Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., right, was one of many Republicans who defended Donald Trump over his comments to journalist Bob Woodward. (Getty Images)

Senate Republicans have mostly come to Donald Trump’s defence over the contradictions between his early public statements downplaying the coronavirus and his private conversations with journalist Bob Woodward acknowledging the severity of the threat it posed.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Senator Kevin Cramer told reporters on Wednesday.

“I don’t feel like he was ever lying to anybody. He’s a hopeful, upbeat, positive person,” the North Dakota Republican said. “The gravity of it, when it was becoming clearer, was also reflected by him.”

But Mr Trump’s messaging about Covid-19 has been wildly inconsistent as he has tried to express optimism about the disease “going away”.

For instance, the Trump administration pushed to open schools this fall for in-person classes because, as the president said as recently as 5 August, “this thing’s going away. It will go away like things go away”.

The US was fending off a second spike in new cases at the time of those comments.

Mr Cramer said on Wednesday that Mr Trump’s goal was to “give people hope rather than despair”, even though health officials have said such comments have been unhelpful in the effort to get the American people to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic.

Mr Woodward’s new book, Rage, set to hit shelves next Tuesday, shows the president was told as early as 28 January by his national security adviser that Covid-19 represented “the biggest national security threat” of his presidency.

In a recorded phone call on 7 February, Mr Trump told the Washington Post journalist: “This is deadly stuff, Bob,” explaining how experts were saying the disease could spread through the air and not just by touch.

“You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed. And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu,” Mr Trump said at the time.

Meanwhile, in public, he accused Democrats of playing up the pandemic as a political “hoax” to shut down the economy and undermine his odds at re-election in November. He compared Covid-19 to the common flu on several occasions, in tweets and at press conferences. At his rallies in recent weeks, where his supporters, mostly maskless, have been packed in tightly in front of the stage, he has continued to make fun of Democrats for wearing masks, despite urging Americans at various points this summer to wear them as part of their patriotic duty to each other.

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Mr Trump admitted to Mr Woodward in another conversation on 19 March that it was part of his coronavirus strategy to publicly “play it down” to avoid a “panic” among the people.

Senator Lindsey Graham defended the president’s messaging tactics, while saying voters should pay more attention to the administration’s actions on coronavirus.

“I don’t think he needs to be on TV screaming, ‘We’re all going to die,'” Mr Graham told HuffPost, neglecting the fact there’s a giant middle ground between that and what Mr Trump has said about the disease.

“His actions shutting the economy down were the right actions,” Mr Graham said.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden harangued Mr Trump for his comments on the Woodward tapes, saying the president’s response to the coronavirus crisis amounted to a “dereliction of duty”.

“He knew how deadly It was. It was much more deadly than the flu. He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat posed to the country for months,” Mr Biden said at a campaign speech at General Motors in Warren, Michigan on Wednesday.

“He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose,” the former vice president added.

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