Sept. 9 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump understood the deadly nature of the coronavirus in early February, but "played it down" because he didn't want to "create a panic," according a new book, Rage, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward.
Woodward's book is scheduled for release Tuesday, but some media outlets received early copies. The Washington Post, where Woodward works as associate editor, on Wednesday released parts of recordings from Woodward's interviews with Trump.
Trump knew the virus was airborne after a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Woodward learned in a Feb. 7 interview -- among 18 phone conversations between him and Trump between December and July.
"It goes through air, Bob...You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump said in an interview. "And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu."
Trump continued to downplay the virus for weeks, attending multiple campaign rallies in February and holding press conferences when the first U.S. COVID-19 cases were announced, calling the virus a "hoax" and saying "within a couple of days" its presence would be "close to zero."
On March 19, days after Trump had declared a national emergency because of the virus, he told Woodward that he was choosing not to talk about how dangerous COVID-19 was.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said on the tapes. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
In the last interview, on July 21, Trump said to Woodward: "The virus has nothing to do with me. It's not my fault," the Washington Post reported.
At a press conference later Wednesday, Trump called the book a "political hit job."
"Frankly, I gave him some quotes and we'll see how it turns out," Trump said, acknowledging that he hadn't seen the book.
Trump referred to himself as a "cheerleader for this country. I don't want to create panic...This is a disgusting terrible situation that was foisted upon us, and you cannot show a sense of panic."
When asked if deaths could have prevented if the country had acted sooner, Trump touted his decision to ban travelers from China, where the virus began, saying, "If we didn't do what we did, we would have had millions of people die."
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday afternoon that the president "never lied to the American people."
"When you are facing insurmountable challenges, it's important to express confidence and express calm," McEnany said. "The president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that."
Carl Bernstein, who partnered with Woodward on Nixon-era Watergate investigations, called Trump's downplaying the virus "one of the great presidential felonies of all time -- maybe the greatest presidential felony" in a CNN interview.
"And we have the smoking gun tape of the president committing the felony," Bernstein added.
The book includes opinions about Trump's presidency from former and current White House officials, including former Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Mattis is quoted as saying the president was "dangerous" and "has no moral compass." He complained that Trump was teaching the enemies of the United States "how to destroy America."
"That's what we're showing them," Mattis said in the book. "How to isolate us from all of our allies. How to take us down. And it's working very well," according to CNN.
Fauci complained the president had an "attention span like a minus number" and called Trump's leadership "rudderless," CNN reported. "His sole purpose is to get re-elected," Fauci said.
Rage also includes Trump's conversations about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the text of several letters between the two leaders not previously released.
Trump was flattered that Kim called the president "excellency" and praised Kim as "far beyond smart," the Washington Post reported. Trump also said Kim confided to Trump about having his own uncle killed and that the North Korean leader "thought Obama was an asshole."
The book also includes Trump's opinions of racial unrest and his perceptions of racial inequality and systemic racism.
In a conversation recorded July 8, Trump said he couldn't understand why Black voters didn't support him.
"I've done a tremendous amount for the Black community," he told Woodward. "And, honestly, I'm not feeling any love."
Republican lawmakers reacted quickly to the reports of the recordings, with some expressing surprise that the president knew about the dangers of the coronavirus and waited to act.
"A little bit of alarm about the seriousness early on could have made a little bit of a difference," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN. "Getting people to think earlier on about some of the protective things we ultimately had to put in would have been better looking back."