Jeff Mullin

What did the president know and when did he know it?

That’s a question Bob Woodward has been asking for a long time.

That was the query pivotal to Woodward’s famed reporting (along with cohort Carl Bernstein) on the Watergate scandal back in the 1970s.

The botched third-rate burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex might have been written off as just that, a failed heist, a political dirty trick gone wrong. But then came the coverup, the elaborate obfuscation that emanated from the office held by the most powerful elected official in the land.

What did the president know and when did he know it?

That was a question Woodstein, as the reporting team became known, asked as they began to weave the threads of the Watergate scandal into the quilt that ultimately suffocated the presidency and political career of Richard Nixon.

But the question was most famously, and most publicly, asked by the late Howard Baker, when he was a senator from Tennessee and the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee tasked with getting to the bottom of the Watergate mess.

At the time Baker was a defender of the president. Thus he was hoping his question directed to witness John Dean, former White House counsel and one of the lynchpins of the coverup, would somehow insulate Nixon from the deeds of his well-meaning but ethically challenged aides.

It was June 29, 1973, when Baker began questioning Dean, saying, “My primary thesis is still, what did the president know, and when did he know it?” So Dean told him.

At that point it was all Dean’s word against that of the president of the United States, or it was, that is, until July 13, when Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide, told the committee under oath that there existed audio tapes of all conversations held within the Oval Office.

Suddenly Dean had an ally, Nixon himself, in his own words. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What did the president know and when did he know it?

So here we are some 47 years later and the question has come up again, this time not surrounding political dirty tricks, Russian election meddling or pre-presidential flings with women of questionable repute, but a little old bug.

And not just any bug, a virus, a particularly nasty strain of coronavirus. And we don’t have to ask what the president knew and when he knew it, because we already know.

He told us so himself.

Woodward, long since retired from the Washington Post, has written a new book about President Trump, a tome titled “Rage,” which will be published Tuesday. In it he details conversations he had with the president concerning what he knew, and when he knew it, about the threat of COVID-19.

In a conversation taped Feb. 7, the president can be heard to say, “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 flus. People don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?” Later he said, “This is more deadly. This is 5% versus 1% and less than 1%. So this is deadly stuff.”

So what did the president know and when did he know it? He knew in early February that the virus was virulent, airborne and deadly, much worse than the flu.

So what was he saying to the American public at the time? On Feb 7, the same day he spoke to Woodward on tape, the president said “When we get into April, in the warmer weather — that has a very negative effect on that, and that type of virus.”

On Feb. 27, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

On Feb. 28, he said, “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. They tried anything, they tried it over and over. And this is their new hoax.”

So how did we get from “deadly stuff” to a “new hoax?”

In another one of the president’s taped interviews with Woodward, this one conducted March 19, he said, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I didn’t want to create a panic.”

Have a little more faith in the American people, Mr. President. We’re not big on panicking. The voters didn’t send you to Washington to protect us, to shield us from bad or scary news about a crisis, but to lead us through that crisis. So lead already.

That “hoax,” by the way, has killed more than 191,000 Americans as of this writing.

For his part Woodward is catching flak from some quarters for withholding his interviews with the president until just before his book comes out. Understandable in terms of marketing, but not so much in terms of journalistic ethics. It seems nobody’s hands are clean in this instance.

Which is a good reminder, wash your hands, wear your mask, maintain your proper social distance.

As far as COVID-19 is concerned, it is high time for President Trump to stop maintaining his social distance from the truth.

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Mullin is an award-winning writer and columnist who retired in 2017 after 41 years with the News & Eagle. Email him at or write him in care of the Enid News & Eagle at PO Box 1192, Enid, OK, 73702.

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