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Trump privately conceded to Chris Christie that COVID-19 was a 'crisis' even as he publicly downplayed the risk: book

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Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks on as former President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing at the White House on September 27, 2020.Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

  • Trump acknowledged to Chris Christie in February 2020 that COVID-19 was a “crisis.”

  • Christie wrote that he was surprised Trump used that language given his public assurances that the virus would go away.

  • “I don’t want to overreact,” Trump told Christie at a later meeting. “I don’t 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 as 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 on Tuesday.

Christie writes that Trump asked him to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force shortly after the former president returned from a February 2020 trip to India. At the time, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was leading the group, and Trump wasn’t sure that he was the right man for the job.

“Do you think you’d be willing to come down here and run the COVID task force for me?” Trump asked Christie. “There’s nobody better at dealing with a crisis than you are. Hurricane Sandy, you were the best! Everybody acknowledges that. There’s never been a governor who’s handled things like you have. Would you be willing to do it for me?”

Christie writes that he was “surprised to hear him refer to COVID as a crisis, given some of his recent comments.”

Indeed, at that time, Trump was consistently downplaying the virus’ risk to public health, as well as the amount of time it would take for the US to get it under control.

“I really believe they are going to have it under control fairly soon,” Trump told Fox News’ Trish Regan, referring to China, which first reported the existence of the disease in late 2019.

Trump also falsely claimed that the virus would go away as the weather got warmer.

“You know in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather,” Trump told Regan. “And that’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 being considered for the position and that his wife, Mary Pat, was also supportive.

“There’s no way I can say no to this,” Christie told Mary Pat, according to the book. “This virus is, I think, a huge national crisis. No one’s 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’t say no.”

But Christie writes that Trump ultimately passed up on selecting him to lead the task force because he wanted Christie to take on a more election-focused role.

“I’ve made a decision,” Trump told Christie in March, according to the book. “I think this job is too small and too temporary for you. I want you to be completely available to me for the campaign to help me get reelected. So I’ve decided to give it to [Vice President] Pence.”

As the COVID-19 crisis worsened just weeks later, Christie said that he reached out to both Azar and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and implored both men to implement more aggressive measures to contain the virus.

But Mnuchin told Christie he was overreacting, even as Christie argued that there was “no risk of overreaction.” Azar, for his part, was taking the virus seriously, but told Christie that “the president isn’t there yet.”

Having exhausted all his avenues within the White House, Christie writes that he realized the only way to get through to the president would be by utilizing the media.

He subsequently published an op-ed in The Washington Post on March 16 to try to get Trump’s attention. Christie details his strategy for the op-ed, where he says he “didn’t bash the president” and wanted to “give him credit” for what he had done, like banning some travel from China and Europe.

Christie writes that Trump was finally ready to listen after the op-ed was published.

“I want you to talk to me about this face-to-face,” Trump told Christie in a phone call shortly thereafter. “I want you to come to Washington.”

Christie said he wasn’t unsure what was safe at the time, and that most Americans had stopped traveling.

“I want you to come now. Whenever you get here, I’ll 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 that he was “not taking this seriously enough” before reiterating what he’d written in his op-ed.

But Trump pushed back, saying, “I don’t want to overreact. I don’t want to scare people.”

He added: “The things you’re talking about would destroy the economy.”

Christie ultimately left without convincing Trump of the severity of the virus, the book says. Before leaving, he tried to impress the importance of tackling the emerging pandemic upon Pence, who’d briefly joined Trump and Christie’s earlier meeting.

“Well,” he said. “You’re the gold standard for handling crises, so I’ll definitely take that into account.”

Christie’s isn’t the first account detailing the difference between Trump’s private view and public statements about the virus. The veteran journalist Bob Woodward also wrote in his book, “Rage,” that Trump acknowledged the deadly nature of the virus when they spoke in early February 2020.

Trump noted that the virus was airborne and added, “That’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

A few weeks later, Trump struck a different 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 wanted to always play it down,” Trump said. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

A spokesperson for Trump did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Read the original article on Business Insider