Trump tells ABC in Pennsylvania town hall that he 'up played' severity of coronavirus

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A new book suggests that President Trump understood the threats of the coronavirus even as he told the nation it was no worse than the seasonal flu. USA TODAY

PHILADELPHIA – President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied downplaying the threat from coronavirus, telling a television town hall that he “up played it” despite his assertion in an interview earlier this year that he “wanted to always play it down.”

Trump made the remarks during a 90-minute town hall hosted by ABC News in the must win battleground of Pennsylvania. That program will air at 9 p.m. ET. The pre-recorded event features uncommitted voters asking the president questions. 

“Well I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up played it terms of action,” Trump said in response to a question about an interview with journalist Bob Woodward in which he said he knew the coronavirus was more deadly and contagious than the flu but continued to compare the two. 

The town hall will air two weeks before Trump will take part in his first debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

ABC has described the event as being aimed at undecided voters, some of whom will ask Trump questions about the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, climate change, and other issues. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos will anchor the town hall.

“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward on March 19 in excerpts of audio interviews obtained by CNN. 

Trump frequently compared the coronavirus to the flu, arguing that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on” during even the most deadly flu seasons.

More: Pelosi says House will stay in session until coronavirus stimulus deal is reached

Trump landed in Philadelphia shortly before 5 p.m. ET and the town hall was recorded at the National Constitution Center. The National Constitution Center, the lobby of which provides a picture window view of Independence Hall a few blocks distant, was the site of former President Barack Obama’s high-profile speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign. 

The first of three debates, set for Sept. 29, will come as some polls suggest a tightening race in some battlegrounds, including Florida and North Carolina.

Trump carried Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. The suburbs of Philadelphia are among the most competitive in the country, though Trump is also seeking to run up turnout in more reliably conservative parts of the state.

“With the suburban voter, we’re taking care of them – it’s safety, it’s about safety, it’s about law and order,” Trump said as he left the White House, echoing what has become a central tenet of his bid for reelection. “We have a very strong, very powerful law and order campaign.”  

Polls currently show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a single-digit lead in the Keystone State. 

The town hall was to air on a day when the president secured a historic foreign policy victory: A pair of agreements formalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The foreign ministers of those Arab states joined Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the South Lawn of the White House earlier Tuesday for a signing ceremony.

More: Israel signs accords with UAE and Bahrain at White House ceremony

Contributing: Jeanine Santucci

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