PHILADELPHIA - President Donald Trump attempted to rewrite the history of his early response to the coronavirus during a town hall in Philadelphia on Tuesday, saying he "up-played" the pandemic rather than downplaying it - an assertion directly at odds with his own comments in public and on tape.
"I didn't downplay it; I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action, my action was very strong," Trump said at the National Constitution Center, where he took questions from undecided voters in an event hosted by ABC News.
One voter asked Trump why he downplayed the virus - which the president admitted to doing on purpose in a recorded interview in March with journalist Bob Woodward.
Trump defended those comments Tuesday along with his broader response to the pandemic, saying he didn't want to scare the country. He pointed to his travel restrictions on China as evidence he took it seriously, even though he publicly dismissed the virus' threat for months.
"I don't want to scare people. I don't want to make people panic and you're not going to go out and say, oh, this is going to be, 'This is death, death, death,'" Trump said. He later predicted, again, that the virus would "disappear," a claim he has long made, even as the virus has continued to spread and kill almost 200,000 people in the United States.
At one point, Trump said the virus would go away even without a vaccine, "over a period of time." Trump said Americans would "develop like a herd mentality" - garbling the phrase "herd immunity," the threshold at which enough people have been infected that the virus spreads more slowly. ABC host George Stephanopoulos pointed out that that would also mean "many deaths."
Confronted by voters about his handling of policing and race relations, the president cited low unemployment figures to argue that early this year was "the best single moment in the history of the African American people in this country."
Much of the early portion of the event, staged in the largest media market in one of the most critical swing states in the country, focused on the coronavirus, one of Trump's greatest liabilities heading into the election.
"With China I put a ban on, with Europe I put a ban on, and we would have lost thousands of more people had I not put the ban on," Trump said. "That was called action, not with the mouth but in actual fact."
Even as he imposed the travel limits, Trump for months compared the pandemic to the flu, falsely said it was "under control" and predicted it would simply go away. He refused to develop a national strategy, leaving it to governors to create a patchwork of inconsistent rules - and frequently criticized those for being too restrictive. And he urged the country to open as soon as Easter, even while the pandemic raged.
On Jan. 31, Trump imposed restrictions on people arriving in the U.S. after visiting China, a move that some experts have praised as a helpful early intervention, but that others argue was less decisive than the president portrays. The restrictions had significant exceptions, and Trump's critics say he squandered the benefits by being slow to take other actions to contain the virus, such as ramping up testing and imposing a detailed nationwide plan to limit public activity and encourage social distancing.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward in a March 19 interview for the journalist's new book, Rage. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."
Even Tuesday night, Trump questioned the value of wearing face masks, which he often refuses to wear, even though public health experts say it's one of the most important ways to slow the virus' spread. He frequently mocks his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, for wearing a mask.
"We're very proud of the job we've done," Trump said Tuesday, boasting about providing ventilators and other equipment to states that needed them, and repeatedly blaming China for the virus.
The country has more than 20% of the world's coronavirus deaths, with only 4% of the world population, Stephanopoulos noted.