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Trump defends erroneous coronavirus predictions in wide-ranging interview: 'I will be right eventually'

Fox News host Chris Wallace grilled the president on a number of subjects, including the coronavirus, the election and his own mental acuity.
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday.Patrick Semansky / AP

President Donald Trump defended his past misstatements about the coronavirus Sunday, saying he "will be right eventually" in a contentious and freewheeling interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace.

Wallace went through a number of Trump's early statements about the coronavirus, including his remark in January that the virus amounted to "one person coming in from China, and we have it under control," and his comment in February that the number of cases would soon be "close to zero." Wallace also mentioned Trump's insistence this month that "at some point [the virus is] going to sort of disappear."

"I will be right eventually," Trump responded. "You know, I said, 'It's going to disappear.' I'll say it again."

Asked whether having been wrong before discredits him, Trump said: "It's going to disappear, and I'll be right. I don't think so."

He added, "You know why? Because I've been right probably more than anybody else."

Coronavirus cases having spiked throughout the country in recent weeks, presenting record numbers of new cases as well as jumps in hospitalizations. Trump downplayed the increases as "embers," although he acknowledged that Florida has become "more flamelike" and that there has been "somewhat of a surge in certain areas."

The president then claimed without evidence that many of the cases "are young people that would heal in a day" and that "they have the sniffles, and we put it down as a test."

"Well, cases are up — many of those cases shouldn't even be cases," he said, asking at one point to be shown "the death chart."

More than 141,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, according to NBC News' tracker.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, responded later Sunday, saying: "The past six months have proven again and again that it's Donald Trump who doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to COVID-19.

"He said the virus would disappear. He said anyone who wants a test could get a test. He said the virus was under control. When it comes to the coronavirus, you can't believe a word he says," Biden said, adding, "Mr. President, your ignorance isn't a virtue or a sign of your strength — it's undercutting our response to this unprecedented crisis at every turn and it's costing Americans their jobs and their lives."

In the interview, Trump repeated his longstanding frustration with the higher levels of testing, saying, "In a way, we're creating trouble." He also suggested that some other countries have had less severe outbreaks than the U.S. because they "don't test."

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Trump also again threatened to withhold funding from schools if they did not fully open and said he would consider not signing the next coronavirus relief measure if it does not include a payroll tax cut.

About masks, Trump said that he wants "people to have a certain freedom" and that "masks cause problems, too," although it was unclear what he was referring to. Public health experts have said wearing masks in public is one of the best tools people have to cut down on transmission of the virus.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he does not believe masks are "optional for people who want to protect themselves and people around them."

Trump's exchanges with Wallace on the coronavirus were only the tip of the iceberg in the lengthy interview, which featured a number of eyebrow-raising moments.

Some of the exchanges centered on Confederate flags and the renaming of military bases named for Confederate leaders. Trump said he might veto the National Defense Authorization Act because it calls for the bases to be renamed. The military recently effectively banned the Confederate battle flag on bases.

"I don't care what the military says," Trump said. "I'm supposed to make the decisions. Fort Bragg is a big deal. We won two World Wars. Nobody even knows Gen. Bragg. We won two World Wars. Go to that community where Fort Bragg is. It's in a great state [North Carolina], and I love that state. Go to the community. Say, 'How do you like the idea of renaming Fort Bragg?' And, then, what're we going to name it? You're going to name it after the Rev. Al Sharpton? What're you going to name it, Chris? Tell me what you're going to name it."

The president insisted that "when people proudly have their Confederate flags, they're not talking about racism."

"They love their flag. It represents the South. They like the South," Trump said. "People right now like the South."

He expressed disdain for The New York Times' 1619 Project, which re-examines the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S.

"Where did that come from? What does it represent?" he asked. "I don't even know."

Wallace said, "It's slavery."

Trump responded: "That's what they're saying, but they don't even know. They just want to make a change."

Trump then got into a long exchange with Wallace over his recent claim that he had "aced" a cognitive test. After Trump challenged Biden to take such an exam, Wallace said he had recently taken the same exam and found it to be quite easy.

"They have a picture, and it says 'what's that?' and it's an elephant," Wallace said.

Trump pushed back, saying that was "all misrepresentation."

"Because, yes, the first few questions are easy, but I'll bet you couldn't even answer the last five questions," Trump said. "I'll bet you couldn't. They get very hard, the last five questions."

Wallace said one of the questions was to count back from 100 by seven. Trump continued to insist that Wallace "couldn't answer many of the questions."

Asked about the recent book by his niece, Mary Trump, the president said "she was not exactly a family favorite," saying: "She ought to be ashamed of herself. That book is a lie."

The interview also touched on the election. Asked what would happen if he loses to Biden, Trump said that he's "not a good loser" and that he would "have to see" before accepting a loss.

"I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going to say no," Trump said. "And I didn't last time, either."

The president criticized Wallace and Fox News, saying he is "not a big fan of Fox, I'll be honest with you, they've changed a lot," and hitting Wallace for his interviews with Democrats.

"Let Biden sit through an interview like this," Trump said. "He'll be on the ground crying for mommy. He'll say, 'Mommy, Mommy, please take me home.'"