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Experts Say Trump Downplaying Risks Of The Coronavirus Was Not Justified

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Trump has defended the way he downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus. He says he was showing leadership during a time of crisis, but that's the opposite of what crisis management experts recommend. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has more.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They wanted me to come out and scream, people are dying. We're dying. No. No.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: That's President Trump at a campaign rally explaining his initial approach to talking about the coronavirus.

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TRUMP: No. No. We did it just the right way. We have to be calm. We don't want to be crazed lunatics. We have to lead.

RASCOE: Being a leader is what Trump argues he was doing when he painted a rosy picture at the outset of a pandemic that has now killed nearly 200,000 Americans. But now he's under fire for the strategy. That's because of revelations in a new book by Bob Woodward where Trump acknowledged that he downplayed the risk. Fighting for his reelection, Trump has explained his actions by turning to this idea of avoiding panic.

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TRUMP: Said calm - we need calm. We don't need panic.

RASCOE: But that fear isn't justified. Matthew Seeger is at Wayne State University. After 9/11, he helped the Centers for Disease Control develop plans for talking to the public about emergencies. He says Trump is looking at this all wrong.

MATTHEW SEEGER: Whenever I hear, you know, the rationale of panic as an explanation for why people are withholding information, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

RASCOE: Seeger says past crises have shown that people rarely panic in these situations, and that's why experts recommend transparency.

SEEGER: When there is an announcement of a hurricane warning in South Florida, people don't panic. I mean, they don't abandon everything and jump in their cars and drive north.

RASCOE: When people are given proper information and context, Seeger says they can make rational decisions about how best to protect themselves. And in a public health crisis with no vaccine or cure, persuading people to take appropriate action is really the only tool officials have. Trump has also started comparing himself to an iconic wartime leader.

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TRUMP: Winston Churchill stood on the rooftops in London very calm, making speeches. Winston Churchill - you want calmness.

RASCOE: But the British prime minister was known for his bluntness during World War II, says Tulane professor John Barry.

JOHN BARRY: Winston Churchill is famous for his "Blood, Sweat And Tears" (ph) speech, and that is a classic of what leadership is.

RASCOE: In that speech in 1940, Churchill talked about how the United Kingdom would face many long months of struggle and suffering. This isn't the first time the U.S. has grappled with what to tell the public. Barry examined the 1918 flu epidemic for his bestselling book "The Great Influenza." Barry says back then, the government lied to Americans because they thought the truth would make the U.S. look weak during wartime.

BARRY: That ended up being counterproductive because all it did was spread real panic and a loss of trust.

RASCOE: And trust is what holds society together, Barry says.

BARRY: One of the reasons that chiefs need to tell the truth from the beginning is once you lose your credibility, it's very, very difficult to get back.

RASCOE: A new ABC/Ipsos poll shows the downside of Trump's strategy. Nearly six months after he told Woodward he prefers to play down the virus, only about a third of Americans trust what Trump has to say about the pandemic.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON'S "KIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.