RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What did the president know? And when did he know it? The journalist Bob Woodward pushed President Trump to answer those questions about the coronavirus. Woodward shares what he learned in a new book. Early excerpts from the book have stirred up controversy before its official publication tomorrow, both because it documents that President Trump knew how deadly the virus was far earlier than he let on in public and because Woodward didn't share that information until now. The book is titled "Rage."
Woodward sat down last night with our colleague, All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly, to talk about it. And Mary Louise is with us this morning. Good morning.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK. Let's just start there, with the controversy that has sort of blown up over whether Woodward should have shared some of his reporting sooner. How does he answer that charge?
KELLY: Yeah. We spent a while going back-and-forth on this point. I sometimes think walking into an interview like this, you know, what if I only got one question?
KELLY: And maybe that's the first thing I should ask in case we're going to need to hunker down and really spend some time on it. So I want to play you - this is a longish chunk, starting with my very first question to Bob Woodward.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
KELLY: A lot of people believe that you sat on information that could've saved lives. So I want to start with your interview with the president on February 7. He told you he understood the virus was deadly, that it was airborne, that it was dangerous February 7, and you had it on tape. Did you have a duty to get that information out?
BOB WOODWARD: I knew at the time and believed he was talking about the virus in China because he had talked to Chinese President Xi the night before. And as you know, at that point in February, there was no virus awareness in the United States.
KELLY: You describe in the book, though, that you were surprised at what he was saying.
WOODWARD: Yes, because it was, oh, did he get it from President Xi? And so I spent a good deal of time trying to get information and, in fact, the transcript of the Trump-Xi call the night before because I thought that would be a clue to what went on. You know, the...
KELLY: But you didn't need other sources to know that what the president said to you on February 7 directly contradicted what he was saying in public in February.
WOODWARD: But, see; he was talking about China, as far as I understood it, because there's no virus issue...
KELLY: There were cases here during...
WOODWARD: Yes. But as you know, you've got Tony Fauci out there at the end of February saying everyone can do it - everything and not worry. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a China problem. And by March, it's clearly an American problem. And so I'm asking the question, what did the president know? When did he know it? And how did he know it?
KELLY: So, Rachel, you hear Bob Woodward there forcefully defending his reporting and his timing for when he put it out in the world. He also told me - and I'll quote - "if at any point I had thought there is something to tell the American people that they don't know, I would do it."
MARTIN: You also asked about North Korea, right?
KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this was a terrifying (laughter) part of the conversation. Woodward has detailed reporting about how close the U.S. and North Korea came to war in 2017 - how close they came to nuclear war. He spends a fascinating chapter on Jim Mattis, Trump's first defense secretary, how Mattis would slip out to pray - more than once - in National Cathedral because he was so worried about the growing, as he saw it, possibility of a war that could kill millions of people. Woodward said Mattis was sleeping in his gym clothes because he needed to be able to leap from bed to the latest emergency meeting as this all unfolded.
MARTIN: Bob Woodward ends the book with his judgment that, quote, "Trump is the wrong man for the job." How does he justify that conclusion?
KELLY: So Woodward believes that his reporting, as he unfolded over these 400 pages in this book, that it shows that Trump failed to keep the country safe. And people can make up their own minds on that. I mean, it is fascinating, of course, because this is Bob Woodward of Watergate fame and Nixon fame. And I asked him, how does this moment compare to then? And how worried is he about the stability of our country and of our sitting president? And here's part of the answer he gave me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
WOODWARD: And I asked him this question. Suppose you lose. What are you going to do in the election? And he said, I don't want to comment on that. But we still - we can sit and have this conversation. And I can make the kind of judgments of our leader that journalists in many countries in the world cannot make. So I say in the book that for the moment, democracy is held, but leadership has failed.
MARTIN: Bob Woodward there talking to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.