A pair of upcoming books report that Trump once said he "made Juneteenth very famous," and suggested that Americans infected with COVID-19 might be placed in Guantánamo Bay

By Virginia Chamlee
June 23, 2021 10:29 AM
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Donald Trump
Donald Trump
| Credit: James Devaney/GC Images

While Donald Trump was ultimately heavily criticized for his responses to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that broke out shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in private he was even more defiant and often had to be convinced not to act on his worst instincts.

That's according to two new books based on interviews with those close to Trump and the former president himself, who lost re-election in November but has continued to falsely claim it was rigged against him.

According to the forthcoming Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History, Washington Post journalists Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta write that, in the early days of the pandemic, Trump privately suggested sending Americans infected with the virus to Guantánamo Bay, the notorious American detention facility.

"We import goods," he said, according to the book's reporting as described in the Post. "We are not going to import a virus."

Abutaleb and Paletta write that in February 2020, the president asked in a meeting in the Situation Room: "Don't we have an island that we own? What about Guantánamo?"

Aides squashed the idea after the president brought it up a second time, according to Nightmare Scenario.

The book also details conversations between Trump and former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, of whom he once asked, "What idiot had the federal government do testing?" - referring to federally sanctioned COVID-19 tests.

Azar's response, according to the book, was: "Uh, do you mean Jared?" in reference to the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Kushner himself also lashed out at others working on the administration's COVID-19 response, according to Nightmare Scenario, calling HHS' emergency preparedness chief, Robert Kadlec a "f------ moron" after he learned in March 2020 that some 600 million masks ordered by the White House wouldn't be delivered until that June.

"We'll all be dead by June," Kushner said, the book reports.

(A source close to Kushner tells PEOPLE that the masks would only begin to be delivered by June, with increasingly large shipments arriving in the weeks and months after that - "which is obviously unacceptable." "I would think that people would just be happy there was somebody [in the White House] making sure we were getting masks," the source maintains.)

According to the Post, Nightmare Scenario, which will be published on Tuesday, is based on conversations with more than 180 people including several former White House senior staffers and government health leaders. 

Trump defended his COVID decisions from his many critics and touted some successes, such as the vaccine development and the distribution of ventilators.

Weeks before his family became sick with the virus in the White House, it was revealed he had admitted to a journalist that he knowingly downplayed the pandemic earlier in the year - in his words, to avoid creating panic.

Some 600,000 Americans have died from the virus so far.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
| Credit: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty

In another upcoming book, Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump LostThe Wall Street Journal's Michael C. Bender writes that Trump, now 75, once suggested that he "made Juneteenth very famous."

Bender's book - due out Aug. 10 and covered in Politico and Vanity Fair - paints a portrait of a president who was so concerned with projecting a "strong" image in public that he often refused to admit his own mistakes, to the ultimate detriment of his campaign.

That focus on projecting strength was clear, Bender writes, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis last summer.

In private, Trump initially struck a somber tone after viewing footage of Floyd's death, Bender writes, according to the excerpts.

"Trump's assessment struck some in the room as surprisingly critical of police, and the president showed a level of empathy for Floyd behind closed doors that he would never fully reveal in public," Bender writes.

Soon, however, the president grew angry at what he saw of the ensuing nationwide protests and publicly doubled down on his law-and-order rhetoric, tweeting: "These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd. When the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!"

Days later, Trump announced that he planned to host a rally on June 19th - the day that marks the end of slavery in America - in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is the site of one of the bloodiest episodes of anti-Black violence in the country.

The backlash to that planned rally was immediate, with Bender writing that Trump seemed unfamiliar with the significance of the date, at one point asking a Black Secret Service agent if he knew what Juneteenth was.

"Yes," the agent told Trump, according to Bender. "I know what it is. And it's very offensive to me that you're having this rally on Juneteenth." 

That night, Trump announced he would move the rally back day - though, according to Bender, the former president still didn't seem to grasp what made the day so important.

Bender writes that he interviewed Trump later about the controversy, with the former president telling him: "I did something good ... I made Juneteenth very famous."

US President Donald Trump speaks as US Vice President Mike Pence looks on
Donald Trump (left) and Mike Pence in April 2020
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

Bender's book also details tensions in the relationship between the former president and Kushner, 40.

In an excerpt highlighted by the Post, Bender claims that Trump once canceled a trip to Bedminster "at the last minute-after Kushner had already left for the New Jersey golf club," to hold private talks at the White House without his son-in-law present.

One issue between the two, Bender suggests, was Kushner's focus on criminal justice reform, which Trump didn't feel ultimately helped him win support from the Black community.

"I've done all this stuff for the Blacks - it's always Jared telling me to do this," Trump said to one associate on Father's Day, per an excerpt of Bender's book. "And they all f------ hate me, and none of them are going to vote for me." 

Bender attributes his sourcing to some of "Trump's closest advisers" who would only speak anonymously.

Among the other anecdotes highlighted in Bender's book are Trump's assessment of his political rival, Joe Biden, who beat him in both the popular and electoral college votes, and who the former president once described by using a slur.

"How am I losing in the polls to a mental retard?" Trump once said during a policy meeting in the Oval Office.

A Trump spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the books' accounts.

The Trump White House often dismissed books about the president and his administration while in office - lambasting the reporting and sources as liars or fakes.

* With reporting by ADAM CARLSON