Trump tries to woo undecided voters in Philly; competing rallies break out nearby

As Trump talked to undecided voters in Philly, competing protests flared up outside, with Trump detractors outnumbering supporters.

Trump supporters and protesters clashed on Independence Mall ahead of a visit from President Trump. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Trump supporters and protesters clashed on Independence Mall ahead of a visit from President Trump. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated 10:50 p.m.

President Donald Trump made a stop at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center Tuesday evening for an ABC town hall with undecided voters.

Questions revolved largely around Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with voters specifically asking about a comment Trump made to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in late March.

In a publicly available recording, made after Trump had already told Woodward the virus was much more serious than the flu, he said, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down … Because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Despite that recording, in the forum, Trump denied misleading Americans about the risks associated with the coronavirus.

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“I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action. With China, I put a ban on, with Europe, I put a ban on,” he said referring to travel restrictions he imposed.

One voter, Paul Tubiana of Bethlehem, said he is a conservative who voted for Trump four years ago and liked his leadership, but became disillusioned with his rhetoric regarding the virus in early May. Tubiana has diabetes.

“I’ve had to dodge people who don’t care about social distancing and wearing face masks,” he said. “You took your foot off the gas pedal. Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?”

Trump denied letting up. In his answer, he blamed China for the virus and said a COVID-19 vaccine could be here in a matter of weeks. He noted that the U.S. has increased its testing capacity, and pulled a newly developed test out of his jacket pocket. He finished by telling Tubiana that he feels he’s done a “tremendous job” and now wants the country back to normal.

“We’d like to see it open up, and open up as soon as possible,” Trump said. In a different answer, he said he thinks many people don’t like masks and, pressed for specifics, said waiters probably don’t benefit from them because they touch them too much, and then touch plates.

Masks have been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 spread, whether worn by waiters or anyone else.

While the voters inside the event may have been open to voting for either Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, the hundred or so people who gathered outside had their minds made up: a handful were there to support the president, while most showed they wanted him out of office.

Christopher Bowman urges protesters to vote in every election, from presidential to local. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Olivia Jones was part of the latter group.

Protesters gathered in Philadelphia ahead of President Trump’s town hall at the National Constitution Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She turned out with her two young children, Houston and Dallas. In the primaries, she supported Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and isn’t particularly excited to vote for Biden, who she doesn’t think is progressive enough.

But, she said, the choice between Trump and Biden isn’t hard for her.

“Biden does not champion and campaign with white supremacists, so of course he’s the much lesser of two evils,” she said.

Olive Jones came to Philadelphia from Delaware County to protest the Trump administration. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The protest, which blocked off the street outside the Constitution Center, was watched by a heavy police presence. Officers on bicycles completely surrounded the smaller group of Trump supporters who turned out, blocking them from the anti-Trump crowd.

Yolanda Hughes protested President Trump’s visit to Philadelphia and blames his down-playing of the seriousness of the pandemic for the death of her husband due to COVID-19. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Even so, arguments and shouting matches periodically flared up, and police intervened on several occasions.

Protesters gathered in Philadelphia ahead of President Trump’s town hall at the National Constitution Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Irina Goldstein, a Philadelphia real estate investor who lost a GOP primary race for City Council last year, organized the Trump-supporting event.

All the Trump supporters had different reasons for coming out, she said — for her, the big issues are fiscal conservatism and gun rights.

“We automatically get pulled in and branded as racists, bigots, the whole gamut of words,” Goldstein said. “We’re just here to show support for our counter voice.”

Pennsylvania is a key tipping point state in this year’s election.

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Trump won it by a razor-thin margin four years ago — 0.7 percent. If he wants to win again, he likely needs to do better among voters in the Philadelphia suburbs, and shore up his margins in rural areas, particularly the northeast and west, where he pulled an unexpectedly strong showing four years ago.

In other words, he needs to capture some undecided voters.

Trump recorded the 90-minute town hall at 5 p.m., and it began broadcasting at 9 p.m. on ABC News. It’s titled “The President and the People” and is hosted by ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Trump’s visit is expected to draw demonstrations from the left and the right.

ABC says it gave the Biden campaign an offer for a similar event, but wasn’t able to find a date.

Instead, Biden is planning a CNN-hosted town hall in his childhood hometown, Scranton, on Thursday night.

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