President Donald Trump claimed on Tuesday to have “up-played” the threat of coronavirus early in the pandemic, contradicting his own remarks to the journalist Bob Woodward that he wanted to minimize the disease to avoid panic.
Speaking at an ABC News town hall moderated by George Stephanopoulos, Trump rebutted a student who asked why he had downplayed “a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities.” Trump defended his response to the health crisis by citing an early travel ban on foreign nationals from China from entering the U.S. in order to curb the spread of the virus.
“Well, I didn’t downplay it,” the president responded. “I actually, in many ways, I up-played in terms of action. My action was very strong.”
The student interjected: “Did you not admit to it yourself?”
“With China, I put a ban on. With Europe, I put a ban on. We would have lost thousands of more people had I not put the ban on,” Trump said. “We did a very, very good job when we put that ban on — whether you call it talent or luck, it was very important.”
Back in February, Trump admitted to Woodward that he wanted to minimize the threat posed by coronavirus to avoid panic, even though he acknowledged to the veteran Washington Post journalist the lethal effects of the virus and easy contagion. The Post earlier this month published excerpts from recordings of more than a dozen interviews between the two.
Since February, Trump has publicly cast doubt on recommendations from his own health experts, comparing the disease to the seasonal flu. For months, he declined to wear a mask in public events and has recently restarted campaign rallies in enclosed spaces — much to health experts’ chagrin.
Trump has also called for reopening vast swaths of the country, contending that keeping people in lockdown was a greater risk than the virus that has claimed the lives of almost 200,000 people in the U.S. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Latino Americans.
Trump’s pivot to his early travel ban from China and parts of Europe has become his default defense when faced with criticism of his coronavirus response.
Another town hall participant confronted Trump on his “Make America Great Again” motto, pointing out that for many African Americans who have historically faced injustices because of racism, “we cannot identify with such greatness.” He confronted the president for declining to acknowledge that there is a “race problem in America,” a remark that caused the president to pause.
“Well, I hope there’s not a race problem,” Trump said. “I can tell you there’s none with me, because I have great respect for all races.”
Trump then repeated familiar lines on race issues, saying that under his administration, African Americans have had the lowest unemployments rates in history.
Both the participant and Stephanopoulos pointed out that income inequality has been growing during his presidency, and that many Black workers have been earning less than a living wage. But Trump refused to concede the point, blaming the coronavirus pandemic for the growing inequality.
“Had we not been hit by this horrible disease that came into our land, and all over the world by the way,” Trump said, “we would be in a position where I think income inequality would be different. It was really getting there. We were really driving it down.”