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Interview With Bob Woodward, Part 2

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is a reporter's responsibility to the public to share information they are learning in real time as they learn it? And how might the calculation change during a public health emergency? Those are among the questions swirling around Bob Woodward's new book, in which he documents interviews with President Trump - interviews that make plain the president understood the gravity of the coronavirus threat far sooner than he let on, that it was, quote, "deadly stuff." That quote is from an interview on February 7. It has prompted questions over whether the president misled the public about what he knew - also questions for Bob Woodward over whether he should have shared his reporting sooner. When I sat down with Woodward yesterday, I asked, 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. And, you know...

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.

WOODWARD: Yes, but you - 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? And I worked for two, 2 1/2 months to find out.

And it was finally in May when I discovered that there was this meeting January 28 in the Oval Office - top-secret intelligence briefing - when the president's national security adviser said to him, this virus - this will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.

KELLY: But let me just stay because I want to - we're jumping around in time, and I want to just lay out the timeline because it is important, and you've contributed to our understanding of what the president knew and when he knew it. You, as you mentioned, reported that January 28, the national security adviser had told the president, this is going to be the biggest national security threat of your presidency. Skip ahead...

WOODWARD: With great passion - with great passion and certainty.

KELLY: So the president had been warned. February 7, he does the interview with you where he says this is deadly stuff, I understand. But then all through February, he kept saying, everything's fine. We're in very good shape. I want to fast-forward to the March 19 interview that you did with him. The president calls you, and he says this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you...

WOODWARD: Sure. I want you to be.

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...

WOODWARD: Yes.

TRUMP: ...Because I don't want to create a panic.

KELLY: Bob Woodward, did you understand that exchange as the president admitting that he was lying to the American public?

WOODWARD: No. What he said - you know, the English is - and he has defended his action - but by March 19, the world knows. Everyone in the country knows that this is deadly, that it goes through the air. And what the president said - well, he was saying some equivalent things not with the depth and certainty that he did to me. So I'm in a position of trying to find out.

As you know, Mary Louise, you always go for, what's going on here? What's hidden? And what was hidden in secret was the January 28 meeting. That's why I open the book with that meeting. As you know from your intelligence work, I got information about that. It's at the top-secret president's daily brief out of the Oval Office.

KELLY: But you get the urgency here - that Americans were dying during this period - I mean, understanding that ultimately, it's the president who is responsible for the public health here.

WOODWARD: No, but I have a...

KELLY: Do you not see the other side of this...

WOODWARD: Because if you look...

KELLY: ...That had we known earlier how...

WOODWARD: What's the other side?

KELLY: The other side being, had we known earlier what the president told you in February, it might have forced all of us - the president and the rest of us - to confront the gravity of what we were dealing with and maybe take prompter action to try to prevent the spread.

WOODWARD: Do you understand - as I saw it, he was talking about China. Now, turns out I was wrong, as I discovered, but that's the world I'm living in. And the context is that call he had with President Xi. And I spent a lot of time trying to get that. I was actually in a room with somebody who had the highly classified report or transcript on that. I was not able to get it, and so I'm at a dead end. But if you really think about it and live in the world I was living in, there - because I have to be accountable...

KELLY: And I understand. None of us knew in February or in March what we do - what we know now.

WOODWARD: I've asked these questions about the president. I ask the questions about myself. What did I know? When did I know it? And how did I know it? I've done this almost for 50 years, and I think I have a public health responsibility, like any citizen does - or maybe a journalist has more of a responsibility. And if any point I had thought there's something to tell the American people that they don't know, I would do it.

KELLY: So to the charge that some have made that you chose your book over the public's right to know, you would say absolutely not.

WOODWARD: What do you think? You read the book. Do you see me doing that, trying to get the book out? You've read the timeline. You've - in great detail, it shows the experience I have. What do you think?

KELLY: Part 1 of our conversation with Bob Woodward about his book "Rage." Elsewhere on the show tonight, we ask him for the long view - how covering this moment in Washington compares to reporting on Watergate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.