|(CNN)It matters who the president is. Millions of lives and livelihoods depend on the character, competence, altruism and integrity of the person in the Oval Office -- whatever their party or ideology. But President Donald Trump -- as he devastatingly revealed in his own voice to Bob Woodward -- met the great crisis of his age with ineptness, dishonesty and an epic dereliction of duty. Rarely have a president's actions -- or inaction -- and individual decisions on such a critical issue been so consequential and so exposed in his own time -- in this case in taped interviews with The Washington Post reporter for his new book, "Rage."
Throughout history, presidents responded to moments of great trial by leveling with the American people about often-dire challenges, but also summoned a collective sense of mission toward a less perilous destination.
Twice, in the 1930s Great Depression and after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, told the country the truth, and it listened and followed. On another day of infamy -- 19 years ago on Friday -- a Republican, George W. Bush, consoled and united a people violated by a shocking act of terrorism on 9/11.
When Trump's time came -- in February -- we now know that he perfectly understood the pernicious nature of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. But while he told Woodward in a phone call "this is deadly stuff" and that the pathogen caused a viciously contagious illness much worse than the flu, Trump didn't level with the American people. In fact, he deliberately misled them and failed to prepare the government for a vast national effort. Worse, for weeks he continued to misinform the country about the severity of the pathogen that caused the worst global pandemic in 100 years.
The 190,000 American families who lost loved ones and could never say goodbye, the millions of unemployed, the business owners who went bust, a generation of kids who haven't been in class for months and everyone else self-distanced from their regular lives now face the same question: How different would things have been had the President done his job properly?
The scandal of negligence Woodward exposed is distinct from the whirlwind of political corruption, abuses of power, chaotic West Wing dramas and wild personality paroxysms that have defined Trump's presidency. He can't spin this one away as "fake news" because he is on tape. He indisputably told Woodward he purposefully minimized a once-in-a-century health crisis.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward on March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
The fallout from the Woodward bombshells just 54 days before the election goes beyond White House palace intrigue. Trump's own narrative of the crisis has now been shattered. His frequent complaints that no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenge from Covid-19 are shown to be flagrantly untrue. Woodward reports that Trump was told by his national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, on January 28 that the virus would be the greatest national security threat of his presidency.
Trump told Woodward he could not remember that warning -- but that "I'm sure if he said it -- you know, I'm sure he said it." That the President apparently missed such a flashing alarm brings its own concern.
The President has spent months slamming China, which he accuses of knowingly exporting the virus to the US to harm the American economy after he earlier showered Beijing with praise for its handling of the situation. But he makes clear in the conversation on February 7 that he understood the severity of the virus -- and much of his information seems to have been coming from a conversation the day before with none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The President's refusal to inform his nation of a building threat and instinct to keep comparing the disease to the flu as late as the end of March -- when he knew it was a lie -- show he flunked his date with destiny.
Instead of true leadership, Trump consistently put his own political goals -- including shielding the strong economy he needed to win reelection -- ahead of the advice of his public health experts. He undermined science by pursuing discredited therapies like hydroxychloroquine. As recently as this past week, he mocked journalists and his election opponent, Joe Biden, who wear the masks that scientists say are critical to saving tens of thousands more from ...