Trump fields questions on coronavirus, conspiracy theories in combative town hall

President Trump delivered a defensive and at times combative performance in an NBC town hall Thursday evening during which he refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grew testy when pressed on white supremacy. 

The 60-minute appearance in Miami opened with host Savannah Guthrie grilling Trump on the last time he tested negative for the coronavirus before he was diagnosed. The president would not say definitively whether he was tested the day of the first presidential debate on Sept. 29 — two days before his diagnosis — and replied only that he is tested “a lot.” 

Trump pushed back on Guthrie regularly in the opening segment of the town hall, which was the most contentious of the night. The “Today” co-host questioned the president about conspiracy theories, whether he supports herd immunity and why he doesn’t urge his supporters to wear masks. 

“Oh, you always do this. You always do this,” he said when she pressed him to denounce white supremacy. “I denounce white supremacy for years. … You always start off with that kind of question. You didn’t ask Joe Biden whether he denounces antifa.”

When Guthrie described QAnon as a conspiracy theory about Democrats being engaged in a satanic pedophile ring and asked Trump to disavow it, Trump demurred. 

“I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it,” Trump continued, later adding that “they are very strongly against pedophilia and I agree with that.”

“You do know,” Guthrie pressed after some back and forth.

“I don’t know,” Trump continued.

Guthrie asked him about another conspiracy theory that he had shared on Twitter that Osama Bin Laden had not actually been killed, but that it was a body double in the 2011 raid. The president shrugged off the question, saying it was merely a retweet.

Trump was unapologetic for his handling of the pandemic, after numerous individuals who attended a White House Rose Garden event in September tested positive for the virus. Those who attended the event, which celebrated Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, were seen mingling close together without wearing masks. 

“Everybody is tested and they are tested often,” Trump said. “I am president. I have to see people. I can’t be in a basement. I can’t be in a room. I have to be out.” 

Trump also misrepresented a September Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, falsely claiming that it showed 85 percent of individuals who wear masks contract the virus. 

The study showed that adults with confirmed COVID-19 cases were about twice as likely than those who tested negative to have reported dining at a restaurant before falling ill. 

The CDC this week sought to correct misconceptions of the study, tweeting that “the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect.”

The president was asked if he had changed his mind on the effectiveness of masks after contracting coronavirus himself, and said he had not. He went on to praise Scott Atlas, one of his closest advisers on the pandemic, as “one of the great experts of the world.” 

Atlas is not an epidemiologist, and he has pushed the controversial herd immunity theory that posits younger and healthier people should not be subject to restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus. Experts, including Anthony Fauci, have dismissed the theory as dangerous and warned it would lead to a sharp increase in deaths if implemented.

And he insisted the U.S. was “rounding the corner” on the virus, even as cases rise across the United States. He repeated his oft-used phrase that the “cure cannot be worse than the problem itself” and blamed Democrat governors for what he described as overly stringent and “unconstitutional” lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus.  

During the first commercial break, White House communications director Alyssa Farah walked on stage to speak to Guthrie, according to reporters in the room, then joined three other aides to huddle with Trump.

Trump was also pressed on a New York Times investigation that said he paid only $750 in income taxes in both 2016 and 2017 and is facing $400 million in debt payments coming due. Trump said the Times’s numbers were “wrong” but did not dispute the figures, claiming that the $750 was a “statutory fee” and describing the $400 million in debt as a “peanut.” He also indicated he likely owes money to a foreign bank or entity but denied owing money to Russia.  

The town hall represented one of only a handful of remaining chances for Trump to convince undecided voters to back him for a second term. He is trailing Biden in polls in key battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona with early voting underway in many states.

Asked for why voters should give him another term, Trump responded “I’ve done a great job.”

Trump’s unwillingness to condemn QAnon or back down on other issues is likely to overshadow the rest of the town hall, where the president had more measured and at times affable interactions with prospective voters. 

One woman who is a registered Republican but who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 told the president he had a “great smile,” prompting brief applause from the audience.

He conceded that he will accept a peaceful transition of power so long as the election is “honest,” and he clearly condemned white supremacy in an attempt to put to rest an issue that has dogged him since last month’s debate when he passed up a chance to do so.

Thursday night was supposed to be the second presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But when the Commission on President Debates announced the event would be virtual after Trump contracted COVID-19, the president balked and said he would not participate. 

Instead, the two candidates held overlapping town halls that forced viewers to largely watch one or the other with less than three weeks until Election Day. Trump was cleared by doctors to participate in the distanced, outdoor town hall in Miami. 

The two are scheduled to debate in person on Oct. 22 for a final time.

NBC’s decision to hold its town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden’s previously scheduled event on ABC drew blowback from some at the network, and it was made worse when Trump spent the hours leading up to the forum bashing NBC. 

“So you know, I’m being set up tonight, right. I’m doing this town hall with Con-cast,” Trump told supporters in North Carolina at a rally Thursday afternoon, mocking the name of NBC’s parent company. “So I’m doing it and it’s NBC. The worst.”

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Anthony Fauci Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden town halls

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