- Trump acknowledged to Chris Christie in February 2020 that COVID-19 was a “crisis.”
- Christie wrote that he was surprised that Trump used the language given his public assurances that the virus would disappear.
- “I do not want to overreact,” Trump told Christie at a later meeting. “I do not want to scare people.”
As early as February 2020, then-President Donald Trump privately acknowledged to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that the emergence of COVID-19 was a “crisis,” even though he publicly downplayed the risk of the virus.
That’s according to Christie’s new book, “Republican Rescue: Saving the Party from Truth Deniers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Dangerous Policies of Joe Biden,” which hit bookshelves Tuesday.
Christie writes that Trump asked him to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force shortly after the former president returned from a trip to India in February 2020. At that time, health and human services Alex Azar led the group, and Trump was not sure he was the right man for the job.
“Do you think you would be willing to come down here and lead the COVID Task Force for me?” asked Trump Christie. “There’s no one better at dealing with a crisis than you are. Hurricane Sandy, you were the best! Everyone recognizes that. There’s never been a governor who has handled things the way you have. Would you be willing? to do it for me? “
Christie writes that he was “surprised to hear him mention COVID as a crisis, given some of his recent comments.”
At the time, Trump was consistently downplaying the virus’ risk to public health, as well as the time it would take for the United States to bring it under control.
“I really think they want it under control pretty quickly,” Trump told Fox News’ Trish Regan, referring to China, which first reported on the existence of the disease in late 2019.
Trump also erroneously claimed that the virus would disappear when the weather got warmer.
“You know that in April it’s supposed to die with the warmer weather,” Trump told Regan. “And it’s a beautiful date to look forward to. But China, I can tell you, is working very hard.”
Christie writes that he was interested in leading the COVID-19 task force when Trump said he was considered for the position and that his wife, Mary Pat, also supported.
“There’s no way I can say no to this,” Christie said according to the book to Mary Pat. “This virus is, I think, a huge national crisis. Nobody has figured it out yet. But I’m telling you, it’s going to be bad. If the President wants me to do this, I have to. I can not say no.”
But Christie writes that Trump eventually went up in choosing him to lead the task force because he wanted Christie to take on a more election-focused role.
“I’ve made a decision,” Trump said of the book to Christie in March. “I think this job is too small and too temporary for you. I would like you to be fully available to me for the campaign to help me get re-elected. So I have decided to give it to [Vice President] Pence. “
When the COVID-19 crisis worsened just a few weeks later, Christie said he reached out to both Azar and Finance Minister Steven Mnuchin and begged both men to implement more aggressive measures to curb the virus.
But Mnuchin told Christie that he overreacted, even though Christie claimed there was “no risk of overreaction.” Azar, for his part, took the virus seriously, but told Christie that “the president is not there yet.”
After exhausting all his options in the White House, Christie writes that he realized that the only way to get through to the president would be by using the media.
He subsequently published a statement in The Washington Post on March 16 to try to get Trump’s attention. Christie describes his strategy for op-ed, in which he says he “did not bash the president” and wanted to “give him credit” for what he had done, such as banning some travel from China and Europe.
Christie writes that Trump was finally ready to listen after the statement was made public.
“I want you to talk to me about this face to face,” Trump told Christie in a phone call shortly after. “I want you to come to Washington.”
Christie said he was not sure what was safe at the time and that most Americans had stopped traveling.
“I want you to come now. When you get here, I want to see you,” Trump told Christie.
The former governor ended up driving down to Washington, DC, where he met with Trump for 1 hour and 45 minutes. He says he told the president he “did not take this seriously enough” before repeating what he had written in his op-ed.
But Trump pushed back, saying, “I do not want to overreact. I do not want to scare people.”
He added: “The things you are talking about would ruin the economy.”
Christie eventually left without convincing Trump of the seriousness of the virus, the book says. Before leaving, he tried to impress the importance of tackling the new pandemic over Pence, who had briefly joined Trump and Christie’s previous meeting.
“Well,” he said. “You’re the gold standard for crisis management, so I’ll definitely take that into account.”
Christie’s is not the first report to describe the difference between Trump’s private views and public statements about the virus. Veteran journalist Bob Woodward also wrote in his book “Rage” that Trump recognized the deadly nature of the virus when they spoke in early February 2020.
Trump noted that the virus was airborne, adding, “It’s a very difficult one. It’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”
A few weeks later, Trump struck another chord with the public, saying the virus was “like a flu.” In March 2020, Trump admitted to Woodward that he was misleading the public about the risk.
“I always wanted to tone it down,” Trump said. “I still like playing it down because I do not want to panic.”
A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.