WASHINGTON — The coronavirus can’t be wished away. Real people kept it real. Preparation — and the moderator — matters.
President Donald Trump’s town hall in front of undecided Pennsylvania voters offered an intriguing preview of how he may approach his first debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden in two weeks.
Tuesday night’s event on ABC featured predictable attack lines and vague promises of policy from Trump. But it also showcased, again, the president’s struggle to effectively defend his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans.
And while the president’s aides have been eager to shift focus off the virus, the town hall made clear that the campaign, now down to its final seven weeks, has remained a referendum on the president and the pandemic.
Here are other takeaways from a night that served as a tantalizing opening act for the first general election debate on Sept. 29:
• DENIALISM: Memorably, Trump said in February that the coronavirus would disappear “like a miracle.” His tone has not changed much seven months later.
The president put himself at odds with some basic scientific facts about the virus, including being dismissive of his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strong recommendation for Americans to use face masks.
“There are people that don’t think masks are good,” Trump said, mentioning that waiters have struggled with their face coverings and did not like them.
Trump also tried to counter his admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he had tried to “play it down” when discussing the threat of COVID-19 to Americans earlier this year. Although audio recordings of his comments have been released, Trump said: “Yeah, well, I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action.”
He also, again, offered little acknowledgment of the historical injustices targeted at Black Americans.
“Well, I hope there’s not a race problem,” the president said.
• PREPARATION MATTERS: Trump has largely eschewed formal preparation for his debates with Biden, telling aides and allies that he believes his day job sparring with journalists will suffice. And Trump backers saw much that they liked in Trump’s performance Tuesday evening, including an opportunity for the president to make a rare, if uneven, display of empathy.
But, privately, some are worried that Trump will face the same fate as many of his predecessors, who tend to grow complacent in the White House and can become flustered when they face their general-election rival for the first time.
While some have gently advised Trump to study up, the president has largely ignored their advice for now, leaving allies holding their breath for Sept. 29.