PHILADELPHIA — Fielding compelling questions about voters' real-world problems, President Donald Trump denied during a televised town hall that he had played down the threat of the coronavirus earlier this year, although there is an audio recording of him stating he did just that.
Trump, in what could well be a preview of his performance in the presidential debates less than two weeks away, cast doubt on the widely accepted scientific conclusions of his own administration strongly urging the use of face coverings and seemed to bat away the suggestion that the nation has racial inequities.
"Well, I hope there's not a race problem," Trump said Tuesday when asked about his campaign rhetoric seeming to ignore the historical injustices carried out against Black Americans.
Face-to-face with everyday voters for the first time in months, Trump was defensive but resisted agitation as he was pressed on his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and why he doesn't more aggressively promote the use of masks to reduce the spread of the disease.
"There are people that don't think masks are good," Trump said, though his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urges their use.
The event, hosted by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, was a warmup of sorts before Trump faces Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. Taped at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, it featured Trump taking questions from an audience of just 21 voters to comply with state and local coronavirus regulations.
Trump sought to counter his admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he was deliberately "playing it down" when discussing the threat of COVID-19 to Americans earlier this year. Despite audio of his comments being released, Trump said: "Yeah, well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action."
"My action was very strong," Trump added. "I'm not looking to be dishonest. I don't want people to panic."
Trump also insisted he was not wrong when he praised China's response to the virus in January and February, saying he trusted Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. "He told me that it was under control, that everything was and it turned out to be not true," Trump said,
Trump also suggested the virus would disappear without a vaccine, claiming the nation would develop a herd immunity with time, but he didn't mention the lives that would be lost along the way.
"It's going to be herd-developed, and that's going to happen. That will all happen," Trump said. "But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly."
He concluded by praising his own handling the virus, saying it had enhanced the reputation of some governors and that "we've made a lot of people look good that shouldn't look good, to be honest with you."
The questions from uncommitted voters were pointed and poignant: a diabetic man who said he felt he'd been thrown "under the bus" by mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic; a Black woman with a disease that left her uninsurable until the Obama health care law came along who is worried that she could lose coverage again; a Black pastor who questioned Trump's campaign motto to "Make America Great Again."
"When has America been great for African Americans in the ghetto of America?" the pastor asked.
Asked about what he was doing to address protests against racial injustice, Trump lamented a "lack of respect" and the absence of "retribution" for those who clash with or carry out attacks against police officers. Trump on Sunday called for the death penalty for the individual who shot and critically injured two Los Angeles Sheriff's Department deputies over the weekend.
Trump has been unusually mum on his debate preparations ahead of the first debate, set to take place in Cleveland. On Tuesday, he told Fox News that he believes his day job is the best practice for his three scheduled showdowns with Biden.
"Well, I sort of prepare every day by just doing what I'm doing," Trump said. He noted that he had been in California on Monday and had been to other states before that to make the point that he's getting out and about more than Biden.
One person likely to study the replay: Biden. Returning from a long day of campaigning in Florida, Biden said at his plane that he was preparing for the debates mostly by going back through what Trump has said in the past. But he suggested he had yet to initiate mock debates, saying he was unaware who would play the role of Trump in his preparations.
Trump, in the Fox interview, lowered expectations for his Democratic opponent's performance, judging Biden "a disaster" and "grossly incompetent" in the primary debates. He assessed Biden as "OK" and "fine" in his final one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders before clinching the nomination.
Trump's rhetoric on Biden marked a departure from the traditional efforts by candidates to talk up their rivals' preparation for televised debates, in hopes of setting an unattainably high bar for their performance.
The second of the three scheduled debates, set to be held in Miami on Oct. 15, will feature a similar "town meeting" style.
Biden is to have his own opportunity to hone his skills taking questions from voters on Thursday, when he participates in a televised town hall hosted by CNN.
The visit to Pennsylvania is Trump's second to the battleground state in the last week, after he attended a Sept. 11 memorial event in Shanksville on Friday.