President Donald Trump has denied downplaying the threat of the coronavirus earlier this year, despite the existence of an audio recording of him stating he did just that.
Mr Trump participated in a televised town hall meeting on Tuesday with uncommitted voters, hosted by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, in a warm up two weeks before he faces Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the first presidential debate.
Taped at the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia, it featured Mr Trump taking questions from an audience of just 21 voters to comply with state and local coronavirus regulations.
It marked Mr 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.
In an exchange with one voter, Mr 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 having been released, Mr Trump told the voter: “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,” he added, according to ABC.
Mr Trump, pressed by one uncommitted voter on why he does not 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.
“There are people that don’t think masks are good,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump has been unusually quiet about his preparations for the first debate, scheduled for September 29 in Cleveland. On Tuesday, he told Fox News he believes his day job is the best practice for his three scheduled showdowns with Mr Biden.
“Well, I sort of prepare every day by just doing what I’m doing,” Mr Trump said. He noted he had been in California on Monday and had been to other states before that to make the point that he is moving out and about more than Mr Biden.
Mr Trump, in the Fox interview, lowered expectations for his Democratic opponent’s performance, judging Mr Biden “a disaster” and “grossly incompetent” in the primary debates. He assessed Mr Biden as “OK” and “fine” in his final one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders before clinching the nomination.
Mr Trump’s rhetoric on Mr 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 October 15, will feature a similar “town meeting” style.
Mr 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 Mr Trump’s second to the battleground state in the past week, after he attended a September 11 memorial event in Shanksville on Friday.