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Donald Trump spills to Bob Woodward and only strengthens the case against his reelection

Our View: Coronavirus is 'deadly stuff,' President Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, then continues to hold reelection rallies that are superspreaders.

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Donald Trump keeps piling up the evidence that he has neither the smarts nor the character to be president of the United States. He's "in over his head," as former first lady Michelle Obama put it, and he has "no moral compass," as former Defense Secretary James Mattis was quoted in Bob Woodward's new book, "Rage." Exhibit A is the president's fumbled response to a coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 192,000 Americans

It is hard to argue with Obama and Mattis after the latest political contretemps over his recorded comments to Woodward.

On the issue of smarts. It would seem likely that any leader willing to engage in wholesale public deception would not admit this to a bestselling author in a recorded conversation to be made public shortly before a presidential election. Yet that's exactly what Trump did early this year when he described for Woodward during phone chats in February and March the lethal transmissibility of the emerging virus — "You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," adding that it's five times more deadly that the flu — while at the same time insisting in public statements that the disease is fleeting and easily eradicated.

China and Russia in the know 

White House insiders say Trump's strategy has been to somehow manage the direction of Woodward's book by granting interviews and access. Given the firestorm of bad press that has resulted this week, the plan seems to have fallen short. 

Among secrets Trump shared in an apparent effort to curry favor with the author was boasting about a new, top-secret nuclear weapon of which even China and Russia are unaware.

Well, they are now. How smart is that?  

On the issue of a moral compass. Trump told Woodward, and repeated in his own defense Wednesday, that he downplayed the virus to avoid public panic.

But does that ring true? Beginning with Trump's dark inaugural address crying out about  "American carnage" in urban streets, to his midterm election warnings in 2018 about immigrant caravans "invading" the United States, to his most recent dystopian contention that the Democratic Party is on a "merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children," Trump has never shied from stoking fear when it served political ends. He's all about panic.

Trump the superspreader

It seems far more likely that in the January-March time frame, Trump was really more worried about panicking the stock market after the Dow Jones Industrial Average had hit a then all-time high in February. An honest assessment of the coronavirus threat might tarnish his economic argument for reelection.

Moreover, it's one thing to urge calm in a crisis. It's quite another to utterly misrepresent what Trump was told would be the worst health crisis since the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed at least 50 million worldwide. Wouldn't it make more sense to educate the public about the lethal threat of COVID-19 so Americans, particularly Trump supporters, would be keen on social distancing and wearing masks?

Instead, Trump dismissed the wearing of masks for months and did not urge social distancing until mid-March. Studies have since shown that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if he had acted just one week sooner.

And finally, where was Trump's moral compass when it came to his most avid fans? He knew early on how easily the virus spread through the air. "Deadly stuff," he told Woodward on Feb. 7.

Yet he kept holding reelection campaign rallies: five in February and one in early March. Experts would later call these superspreader events. (Another in June in Tulsa, Oklahoma, might have led to the death by COVID-19 of Herman Cain, a former pizza chain executive who ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.)

Thanks to Trump's less than thoughtful decision to confess to Woodward in real time, we now know more than enough about Trump's ability to handle his job and lead our nation. He can't and he won't.  

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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