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Trump insists he ‘up-played’ coronavirus threat, continues to cast doubt on masks

President Donald Trump arrives for an ABC News town hall at National Constitution Center, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Philadelphia.
President Donald Trump arrives for an ABC News town hall at National Constitution Center, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump denied during a televised town hall Tuesday 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, pressed by one uncommitted voter on why he doesn’t more aggressively promote the use of masks to reduce the spread of the disease, continued to cast doubt on the widely accepted scientific conclusions of his own administration strongly urging the use of face coverings.

Read more: Trump aide apologizes for video disparaging scientists battling coronavirus

“There are people that don’t think masks are good,” Trump said.

When asked who those people are, Trump replied, “Waiters,” and proceeded to raise concerns about restaurant servers touching plates of food after touching their masks.

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The event, hosted by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, was a warmup of sorts two weeks before he faces Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the first presidential debate. 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. It marked Trump’s first time facing direct questions from voters in months, and an opportunity for the Republican to test-drive his message before the critical debates.

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.

Trump avoids talking about COVID-19 on campaign trail
Trump avoids talking about COVID-19 on campaign trail

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.”

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“My action was very strong,” Trump added. “I’m not looking to be dishonest. I don’t want people to panic.”

At the same time, the president once again repeated his claim that the virus would “disappear,” either with a vaccine or not. He brushed past Stephanopoulos when the host pointed out more people will die without a vaccine.

“With time, it goes away,” he said. “And you’ll develop like a herd mentality, it’s going to be herd developed. And that’s going to happen. That will all happen. … And I really believe we’re rounding the corner.”

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.

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Elsewhere during the event, Trump faced questions on systemic racism in the U.S., including police brutality, at one point telling a Black voter, “I hope there’s not a race problem.”

His comments about how he “up-played” the threat of the coronavirus came in response to another Black audience member who pointed to the virus’ impact on low-income and racialized communities.

Read more: Trump holds indoor campaign rally in Nevada despite coronavirus threat

Trump has been unusually mum on his debate preparations ahead of the first debate, scheduled for Sept. 29 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.

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 under fire in the wake of Woodward book revelations
Trump under fire in the wake of Woodward book revelations

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.

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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.

—With files from Global News