President Donald Trump told a voter that he did not downplay the coronavirus in the early days of his administration's Covid-19 response — even though he has been heard on tape saying he did — during an ABC News town hall Tuesday.
"If you believe it's the president's responsibility to protect America, why would you downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities?" a voter asked Trump.
Trump responded: "Yeah, well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action." The voter appeared to try to follow up and remind the president that he acknowledged having downplayed the threat of the coronavirus in a taped interview with journalist Bob Woodward earlier this year.
During the town hall, Trump said that many people don't want to wear masks and claimed that "there are a lot of people think that masks are not good."
Asked who those people are, the president said, "Waiters. They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me, and they're playing with the mask. I’m not blaming them. I’m just saying what happens. They're playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they're touching it, and then they're touching the plate. That can't be good."
The town hall, hosted by George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia, was one of the rare occasions when Trump has sat down for questions with a news network other than Fox News. It is also one of the few times the president has had to interact with undecided voters in a moderated setting. The topics ranged from health care to the pandemic to policing, among other areas. Trump and Stephanopoulos, as well as voters, who wore masks, were socially distanced.
Trump is in a bare-knuckled re-election battle against former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, while his poll numbers are sagging as he continues to get low marks from voters for how he handled the response to the virus.
"I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," Trump said in a call with Woodward on March 19, according to an audio clip posted Wednesday on The Washington Post's website. The newspaper obtained a copy of the book, "Rage," which was released this week.
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In the same interview, Trump acknowledged that the disease was more deadly than he had admitted publicly.
"Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob. But just today, and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It's not just old, older," Trump said, according to an audio clip, and then added, "young people, too, plenty of young people."
In a statement after the town hall, Kate Bedingfield, Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, criticized Trump's comments about Covid.
"The American people are crying out for real leadership on this pandemic, but Trump just confirmed tonight, yet again, that even after 8 months of letting the worst public health crisis in 100 years spiral out of control that not only does he not have a plan — he doesn’t have a clue," she said. “Now, more than ever, we need a President who will fight to make health care more accessible, and more affordable, for the middle class families who are struggling because of Trump’s failed leadership."
During the ABC town hall, Trump continued to blame China and to misrepresent his administration's response to the virus.
"We've worked very hard on the pandemic," Trump told a conservative voter with an underlying health condition who criticized the administration's response. "We've worked very hard. It came off from China. They should have never let it happen."
Trump reiterated his claim that the virus would eventually disappear, predicting that a "herd mentality" would develop, which he likely meant to be "herd immunity."
Trump was pressed by a local pastor, who is Black, about race. Trump was asked when America was ever "great," referring to his slogan, "Make America Great Again," which the voter said "pushes us [Black Americans] back to a time in which we cannot identify with such greatness." He also pressed Trump about addressing systemic racism.
"And we have not been seeing a change, quite frankly, under your administration, under the Obama administration, under the Bush, under the Clinton, the very same things happen, the same systems and cycles continue to ensue," the voter said.
Trump responded: "I hope there's not a race problem. I can tell you there's none with me."
The president then pivoted to discussing his poll numbers among minorities and Black and Latino unemployment numbers during his administration. Trump has been struggling among Black voters, who overwhelmingly support Biden, according to polls.
Trump was pressed later about the killings of Black Americans by police and how they are three times more likely to be killed during encounters with officers. He downplayed systemic racism in law enforcement, saying the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin were "tragic events," and he largely defended police.
"I can only say this, that the police in this country have done generally a great job," Trump said.
One of the testiest moments was a discussion of health care. A voter with a pre-existing condition pressed the president about his health care plan and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which protected pre-existing conditions.
Trump claimed that he is preserving coverage for pre-existing conditions, even as his administration argues against Obamacare in court. That prompted Stephanopoulos to jump in to fact-check the president in real time.
"You've been trying to strike down pre-existing conditions," Stephanopoulos said. "You're striking down the whole law."
Trump continues to claim that he has a health care plan, despite the difficulty of getting legislation through the Democratic-controlled House, which has tried to safeguard the Affordable Care Act. Health care is a top issue for voters in the election.
"I have it all ready, and it's a much better plan for you, and it's a much better plan," Trump said, without giving details.
Trump also pushed back at a voter who asked whether he would be "more presidential" in his second term if he is re-elected.
"I'm fighting a battle. It's a big battlefield, and I have a lot of forces against me," Trump said. "Sometimes you don't have time to be totally, as you would say, presidential. You have to get things done."