmission of the new disease. Contrary to offcial hedged reports from the Chinese government, people were getting the disease easily from other people, not just animals; this is called human-to-human spread. He had just learned that morning it was being spread by people who didn’t show any symptoms; this is

called asymptomatic spread. His best, most authoritative source said 50 percent were infected but showed no symptoms. This meant a once-in-a-lifetime health emergency, a virus out of control with a vast amount of the spread not immediately detectable. And it had already traveled far from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak apparently began. To Pottinger, these were the three alarms of a three-alarm ùre.

Most troubling, Pottinger said, the Chinese had essentially quarantined Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, larger than any American city. People could not travel within China, say from Wuhan to Beijing. But they had not cut o travel from China to the rest of the world, including the United States. That meant a highly infectious and devastating virus was probably already silently streaming into the U.S.

“What do we do about it?” the president asked.

Cut o travel from China to the United States, Pottinger said.

***

Pottinger was con dent the information from his sources was solid, based on hard data, not speculation. He’d launched an in-depth examination of the new virus. The first case outside China had been reported on January 13 in Thailand. Clearly, the virus was spreading human-to-human.
Top officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the nation’s chief public health agency, had also been reporting with increasing alarm to Pottinger that they had been trying for weeks to send the crack U.S. disease detectives from the Epidemic Intelligence Service to China to see what was going on. The Chinese had stonewalled, refusing to cooperate and share samples of the virus as required by international agreement.

The head of the Chinese CDC had sounded like a hostage in one phone call, and the Chinese health minister also refused U.S. assistance.

Pottinger had seen this movie before. He picked up the pace of his calls the weekend of January 24–26. “I came out of that weekend with my hair standing on end,” Pottinger said privately.

Several Chinese elites well connected with the Communist Party and government signaled that they thought China had a sinister goal: “China’s not

going to be the only one to su er from this.” If China was the only country to have mass infections on the scale of the 1918 pandemic, they would be at a massive economic disadvantage. It was a suspicion, but one held by the people who knew the regime best. A frightening possibility. Pottinger, a China hawk, was not ready to make a judgment on China’s intent one way or the other. Most likely the outbreak was accidental. But he was certain the United States was in for an unparalleled health onslaught. And China’s lack of transparency would only make it worse. With SARS the Chinese had egregiously concealed the outbreak of a dangerous new infectious disease for three months.

***

Three days later, on January 31, the president did impose restrictions on travelers from China, a move opposed by a number of his cabinet members. But his public attention was focused on just about everything except the virus: the upcoming Super Bowl, the technological meltdown in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, his State of the Union address and, most importantly, the impeachment trial in the Senate. When the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, known as Covid-19, did come up in settings where he had an opportunity to reach a large number of Americans, Trump continued to reassure the public they faced little risk.

“How concerned are you” about coronavirus? Fox’s Sean Hannity asked Trump on February 2 near the end of a pre–Super Bowl game interview focused largely on the unfairness of impeachment and his 2020 Democratic rivals.

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump said. Something of a pregame presidential tradition, the interview drew the largest ever audience for the controversial and popular talk show host. “We’re offering tremendous help. We have the best in the world for that.… But we can’t have

thousands of people coming in who may have this problem, the coronavirus.” That morning, even National Security Adviser O’Brien, who had issued the ominous warning just days earlier, had said on CBS’s Face the Nation, “Right now, there’s no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low-risk, we think, in the U.S.”


Two days later on February 4, nearly 40 million Americans tuned in to watch the president’s annual State of the Union address, a constitutionally mandated update to Congress about the most pressing issues facing the country. The speech is the highest visibility moment for a president to address matters of great importance. About halfway through the lengthy speech, Trump mentioned coronavirus in one short paragraph. “Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases. We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China,” Trump said. “My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”

That did not, however, include sharing any part of the warning he had received with the public.

When I later asked the president about the warning from O’Brien, he said he didn’t recall it. “You know, I’m sure he said it,” Trump said. “Nice guy.”

And in an interview with President Trump on March 19, six weeks before I learned of O’Brien’s and Pottinger’s warnings, the president said his statements in the early weeks of the virus had been deliberately designed to not draw attention to it.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told me. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

***

Trump called me at home about 9:00 p.m. on Friday, February 7, 2020. Since he had been acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial two days earlier, I expected he would be in a good mood.

“Now we’ve got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China,” he said. He had spoken with President Xi Jinping of China the night before.

“Setback?” I was surprised the virus was on his mind, rather than his acquittal. There were only 12 confirmed cases in the United States. The first reported coronavirus death in the United States was three weeks away. The news had been all impeachment all the time.

The Chinese were very focused on the virus, Trump said.

“I think that that goes away in two months with the heat,” Trump said. “You know as it gets hotter that tends to kill the virus. You know, you hope.”

He added, “We had a great talk for a long time. But we have a good relationship. I think we like each other a lot.”

I reminded the president that in earlier interviews for this book he had told me he had harshly confronted President Xi about the Made in China 2025 plan to overtake the United States and become the world’s leading producer in high-tech manufacturing in 10 industries from driverless cars to biomedicine. “That’s very insulting to me,” Trump had told Xi. The president had also said with ùerce pride that he was “breaking China’s ass on trade” and caused China’s annual economic growth rate to go negative.

“Oh, yeah, we’ve had some arguments,” Trump acknowledged.

So what had President Xi said yesterday?

“Oh, we were talking mostly about the virus,” Trump said.

Why? I wondered. “Mostly?”

“And I think he’s going to have it in good shape,” Trump said, “but you know, it’s a very tricky situation.”

What made it “tricky”?

“It goes through air,” Trump said. “That’s always tougher than 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 ùus.”

“Deadly” was a very strong word. Something was obviously going on here that I was not focused on. Over the next month I would make trips to Florida and the West Coast, oblivious to the mounting pandemic. At this point I also was not aware O’Brien had told the president that the virus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.” I’d heard no one calling for any change in Americans’ behavior other than not traveling to China. Americans went about their daily lives, including more than 60 million who traveled by air domestically that month.

In our call, Trump had surprising detail about the virus.

Trump continued, “Pretty amazing. This is more deadly” than the u, maybe ve times more so.

“This is deadly stu ,” Trump repeated. He praised President Xi. “I think he’s going to do a good job. He built a number of hospitals in record-setting time. They know what they’re doing. They’re very organized. And we’ll see. We’re working with them. We’re sending them things, in terms of equipment and lots of other things. And the relationship is very good. Much better than before. It was strained because of the [trade] deal.”

My firrst book on his presidency, Fear: Trump in the White House, had been published 17 months before this February 7 phone call. Fear described Trump as “an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader” who had created a governing crisis and “a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”

While discussing Fear on television, I was asked for my bottom-line summary of Trump’s leadership. “Let’s hope to God we don’t have a crisis,” I said.

Trump had declined to be interviewed for Fear but regularly told aides he wished he had cooperated. So for this book he agreed to be interviewed. By February 7, we were on our sixth of what would be 17 interviews. I asked, “What’s the plan for the next eight to 10 months?”

“Just do well,” Trump replied. “Just do well. Run the country well.” “Help me de ne ‘well,’ ” I said.

“Look,” Trump said, “when you’re running a country it’s full of surprises. There’s dynamite behind every door.”

Years ago, I had once heard a similar expression used by military forces to describe the hazards and nerve-racking emotions of house-to-house searches in a violent combat zone.

I was surprised at this “dynamite behind every door” language from Trump. Instead of being his usual upbeat, cheerleading or angry self, the president sounded foreboding, even uncon dent with a touch of unexpected fatalism.

“You want to say, good, but then something happens,” Trump continued. “Boeing happens, as an example. Boeing was the greatest company in the world, and all the sudden it has a big, big misstep. And it hurts the country.” Boeing is still reeling from problems with its 737-MAX airplane, which had been

grounded in 2019 after back-to-back fatal crashes within ve months in Indonesia and Ethiopia, killing all 346 people on board.

“General Motors goes out on strike,” Trump said, giving another example. Nearly 50,000 autoworkers had held a 40-day strike in the fall of 2019. “They shouldn’t have gone. They should have been able to work that out. But they couldn’t do it. They go on strike. Hundreds of thousands of people aren’t working. All of this stuff happens. And you have to make it good.”

“There’s dynamite behind every door” seemed the most self-aware statement about the jeopardy, pressures and responsibilities of the presidency I had heard Trump make in public or private.

Yet the unexpected headline from the call was also his detailed knowledge of the virus and his description of it as so deadly so early in February, more than a month before it began to engulf him, his presidency and the United States. And so at odds with his public tone.

The details from his call with Xi were troubling. I only later learned that much more had been hidden: that his top White House national security advisers had warned him of impending disaster in the U.S. and believed China and Xi could not be trusted; that his top health advisers had tried desperately to get their medical team into China to investigate; that Trump himself had offered to help Xi and been personally rebuffed.

Xi was concealing a lot. So was Trump.

Who was responsible for the failure to warn the American public of the coming pandemic? Where was the breakdown? What leadership decisions did Trump make or fail to make in the crucial early weeks? It would take me months to get answers to those questions.

After reporting Fear, I thought it was likely the potential crisis I worried about might arise from foreign a airs where Trump had the least experience and took the greatest risks. So when I began my new reporting for this book last year, well before the arrival of the virus, I decided to look again and more deeply at the national security team he recruited and built in the first months after his election in 2016.

I now see that Trump’s handling of the virus—certainly the greatest test for him and his presidency, at least so far—re ects the instincts, habits and style

acquired in the ùrst years as president and over the course of a lifetime.

One of the great questions of any presidency is: How does it end? But so is the question: How did it begin? So we turn there.

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