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Donald Trump denies downplaying virus, casts doubt on mask usage

Fielding compelling questions about voters' real-world problems, U.S. 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's answers in town hall raise questions ahead of readiness for debates with Joe Biden

At an ABC News town hall, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed a coronavirus vaccine is just three to four weeks away. He also claimed that he never downplayed the virus publicly, despite evidence to the contrary. 0:46

Fielding compelling questions about voters' real-world problems, U.S. 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.

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.

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.

On the subject of masks, Trump at one point tried to shift attention to Joe Biden and the Democrats.

"They said at the Democrat convention they're going to do a national mandate," said Trump. "They never did it, because they've checked out and they didn't do it."

Biden, who will face Trump in the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, was eager to capitalize on the exchange, posting on Twitter: "To be clear: I am not currently president. But if you chip in now, we can change that in November."

President Donald Trump talks with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos before a town hall at National Constitution Center on Tuesday in Philadelphia. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Trump then asserted in the town hall that "there are a lot of people think that masks are not good."

When pressed by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos as to who he was referring to, Trump said "waiters."

He then took some health experts to task for their evolving advice on masks early on in the pandemic, mentioning Dr. Anthony Fauci by name. Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, has said that, in part, experts were concerned about a run on masks that would prevent front-line workers from obtaining them until supply was ramped up.

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.

Pointed and poignant questions

Trump also suggested the virus would disappear without a vaccine, claiming the nation would develop a herd immunity with time, referring to it as "herd mentality." 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."

'There are people that don't think masks are good,' Trump said at a televised town hall Tuesday evening. Above, Trump wears a protective face mask as he talks with workers while touring a Whirlpool Corporation washing machine factory in Clyde, Ohio, on Aug. 6. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

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.

WATCH l Joe Biden reacts to Woodward book audio clips of Trump:

Audio excerpts of U.S. president Donald Trump discussing the coronavirus pandemic were released to coincide with the launch of journalist Bob Woodward's book about Trump entitled Rage. 1:24

Trump, in the Fox interview, lowered expectations for his Democratic opponent's performance, judging Biden "a disaster" and "grossly incompetent" in early primary debates and then "OK" and "fine" in his final debate with Bernie Sanders.

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. While Trump tried to connect with audience members, there were stumbles, notably when he embarked on a long answer about COVID-19 when a woman talked about her late mother who endured breast cancer and worried about the Trump administration's immigration policies.

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.

With files from CBC News

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