Takeaways: Trump's town hall offered preview of debates

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Photo credit President Donald Trump talks with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos before a town hall at National Constitution Center, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The coronavirus cannot 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.

LONG-PROMISED POLICY PLANS

“We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks,” Trump said on July 19. It would be introduced “hopefully, prior to the end of the month,” he told reporters in early August.

No such plan has materialized, and few expect one to arrive before the election.

Trump’s unfulfilled promises came into sharp relief during the town hall as Trump insisted he had a plan – but refused to share its details or explain why he’d waited more than 3 1/2 years to unveil it.

“I have it all ready, and it’s a much better plan for you – and it’s a much better plan,” he insisted.

Trump made a similar promise when it came to immigration, another issue on which he has been promising action for months without details materializing.

“So we are doing something with immigration that I think is going to be very strong because we want people to come into our country,” he said. “And in a very short time, we’re going to be announcing it. And I think it’s going to have quite an impact."