Donald Trump reversed course during a town hall in crucial battleground Pennsylvania by denying he downplayed the coronavirus despite acknowledging being caught on tape in February calling it “deadly stuff.”
During a wide-ranging town hall event on Tuesday, voters pressed the president on a list of issues, including a pointed question from a black man on race that he mostly dodged. The president visited Pennsylvania yet again as he tries to keep it red after a stunning win there in 2016. But he did little during the 90-minute event to appeal to voting blocs other than his conservative base, defending law enforcement and his coronavirus response – even defying his own medical experts yet again by saying Covid-19 would one day “disappear” even if a vaccine is never approved and deployed.
The president, after last week admitting to downplaying the Covid-19 outbreak to avoid “panic” after journalist Bob Woodward released recordings of interviews with Mr Trump, claimed he “up-played” the disease’s severity earlier this spring and summer.
“Not downplaying. … I’m a cheerleader for our nation,” Mr Trump said during an ABC News town hall with undecided voters.
“I still say it. It’s going to disappear,” he said when pressed by ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos about his predictions the virus would just magically vanish. “We’re not going to be in an empty studio like this.”
The president also said the virus will eventually vanish with or without a vaccine “over a period of time” because “you’ll develop like a herd [immunity]. But with a vaccine, it’ll go away very quickly.”
Mr Trump was asked about his coronavirus response, and told one voter the United States does not need ventilators anymore – even as the death toll nears 200,000 and cases are at least 6.6m.
“We’ve saved a lot of lives,” he contended. “If we didn’t do testing, we wouldn’t have cases.”
Asked about mask-wearing and why he does not wear one more often in public, Mr Trump said he does so sometimes and always inside medical facilities.
“There are people who think that masks aren’t good,” he said, saying patrons in public restaurants touch their face then their plate. “That can’t be good.”
‘There’s not with me’
The president also was pressed on the country’s ongoing racial upheaval and calls for policing reform.
The president used the term “chokers” unironically even after some black men have recently died while being choked by white police officers.
Asked by a black voter if he realises how some of his comments come off to them as “tone deaf,” Mr Trump responded by claiming polls show he has high approval rates among black voters. But polling data shows the opposite, and Mr Biden is counting on a big black turnout of support to help him win in November.
The black voter questioned him why he has yet to say there is a “race problem” in the United States, the president dodged the question.
“There’s not with me,” the president responded, contending once again, falsely, that he has done “more” for the black community than any other president.
On health care, when a black woman with a serious pre-existing condition tried to ask what he would do to protect people like her, he tried to interrupt. She demanded he stay quiet until she was finished in a surreal scene.
He eventually said, yet again, that Republicans soon will roll out a plan that would replace the 2011 Affordable Care Act. The president has been saying that for several years, and denied trying to take down the law known as Obamacare despite a lawsuit experts say would do just that.
Confronted with reported comments by former Secretary of State James Mattis and other former national security officials that he is “unfit” for office, the president contended Mr Mattis was not up to his role and former national security adviser John Bolton “wanted to go to war with everybody.”
“Take a look at what’s going on,” he said of peace accords he signed with Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. Mr Trump said “a guy like Jim Mattis never could have done it because … they were going in all the wrong outlets and wrong doors.”
It was the first time on a major campaign stage he talked up the “Abraham Accords,” signed earlier in the day during an elaborate White House ceremony.
The president was back in the crucial battleground state for the seventh time, among his most-visited this year. He and Mr Biden are both keen to secure its 20 Electoral College votes as they seek the 270 needed to secure the White House.
Mr Trump stunned many political observers four years ago by winning the Keystone State, defeating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percentage point.
Since even before Mr Biden secured the Democratic nomination, the president has trailed the former VP in the state where he was born and lived for around a decade. RealClearPolitics’ average of several recent polls there give Mr Biden a 4.3 per cent lead – but that is within or just outside the margin of error in most surveys.
Mr Trump’s selection of Philadelphia to talk to undecided voters was no coincidence. Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight wrote this week that Pennsylvania “looks like the single most important state of the 2020 election.”
“Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: It has a 31 per cent chance of being the tipping-point state,” he wrote, “In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 per cent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96 per cent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.”
Both candidates seem keenly aware.
Mr Biden, who has spent almost the entire coronavirus outbreak at his nearby Wilmington, Delaware home has used several Keystone cities to deliver remarks. Mr Trump knows, too.
As he headed back to Washington with his cheesesteaks, the president had a message for the Keystone State: “Great to be back in Philadelphia. Thank you Pennsylvania, see you again soon!” With the race likely to tighten in its final seven weeks, it is now just a question of how many times can his campaign get him back to the Keystone State.