What was he thinking?

President Donald Trump speaks to his supporters Thursday during a rally at the MBS International Airport in Freeland, Mich. Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service

How can one defend a public official who admits to concealing from constituents critical information about a deadly virus at the start of a health care crisis?

President Donald Trump conducted a series of interviews with Bob Woodward for the investigative reporter’s forthcoming book, “Rage.” In audio segments released Wednesday, Mr. Trump said in February that he knew the novel coronavirus was substantially more serious than “even your strenuous flu.” But then in March, he told Mr. Woodward, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Some of the president’s supporters correctly pointed out that he declared a national emergency March 13. Invoking the Stafford Act put the Federal Emergency Management Agency on standby to coordinate national activities to treat those infected with the coronavirus and work to prevent further outbreaks. It also made about $50 billion in funds and resources available to strengthen efforts to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic.

The Trump administration took other actions early on to stop the spread of infection. In late January, officials prohibited the entry into the United States of foreign nationals who had been to China within the last 14 days. This followed news that American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines had suspended flights between China and the United States for several months, according to a story published Jan. 31 by the New York Times (wdt.me/Kkghs6).

However, Mr. Trump confessed to withholding how much he knew about the severity of the coronavirus once the outbreak began. He and other administration officials made numerous statements downplaying the virus’s potential to infect large numbers of Americans. This no doubt influenced how people viewed their chances of developing COVID-19 — many to their detriment.

The website TheBulwark.com documented these comments (wdt.me/XdR6aB) from Mr. Trump:

“We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” (Jan. 22)

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” (Feb. 2)

“A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in.” (Feb. 10)

“[The number of people infected is] going very substantially down, not up.” “The 15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be down to zero.” (Feb. 26)

“So last year, 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down; life and the economy go on. At this moment, there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 22 deaths.” (March 9)

“It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” (March 10)

Now we have Mr. Trump stating that he knew such comments were not truthful. Perhaps the most honest statement he made during this period of the crisis was this from March 13: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Sadly, Mr. Trump never does. He believes everyone else is to blame for his incompetence and dreadful decisions.

While declaring a national emergency was essential, Mr. Trump utterly failed to use federal resources to get ahead of the pandemic. He spent way too much time arguing with state authorities desperate for funding and necessary supplies. He was far more concerned about his own image than he was about the welfare of U.S. citizens.

Panic over the coronavirus was inevitable. People would eventually see that it was adversely affecting loved ones and fear they would be next.

So the best way to stem widespread concerns would have been to understand what was needed to curtail the spread of infection as much as possible and make these resources available. But the president did not do this to the extent that he could have or should have. He frittered away numerous opportunities to make a real difference, and many people have paid for his inaction with their lives.

We agree with Mr. Trump that panic does a nation no good. However, the best cure for panic is to show you’re ready to confront the pending challenge.

The president, though, wanted to avoid panic by largely ignoring the problem. He repeatedly told Americans that the coronavirus will simply disappear.

This is not how health care crises are resolved. It takes concerted efforts on multiple fronts to treat those diagnosed with the disease and urge people to follow safety protocols to reduce their chances of becoming infected.

We’re not suggesting that the Trump administration didn’t take any necessary or beneficial actions. It certainly did. But officials wasted a lot of time at the beginning minimizing the pending catastrophe we had on our hands.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump described himself as a cheerleader for the United States in responding to the controversy over his taped comments. In reality, he’s been a cheerleader of denial throughout this ordeal. As his re-election bid enters the home stretch, Americans must closely examine whether his actions demonstrate the leadership we need at this time.

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