President Trump told a voter he did not downplay the coronavirus in the early days of his administration’s Covid-19 response — though he’s been heard on tape saying he did — during an ABC News town on 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 he acknowledged downplaying the threat of the coronavirus pandemic in a taped interview with journalist Bob Woodward earlier this year.
The town hall, hosted by George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia, is one of the rare occasions Trump has sat down for questions with a news network other than Fox News. It is also one of the few moments 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 sagging as he continues to get low marks from voters for how he handled the response to the virus.
Trump’s about-face on his administration’s coronavirus response comes as taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward were recently released in which the president acknowledged downplaying the threat, according to an account of Woodward’s new book.
“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 March 19 call with Woodward, 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.
In the same interview, Trump also acknowledged that the disease was more deadly than he publicly admitted.
“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.”
During the ABC town hall, Trump continued to misrepresent his administration’s response to the virus and blame China.
“We’ve worked very hard on the pandemic,” Trump told a conservative voter with an underlying health condition who criticized the administration’s virus response. “We’ve worked very hard. It came off from China, they should have never let it happen.”
Trump also reiterated his claim that the virus would eventually disappear, pointing to a “herd mentality” that would develop, which he likely meant to be “herd immunity.”
Trump was also pressed by a local pastor, who is Black, on race. Trump was asked when was America ever “great,” referring to Trump’s 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 on 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 discussing his poll numbers among minorities and Black and Latino unemployment numbers under his administration. Trump has been struggling with Black voters, who overwhelmingly support Biden, according to polls.
Trump was later pressed on the killings of Black Americans by police and how they are three times more likely to be killed during an encounter with an officer and downplayed systemic racism in law enforcement. Trump said the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin were “tragic events” but largely defended the 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 of the town hall was the discussion of health care. A voter with a pre-existing condition pressed the president on his health care plan and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which protected pre-existing conditions.
Trump claimed to the voter that he is preserving pre-existing conditions, even as his administration argues in court against Obamacare. This prompted Stephanopoulos to jump into 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.”
Despite the pushback, Trump continues to claim 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 2020 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 more details.
Trump also pushed back at a voter who asked if 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.”