(CNN)On Wednesday afternoon, soon after CNN obtained an early copy of Bob Woodward’s soon-to-be-released book that contained an admission by President Donald Trump that he purposely downplayed the severity of Covid-19 to the public, Republican Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy did an interview with CNN’s Pam Brown.
And as you might expect, Brown asked Kennedy about the new book. Here’s their exchange:Brown: Senator, President Trump told Bob Woodward the first week of February that he knew the coronavirus could be spread through the air and that it was more deadly than the flu.But two weeks later, he said at a rally that coronavirus was the Democrats’ new hoax.Is that acceptable to you? Is that misleading the public?Read MoreKennedy: You’re talking about the Woodward book?Brown: Yes, the Woodward book.Kennedy: Yes.All I can do is share with you my point of view, Pamela. These gotcha books don’t really interest me that much.Brown: He’s on the record. He’s on the record.Kennedy: These — these gotcha books don’t really interest me that much. There will be a new one out tomorrow.Brown: But this is different. He did 18 interviews with Bob Woodward.Kennedy: Right.Brown: So you — he’s — he’s recorded. You hear his voice. And you’re seeing that, and you’re contrasting that with what he says to the public.Wouldn’t that be something of interest to you, as a United States senator?Kennedy: Well, let me — let me answer you again.These gotcha books don’t really interest me. There will be a new one out tomorrow.This exchange is infuriating. Not because Kennedy is a Republican or because he is defending Trump. Because he is a) playing dumb (he is not dumb) and b) sticking his head in the sand and pretending that it is a real response to the very serious questions Woodward’s conversations with Trump raise about how the President handled a pandemic that has left more than 190,000 Americans dead (and counting).Kennedy clearly thinks he is being clever by sticking to his one pre-planned response to the Woodward book. He repeats — three times! — that “these gotcha books really don’t interest me that much.”
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But as Brown rightly notes, this isn’t a “gotcha” book at all. Trump gave Woodward 18 separate interviews between December 5, 2019 and July 21, 2020. Doing a quick bit of math, that’s one interview every 13 days or so in that time period. And it’s not just that! Woodward, with Trump’s permission, recorded all of these interviews. Which means that you — and Kennedy! — can hear Trump say these words to Woodward about Covid-19 back in March: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”There’s no “gotcha” here! Woodward’s book, in fact, is the opposite of “gotcha” journalism. The quotes that have made news aren’t sniping by former aides on background. They are on the record (and on tape!) quotes from Trump himself. How can Woodward have written a “gotcha book” if he talked to Trump on 18 separate occasions and the President himself admitted that he was purposely downplaying the severity of the virus? Trump did all the gotcha-ing himself! All Woodward did was ask questions and press play on his audio recorder!What’s maddening about Kennedy’s response is that, of course, he knows all of this. He knows that the Woodward book is different than some of the other tomes documenting the troubles within the Trump White House because this one has the President extensively and directly quoted (and recorded).So why answer Brown’s questions the way Kennedy did? Or more accurately, not answer Brown’s questions the way Kennedy did?Simple. He doesn’t want to get on Trump’s bad side. He doesn’t want to draw the President’s attention by criticizing what Trump told Woodward. Because any reasonable person — Republican, Democrat or other — would agree that a President admitting that he intentionally downplayed the severity of a pandemic is a very bad thing.Unable to engage on the actual facts, Kennedy reverts to a quip. And he’s far from the only GOP senator unwilling to engage with the incontrovertible facts of what Trump told Woodward on the record (and on tape). “I haven’t read it, I haven’t seen it, so give me a chance to take a look,” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told CNN’s Manu Raju about the Woodward book on Thursday morning. Texas Sen John Cornyn offered up a similar line to Raju on the book: “I’m not going to comment on something I have no personal knowledge of. It’s just, these stories seem to change every day.”This head-in-the-sand strategy has been a trademark of how elected Republican officials have dealt with the many things that the President (and head of their party) has said and tweeted since 2016 victory,But we don’t elect ostriches to office. We elect, in theory, leaders. And what Kennedy did on Wednesday is the opposite of leadership.