But Trump was not totally free from scrutiny, being asked to answer for the administration’s initial halting response to a coronavirus epidemic that is spreading throughout the world and the U.S. Instead of responding with concrete plans that might allay fears, the president pointed to polls showing approval for some of the administration’s actions, such as closing the border to foreign nationals coming from China, where the outbreak originated.
“We were really given tremendous marks for having made the decision — it was a decision I made — to close down the border so that people from China, where we take in thousands and thousands of people a day, they stopped coming in, very early, weeks ahead of where they normally would’ve been stopped,” Trump said.
Trump also cited the relatively low number of infections in the U.S. as another reason not to panic in the face of the growing outbreak.
He pivoted the discussion of the epidemic to highlight economic growth under his administration, touting the rising Dow Jones index in the face of the virus — even though financial markets have been volatile the past two weeks and the Dow dropped nearly 1,000 points on Thursday. He went so far as to say the outbreak is encouraging Americans to stay and invest in the U.S.
When asked specifically for a long-term plan to tackle the outbreak, Trump demurred, saying, “We have plans for every single possibility.”
The president also contrasted his response to the coronavirus with the Obama administration’s public health policies, invoking a comparison he made on Wednesday between the coronavirus crisis and the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 in the early days of the Obama presidency.
Speaking with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday, Trump claimed that the Obama administration “didn’t do anything about it” amid more than 13,000 deaths. (The Obama administration actually launched a major campaign to end the pandemic and develop a vaccine.)
“I don’t blame anybody,” Trump said at the town hall on Thursday. “I want to get everybody to understand [the Obama administration] made some decisions, which were not good decisions. We inherited decisions that they made and that’s fine. We undid some of the regulations that were made that made it very difficult, but I’m not blaming anybody.”
Trump also used the town hall to tout his appointment of about 200 federal judges, asserting that his predecessor left him a slew of vacancies to fill.
“President Obama gave me 142 openings when I first got there,” Trump said. “There’s never been anything like that.”
In reality, Republicans in the Senate led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filibustered dozens of Obama-appointed judges, stalling them in the Senate.
Trump also used the Obama legacy as a salve for the rising national debt, which he had promised to pay off within eight years while running as a candidate in 2016. The debt is now up $3.5 trillion or 18 percent, Baier pointed out.
Trump responded that he had no choice but to let it go up as he went about rebuilding the military, which he contended Obama had left underfunded and in disarray.
“I had to fix the military. The military was depleted,” the president said. “It’s one thing to say, 'Gee, we did a good job on the debt, or gee, we did a good job on the budget,' and you have people from other countries running up the White House lawn. … Maybe they took over our country, but I did one hell of a job on the budget? No.”
Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act in December, granting $738 billion for 2020 and raising pay for members of the military while also creating the Space Force. The defense expansions have been frequent talking points in his rallies.
The rapidly dwindling Democratic field also came up in the town hall, with Trump saying Bernie Sanders would be a formidable challenger because of his loyal base. ("It's smaller than my base," the president said). He needled Elizabeth Warren for dropping out after Super Tuesday, saying she split the progressive vote to the detriment of Sanders.
“She did him no favors, that was not a good friendship,“ Trump said.
The president closed the town hall with an unusual message of respect for his fellow Washington insiders. When asked who his closest friend was in D.C., Trump diverged from his “drain the swamp” message and said, “I have a lot of close friends, I really do.”
“I speak to all of the senators a lot. I speak to all of the congressmen a lot,” Trump said. “We have great people in Washington, and you have great Democrats, too. I speak to Democrats also, believe it or not. But we have great, great people in Washington. Very smart people in Washington. And it’s going to come together.”
When asked how he could bring a fractured America together again, he bragged that his administration had tremendous accomplishments, despite the constant pushback from his adversaries. He added that many Democrats were on board to collaborate with him in the coming years, despite a faction he called the “radical left Democrats.“
“There‘s so many things we could do,“ Trump said. “I really believe we are going to win back the next election and when we do, the other side is going to say OK, that is it, let‘s get along. I really believe that.“