President Donald Trump attempted to rewrite the history of his early response to the coronavirus during a town hall in Philadelphia on Tuesday, saying he “up-played” the pandemic rather than downplaying it — an assertion directly at odds with his own comments in public and on tape.
“I didn’t downplay it; I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action, my action was very strong,” Trump said at the National Constitution Center, where he took questions from undecided voters in an event hosted by ABC News.
Several questioners pressed Trump on his handling of the pandemic, now one of the biggest liabilities he faces in his reelection bid.
One voter asked Trump why he downplayed the virus — which the president admitted to doing on purpose in a recorded interview in March with journalist Bob Woodward.
Trump defended those comments Tuesday and his broader response to the pandemic, saying he didn’t want to scare the country. He pointed to his travel restrictions on China as evidence he took it seriously, even though he publicly dismissed the virus' threat for months.
“I don’t want to scare people. I don’t want to make people panic and you’re not going to go out and say, oh, this is going to be, ‘This is death, death, death,’” Trump said. He later predicted, again, that the virus would “disappear,” a claim he has long made, even as the virus has continued to spread and kill almost 200,000 people in the United States.
At one point, Trump said the virus would go away even without a vaccine, “over a period of time.” Trump said Americans would “develop like a herd mentality” — garbling the phrase “herd immunity,” the threshold at which enough people have been infected that the virus spreads more slowly. ABC host George Stephanopoulos pointed out that that would also mean “many deaths.”
Confronted by voters about his handling of policing and race relations, the president cited low unemployment figures to argue that early this year was “the best single moment in the history of the African American people in this country.”
Much of the early portion of the event, staged in the largest media market in one of the most critical swing states in the country, focused on the coronavirus.
“With China I put a ban on, with Europe I put a ban on, and we would have lost thousands of more people had I not put the ban on," Trump said. “That was called action, not with the mouth but in actual fact.”
Even as he imposed the travel limits, Trump for months compared the pandemic to the flu, falsely said it was “under control,” and predicted it would simply go away. He refused to develop a national strategy, leaving it to governors to create a patchwork of inconsistent rules — and frequently criticized those for being too restrictive. And he urged the country to open as soon as Easter, even while the pandemic raged.
On Jan. 31, Trump imposed restrictions on people arriving in the U.S. after visiting China, a move that some experts have praised as a helpful early intervention, but that others argue was less decisive than the president portrays. The restrictions had significant exceptions, and Trump’s critics say he squandered the benefits by being slow to take other actions to contain the virus, such as ramping up testing and imposing a detailed nationwide plan to limit public activity and encourage social distancing.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward in a March 19 interview for the journalist’s new book, Rage. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Even Tuesday night, Trump questioned the value of wearing face masks, which he often refuses to do, even though public health experts say it’s one of the most important ways to slow the virus' spread. He frequently mocks his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, for wearing a mask.
“We’re very proud of the job we’ve done,” Trump said Tuesday, boasting about providing ventilators and other equipment to states that needed them, and repeatedly blaming China for the virus.
The country has more than 20% of the world’s coronavirus deaths, with only 4% of the world population, Stephanopoulos noted.
In a statement later, Biden said: “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.”
A Philadelphia pastor, Carl Day, confronted Trump about his “Make America Great Again” slogan, asking when the country has been great for African Americans. “Are you aware how tone deaf that comes off to African American communities?” Day asked.
Trump responded by pointing to Black unemployment statistics before the pandemic.
“You could just go back six or seven months from now, that was the best single moment in the history of the African American people in this country, I think,” Trump said.
The overwhelming majority of Black voters support Biden, polls show, and many believe Trump has encouraged racism — or is racist himself, a charge the president denied Tuesday.
Asked about police shootings, Trump briefly acknowledged the actions of “bad apples” and “chokers,” saying some police make mistakes under pressure. But he also said police are unfairly maligned and “we have to give police back that strength that they had a short while ago.”
The event was filled with many of Trump’s by now familiar falsehoods, misdirections, and exaggerations. Even before he spoke, Philadelphia Democrats took aim at Trump’s response to the pandemic.
State Sen. Sharif Street said Trump had shown little concern for the city and failed to provide the resources Philadelphia needs, all while trying to make it harder to vote with lawsuits attacking voting by mail and ballot drop boxes.
“He is attempting to frustrate the votes of folks, but especially the votes of Black and brown folks,” Street said. “Our communities have already been hit hardest by COVID-19 and he doesn’t care.”
Hundreds of chanting protesters gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the event, outnumbering Trump supporters who also descended on the area, in a city where he won only about 16% of the vote in 2016.
Public polls have consistently shown Biden leading Trump in Pennsylvania, though some show a tight race and members of both parties expect the contest to be close throughout the election.
The town hall came as the Trump campaign, having burned through a considerable financial advantage, returned to the television airwaves in Pennsylvania after going dark in the state for several weeks (some national spots still aired in the state).
It also came amid a sharp back-and-forth between him and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, after a federal judge in Pittsburgh threw out some of the governor’s coronavirus restrictions shutting down thousands of “non-life-sustaining” businesses and limiting how many people can gather in one place. The judge ruled Monday that the limits were unconstitutional.
Wolf, who had already softened many of the limits, said he plans to appeal. The pandemic has killed almost 8,000 Pennsylvanians and infected more than 146,000, and many experts worry another surge is looming in the fall. Earlier this month, Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus task force coordinator, said Pennsylvania has done a “remarkable” job combating the pandemic.
“The president could do nothing more than stare at his cellphone and send out tweets, share messages of hate, messages of division, messages of disinformation,” Wolf said Tuesday.
Biden has held numerous events in Pennsylvania, too, and both he and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, are scheduled to visit Thursday. Biden is scheduled to attend his own town hall, hosted by CNN, in Scranton. Harris will make her first Philadelphia stop since officially becoming the Democratic nominee for vice president.