ABC town hall: Trump faces tough questions on COVID-19, health care, racial injustice

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Exactly seven weeks before Election Day and two weeks before the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump faced uncommitted voters in a 90-minute town hall special hosted by ABC News from the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos anchored the "20/20" event -- "The President and the People" -- from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The forum provided uncommitted voters, the opportunity to ask the president their questions on issues affecting Americans from the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery to protests for racial justice.

ABC News offered to host a similar town hall with Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, but ABC News and the campaign were not able to find a mutually agreeable date.

Here's are highlights from the town hall.

11:15 p.m. 5 key takeaways

There are less than 60 days until many voters head to the polls to cast ballots for President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden -- but some voters are still not committed to either candidate. In an ABC News town hall Tuesday, the president faced questions from some of those voters living in a critical battleground state: Pennsylvania.

The socially-distanced event was moderated by ABC News' chief anchor, George Stephanopoulos, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia -- a different setting than the president, who usually answers questions from the White House press corps and his favorite anchors at Fox News, is used to.

In 2016, the Keystone State went for Trump by just 44,292 votes -- less than one percentage point of the total vote. And while a recent poll of likely voters in the state showed that Biden is now leading by nine points, a lot can change in the final weeks of an election, and opportunities for the candidates to answer directly to voters -- like the town hall and the upcoming presidential debates -- could be what swing voters need to choose a candidate, or to sit out the election altogether.

Here are five key takeaways from the 90-minute special event:

10:59 p.m. Fact-checking the president's answers

ABC News fact checks what Trump said throughout the 90-minute special:

10:30 p.m. Trump says COVID-19 biggest challenge of his presidency

For the night's final question, Trump was asked what has been the most difficult part of his presidency and what has he learned from it.

"Without question I would say, because things were going so well, I think I'd have to say the whole COVID, the 'China virus' as I call it -- because it comes from China, I think it's a much more accurate term," Trump said. "But it's it's been very difficult. It's been so sad."

Trump revealed he's known six people who have died from COVID-19.

"I've learned that life is very fragile because these were strong people and all of a sudden they were dead. They were gone. And it wasn't their fault. It was the fault of a country that could have stopped it," Trump added, continuing to place blame on China.

The president said he can no longer view his trade deal with China with same pride "because of the horror of this disease that really could have been stopped at the border."

Stephanopoulos then pressed the president, "Could you have done more to stop it?"

"I don't think so. I think what I did, like closing up the country, I think I saved two maybe two and a half, maybe more than that, lives. I really don't think so. I think we did a very good job. I don't know if that's been recognized," he said.

The president went on to say that his response to the pandemic made other officials look good too -- but that he doesn't think they didn't deserve the recognition.

"We've made a lot of governors feel good. We've made some reputationally -- We've enhanced their reputation. They didn't have anything. We got them the supplies. We got them the ventilators. We made a lot of people look good that shouldn't look good, to be honest with you," Trump said.

10:22 p.m. Trump appears to misunderstand voters' question on path to citizenship

A woman who says she immigrated from the Dominican Republican and lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and has not voted before as she just became a citizen, shared with Trump that her mother died from breast cancer last month but had a dream to become a citizen and vote.

"I'm here because of her," the woman said through tears.

"We lost our jobs, but we learned how to love our families. I'm saying that for her," she added of the pandemic.

She went on to ask Trump what's he going to improve about the country's path to citizenship.

"We are doing something with immigration that I think is going to be very strong, because we want people to come in to our country, people like you. And like your mother. And that just shows how vicious the COVID is, especially when you have another problem you have a heart problem or another type of a problem. And it's a it's a very sad story," Trump said, not appearing to understand her mother had not died from the coronavirus but from cancer.

"I mean as far as your situation with your mother that is just devastating because I can imagine how you feel and sounds like a great woman and I'll tell you she, she -- and I can, I'm pretty good with people -- she gave us a great daughter, a great child," he said, continuing to tease coronavirus therapeutics and vaccines.

10:12 p.m. Trump says he's restored law and order 'except in Democrat run cities'

Alexander J. Floyd of Dallas, Pennsylvania, who says he voted for Trump in 2016, asked the president how he can balance common sense police reform without sacrificing public safety.

Trump raised the police reform plan Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, spearheaded for the GOP over the summer in the wake of George Floyd's death -- before both parties plans failed in Congress, lacking the necessary bipartisan support.

"The Democrats are viewing this as a political issue, and I probably agree with them, I think it's very bad for them, because we're about law and order. We have to be about law and order otherwise you're going to see your cities burn. And that's the way it is, if we can do a plan like Tim Scott's plan which is really -- it goes far enough, but it doesn't take the dignity away from our police," Trump said.

Trump went on to rail against Democratic run cities he said are filled with crime because governors won't allow him to dispatch the National Guard to their streets.

"Wherever you have a Democrat city -- not in all cases -- but if you look at the really troubled cities in our country, they're Democrat-run, and that's Biden," Trump said. "They're weak. They're ineffective."

"You're president of all of those cities right now," Stephanopoulos responded.

"I'm president but I can only do what I'm allowed to do, George. I don't need the Insurrection Act to take care of 250 anarchists. We can do that very easily with a National Guard. We proved that in Minneapolis," Trump said.

10 p.m. Trump slams reporting in The Atlantic that he made disparaging comments about troops

Presented with the allegations in The Atlantic that Trump made disparaging comments about American troops, Trump slammed the reporting as "fake."

"It's easy because I never made those statements," Trump said, defending that he wanted to visit the cemetery on his 2018 trip to Paris. "As far as John McCain, I was never a fan of John McCain. I never thought he treated our vets well. He didn't do the job. I was never a fan of his. And I think that's fine and everybody knows that and I said it to his face."

Trump went on to say his actions in office show his support for the military.

"I have done so much for our vets and for our military. I rebuilt our military. Our military, when I came into this great office, our military was depleted, it was in the worst shape it was in probably ever. It was depleted. The planes were old and broken, the ships, everything. You see what I've done. I've rebuilt, $2.5 trillion. And you think that was easy getting that money from Democrats? Because they don't like the military," Trump claimed.

Asked by Stephanopoulos how he responds to former top military advisers in his administration like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former national security adviser John Bolton who have each publicly said he's unfit for office, Trump painted them as "disgruntled employees."

"Mattis was a highly overrated general. He didn't do the job. He didn't do good on ISIS," Trump said, continuing to insist he fired Mattis, though Mattis says he resigned. "John Bolton, all he wanted to do is blow people up."

Trump went on to say Americans deploying to the Middle East has been "the worst decision in the history of our country" and he's working to move more troops out.

9:58 p.m. Trump touts stock market performance, warns of economic depression under Biden

Stephanopoulos followed up on Trump's talk of a "super V" recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic noting that many economists say it looks more like a K shaped recovery -- so people at the top, who have a lot of stocks are doing pretty well, but only half of the jobs have come back.

"George, stocks are owned by everybody," Trump said. "I mean, you know, they talk about the stock market is so good. That's 401K's. I'm meeting people with, as long as they didn't sell when the market went down, when we first realized, you know, the extent of this horrible thing from China. I mean, these people are doing -- some of them are doing better than they were doing before the pandemic came."

Trump went on to warn without evidence that if Biden were president the country would see an unprecedented depression.

"I've set records on the stock market, even during the pandemic. And that doesn't happen by accident. I will tell you this, if Joe Biden ever got this position and that's a headwind on the stock market," he said. "If Joe Biden ever got in I think you'd have a depression, the likes of which we've never seen in this country."

"You take a look at the 401K's, they're in many cases better than they were before the pandemic came," he added.

But even as thestock marketimproves, the U.S. unemployment rate has skyrocketed from around 3% pre-pandemic to nearly 15% in April. It now sits at 8.4%, meaning more than half of the Americans who lost their jobs are still out of work.

9:54 p.m. Trump defends 'unpresidential' behavior

Jim Roudeski of Irwin, Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump in 2016, asked the president if he would you do anything differently in a second term to create a more unified message, as critics argue Trump can be "unpresidential."

"So, I'm fighting a battle. It's a big battlefield and I have a lot of forces against me," Trump said. "Sometimes you don't have time to be totally, as you would say presidential -- you have to get things done."

Trump ticked off how more than 200 of his judicial nominees, including two Supreme Court justices, over 50 circuit court judges and over 150 district court judges, have been confirmed to date. He went on to suggest he doesn't have the time to be "presidential" because he's moving so quickly -- which that includes moving people who can't keep up with him out.

"And honestly, we move very fast. And I have to get rid of people fast because they're not doing their job... And when I do that to get somebody else that is good and if they don't do it we get rid of that person," Trump said.

"I always used to sort of kid on the campaign trail that I could be more presidential -- be very easy -- more presidential than any other candidate except for possibly Abraham Lincoln when he's wearing the hat, right? But the fact is being presidential is easier than what I have to do, but I get things done."

9:48 p.m. Trump challenged on health care: Where is the plan?

Ellesia Blaque, an assistant professor from Philadelphia, who says she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and suffers from a disease called sarcoidosis, asked Trump what he's going to do about people like her with pre-existing conditions -- as he challenges Obamacare in court without having presented a replacement health care plan.

"We're not going to hurt pre-existing conditions and, in fact, just the opposite," Trump said, before falsely claiming Democrats would get rid of protections for preexisting conditions or take on "socialized medicine" although Biden has said he would not support "Medicare for All."

"We're going to be doing a health care plan very strongly and protect people with pre existing conditions," he continued, before Stephanopoulos pointed out he still has not presented a plan in his first term as president.

Trump went on to emphasize how he got rid of Obamacare's individual mandate, a financial penalty for not having medical insurance and claim that he has "other alternatives to Obamacare that are 50% less expensive and that are actually better."

"It's been three and a half years," Stephanopoulos said.

"George, it's been 40 years since you had good health care," Trump replied.

9:39 p.m. Stephanopoulos challenges Trump's criticism of Democratic-run states: 'They're American states'

Asked by another voter if Americans can expect more aid from the federal government as more workers may lose their jobs in the months to come, Trump said he wants to see additional stimulus payments -- but negotiations between Republicans and Democrats have appeared to reach a dead end.

Stephanopoulos pressed Trump on why he -- the dealmaker in chief -- doesn't hammer it out himself with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Because they know exactly where I stand," Trump said. "At the right time, I'll do that. But they know exactly where I stand. What they want is a bailout of Democrat run states that are doing poorly and, you know, I don't think this is the right way to --"

"Why do you keep talking about Democrat states and Democrat cities," Stephanopoulos said to the president. "They're American states and American cities."

"Look, I'm the president of everybody. I don't want to say it, but they're Democrat-run cities. It is what it is," Trump said.

9:36 p.m. Voter challenges Trump on 'Make America Great Again' slogan

Pastor Carl Day of Philadelphia, a Black man who says he voted for Jill Stein in 2016, challenged Trump's ubiquitous campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," in light of a long history of systemic racism in housing and criminal justice.

"Because you say again, we need to see when was that 'great'? Because that pushes us back to a time in which we cannot identify with such 'greatness,'" he asked. "You've said everything else about choking and everything else, but you have yet to address and acknowledge that there has been a race problem in America."

"I hope there's not a race problem," Trump replied. "I can tell you there's none with me because I have great respect for all races -- for everybody. This country is great because of it."

The president then turned to what he called "the best unemployment numbers they've ever had in the Black community, by far," prior to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

"And that was solving a lot of problems, and you know what else was -- it was bringing people together," Trump said.

Stephanopoulos noted there is still a wealth gap between Blacks and whites in the U.S., one that existed long before the pandemic, to which Trump said, "I mean, there was a gap, but we were doing a good job. It was getting better."

9:31 p.m. Trump refuses to say whether racial injustices are occurring in America

As protests continue for racial justice across the country, a registered nurse from Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, says she's always voted Republican for president, invoking the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, asked Trump if he believes racial injustices are occurring in this nation.

"Well I think they were tragic events, and I do feel that we have to also take into consideration that if you look at our police they do a phenomenal job. You'll have people choke, make mistakes and they happen, it happens, where they have to make a fast decision and some bad things happen," Trump said, adding there are "bad apples" but "99%" are "great people."

"And I will say this, if you're going to stop crime, we have to give the respect back to the police that they deserve," he added. "I agree with you, those events are terrible, but we have to allow the police to do their job. Otherwise crime is going to soar."

Raising the shooting of two sheriff deputies in Los Angeles this week, Trump said the event is an example of "a lack of respect" for law enforcement.

Stephanopoulos also condemned the act before pressing Trump on the fact that Black Americans are more than three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.

The president wouldn't say one way or another whether there's a systematic problem with policing.

"No, I think there's problems but I also think there's some very big problems where if you don't give the police back their authority," he said.

9:27 p.m. Trump says he 'up-played' virus, repeats it's going to 'disappear'

A first-time voter asked Trump why he downplayed the pandemic, as he admitted to doing so in audio recordings from interviews with Bob Woodward as to not cause a panic, but Trump rejected the characterization of the question.

"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. "Yeah, because what I did was, 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. So that was called 'action,' not with the mouth but in actual fact."

Stephanopoulos noted there were holes in those travels bans, but Trump defended those exceptions, saying, "We allowed certain people and it's true but they were American citizens."

Trump went on to predict the country would have seen two million deaths without his action.

Asked if there is anything he regrets on his pandemic response, Trump said no.

"I think we did a great job," he said, as the country nears 200,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Trump went on to say that even without a vaccine the virus is "going to disappear," repeating a line he delivered back in March as the country first began to shutdown that has come under heavy criticism.

"It is going to disappear. It's going to disappear, I still say it," Trump said.

9:14 p.m. Trump claims waiters think 'masks are not good'

Julie Bart from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, who says she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, asked Trump why as a leader he doesn't wear a mask more often -- when science has shown mask wearing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus.

"Well, I do wear them when I have to and when I'm in hospitals and other locations," Trump said, though he's been seen in public in a mask less than a handful of times.

He then pivoted to an attack on Biden who has called on every governor to set a mask mandate before defending those Americans who still refuse to wear masks.

"Now, there is, by the way, a lot of people don't want to wear masks. There are a lot of people think that masks are not good," he said.

When Stephanopoulos pressed Trump on who is saying masks are bad, Trump said, "waiters."

"They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me, and they're playing with a mask. I'm not blaming them. I'm just saying what happens," he said. "The concept of a mask is good but it also does -- you're constantly touching it you're touching your face, you're touching plates. There are people that don't think masks are good."

9:09 p.m. Why Pennsylvania could decide the 2020 election

Right now, Pennsylvania looks like the single most important state of the 2020 election.

According to FiveThirtyEight's presidential forecast, Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: It has a 31 percent chance of being the tipping-point state. (That's what happens when you take one of the most evenly divided states in the union and give it 20 electoral votes.) In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state - and it gives Biden a 96 percent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.

Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight

9:06 p.m. Trump defends pandemic response to a voter who asks why he was thrown 'under the bus'

Paul Tubiana -- who identifies as conservative and pro-life, says he is diabetic and voted for Trump in 2016 -- and did not mince words invoking his own struggle.

"I've had to dodge people who don't care about social distancing and wearing face masks. I thought you were doing a good job with a pandemic response, until about May 1, then you took your foot off the gas pedal," Tubiana said. "Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?"

Trump dismissed any mishandling by his administration.

"Well, we really didn't, Paul," Trump replied. "We've worked very hard on the pandemic. We've worked very hard. It came all the way from China. They should have never let it happen. And if you look at what we've done with ventilators and now frankly with vaccines -- we're very close to having a vaccine."

The president went on to tease a rosy timeline for a coronavirus vaccine, as he has before, suggesting one will come before Election Day, despite concern among Democrats and scientists that the Food and Drug Administration is under political pressure to expedite a vaccine for Trump's political gain.

"If you want to know the truth, the previous administration would have taken perhaps years to have a vaccine because of the FDA and all the approvals. And we're within weeks of getting it you know could be three weeks, four weeks," Trump said.

When Stephanopoulos pressed Trump on why the U.S. has 4% of the world's population but more than 20% of the world's coronavirus cases and 20% of its deaths, Trump attributed the high rates to more testing and a higher overall population.

9 p.m. Town hall kicks off

President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening is taking questions from uncommitted Pennsylvania voters in person and virtually at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia with only seven weeks to go until the 2020 election.

Aside from a pair of Fox News events this spring, Trump hasn't faced direct voter questions all election cycle. Biden hasn't had an in-person town hall with voters since February and most of his campaign events now include no members of the general public.

Much has been made about the disappearing "undecided" vote in 2020. A recent Monmouth national poll found only 3% of registered voters hadn't decided who to vote for, and an NBC/Marist Pennsylvania poll last week pegged the number of undecided voters as 2% of both registered and likely voters.

But not all voters who have chosen between Trump and Biden have committed to voting for one or the other. This phase of the campaign -- with unpredictable formats including town halls and then debates -- represents fresh opportunities in a race that remains primed for disruptions.

ABC News Political Director Rick Klein

8:45 p.m. Political significance of Pennsylvania as Biden, Trump increase campaign foot traffic

The final stretch of campaigning before November has put a clear spotlight on Pennsylvania as a focal point for both Biden's and Trump's strategies for winning the White House.

In the span of a week, there were four campaign events in the Keystone State, and both candidates visited the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the attacks.

Although the frequency of visits are facilitated by the state's close proximity to both candidates' home bases, Pennsylvania offers more than pandemic-era logistical convenience. After Florida, Pennsylvania boasts the second highest number of electoral votes at stake among the major battleground states, making it critical in any possible mathematical calculation of winning the presidency.

For Trump, a second win in Pennsylvania would represent a defense of his slim 2016 victory when he topped Hillary Clinton by just .7% and toppled the "Blue Wall" by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Prior to 2016, Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats in six straight presidential elections beginning in 1992.

For Biden, a Scranton native, Pennsylvania carries some sentimental value, and presents an opportunity to rebuild a strong Democratic following in a state he won twice with Barack Obama. The former vice president has already made five trips to the state since the pandemic began earlier this year.

ABC News' Alisa Wiersema

8:42 p.m. Trump addresses race issues and wealth disparity in America

Another uncommitted voter questioned the president about his ubiquitous campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," in light of a long history of systemic racism in housing and criminal justice.

"Because you say again, we need to see when was that 'great'? Because that pushes us back to a time in which we cannot identify with such 'greatness,'" the voter asked. "You've said everything else about choking and everything else, but you have yet to address and acknowledge that it has been a race problem in America."

"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 -- for everybody. This country is great because of it."

The president then turned to what he called "the best unemployment numbers they've ever had in the Black community, by far," prior to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

"And that was solving a lot of problems, and you know what else was -- it was bringing people together," Trump said.

8:34 p.m. Biden slams Trump on 'broken promises' to Pennsylvanians

Former Vice President Joe Biden slammed the president for "failed leadership" and "broken promises" to Pennsylvanians in a statement released on Tuesday afternoon ahead of Trump's trip to Philadelphia to participate in the ABC News town hall.

"President Trump failed Pennsylvania when he promised to bring back jobs but only brought a tax scam that favored the super wealthy and CEOs. He failed Pennsylvania when he intentionally misled the American people and refused to act to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 Pennsylvanians. And he failed Pennsylvania by allowing the pandemic to devastate the economic wellbeing of millions and drive the state's unemployment rate to reach its highest level in decades," Biden wrote.

"Long before COVID-19 spread to Philadelphia, President Trump's failed leadership was felt in every corner of the city. Pennsylvanians deserve better," Biden added, promising to "restore" the leadership he feels is lacking in the White House if he is elected.

Biden is in Florida on Tuesday, his first trip to the key battleground state since officially securing the Democratic presidential nomination, in a visit that coincides with a fresh slate of polling showing a tightening race in the state with Trump.

ABC News offered to host a similar town hall with Biden, but ABC News and the campaign were not able to find a mutually agreeable date. Biden has a town hall with CNN on Thursday.

8:30 p.m. Trump, pressed during ABC town hall on downplaying pandemic threat, says instead he 'up-played it'

With less than two months until ballots are tallied, President Donald Trump defended his handling of race relations in the United States amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected minority populations and unprecedented social unrest in American cities.

Asked Tuesday by an uncommitted voter at ABC News' town hall, "The President and the People," why he would "downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities," Trump denied ever understating the disease's threat.

"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," Trump said.

8:30 p.m. State of the Race: Pennsylvania polling

Recent polling paints a murky picture of the current sentiments of Pennsylvanians.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, Biden has an 8-point lead in Pennsylvania, 52% to Trump's 44%. Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday indicated a tighter race between the two, with Biden leading Trump by four points among Pennsylvania's registered voters, 49% to 45%.

With less than two months go to until the election, and as Pennsylvanians become some of the first voters in the country to request and send back absentee ballots this week, the uncertain polling results indicate that there are likely more trips headed to the Keystone State.

The town hall comes as both presidential candidates say they are counting on taking the Keystone State in November. Tump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by a margin of 0.7% -- the narrowest difference in a presidential election for the state since 1840.

Tuesday's event will be held in accordance with state and local government COVID-19 regulations around attendance limits, as well as guidelines set forward by health officials.

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