President Donald Trump admitted that he tried to minimize the lethal threat of the coronavirus early on in the pandemic, according to excerpts reported Wednesday from a new book by veteran US journalist Bob Woodward.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said in an interview with Woodward on March 19, according to a CNN preview of the book "Rage," due to be published September 15.

"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," he said in the conversation with Woodward, which was recorded.

By contrast, in earlier interviews with Woodward, he made clear he understood that the virus was "deadly stuff" and far more dangerous than the ordinary flu.

In public, however, Trump had been repeatedly telling Americans that the virus should not be considered much of a danger and would "disappear" by itself.

It took until July before Trump wore a face mask in public.

It took US President Donald Trump months to wear a mask in public for the first time
It took US President Donald Trump months to wear a mask in public for the first time AFP / JIM WATSON

Early on, he also frequently praised the Chinese government's response, only later pivoting to blame Beijing for the global health crisis.

The US death toll from Covid-19 is expected soon to pass 200,000.

The president has repeatedly insisted that he has managed the pandemic successfully, pointing to his early decisions to ban travel from China, where the virus first appeared, and from hotspots in Europe.

However, opinion polls show some two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump's actions.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump's only motivation in downplaying the dangers had been to reassure the public.

"It's important to express confidence, it's important to express calm," she said. "The president has never lied to the American public on Covid."