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Trump Campaign Senior Adviser On The Presidential Debate

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden go head to head tonight in the first of three debates. Elsewhere in the program, we hear from Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who is a close adviser to the Biden campaign. Now we want to talk to Steve Cortes. He's a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.

Steve, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEVE CORTES: Thank you so much for having me. And - funny - I literally just passed by Sen. Coons, so...

MOSLEY: Oh, really?

CORTES: We were - yeah, at the debate site - kind of funny.

MOSLEY: Funny coincidence - yes, so the president will have one of the biggest audiences of the campaign, an audience that will extend beyond the core supporters. He's been out in front of folks at rallies and other campaign events. What is the message he wants to convey to the American people?

CORTES: The biggest message is on the economy. The president will very rightly boast about the economy both that he built previously before the pandemic and the one that is reasserting right now. It's the No. 1 issue by all relevant polling. It's the No. 1 issue on voters' minds. It's also the issue on which he has the biggest lead over Joe Biden in polling. But most importantly, I just think it's the most compelling issue for effectively rehiring him as our national CEO for another four years. The economy he built in the first three years of administration combined with what's going on right now - we can't just talk about...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

CORTES: ...The past, but...

MOSLEY: Right, right.

CORTES: ...Present tense, the data lately is just incredible. Last week...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

CORTES: ...For example - two quick points. We got out a new home sales number. It was the biggest number in 14 years. Today we got out consumer confidence - absolutely surged, smashed Wall Street expectations. So the numbers out there verify that this economy's...

MOSLEY: Well, Steve...

CORTES: ...Roaring back. I think that's what he'll talk about.

MOSLEY: But, Steve, the reality is that we're in a pandemic. I want to ask you more questions about that specifically. But first, I want to ask you about the New York Times reporting on the president's income tax returns over the last couple of decades, reporting that shows that many years, he didn't pay any federal income taxes. And then in both 2016 and 2017, he only paid about $750. Back in 2016, during the debate with Hillary Clinton, he actually said not paying taxes proved he was smart. Is that going to be his answer this evening?

CORTES: Well, look. Legal avoidance of taxes is, yes, absolutely smart. And every American does it or should if they don't.

MOSLEY: But, Steve...

CORTES: Tax evasion...

MOSLEY: In a year - let me say, in a year when millions are out of work because of the pandemic, in a year when Americans are going to food banks in record numbers because they don't have enough to eat, what does the president have to say to people who are angry that he's avoiding paying income taxes for so many years?

CORTES: OK, well, a few things - you know, first of all, there is a lot of anxiety out there, and that's understandable. And although the economy's roaring back, we know we still have work to do to get to the heights of the Trump boom that we were enjoying just in the early parts of this year. But the point is we're getting there. But that anxiety, that economic angst out there is not the fault of President Trump, and I think the American people resoundingly know that. It's not the fault of Joe Biden, either. It's the fault of the Chinese Communist Party. So that's...

MOSLEY: Oh.

CORTES: ...One thing. We have to place the blame where it belongs. They deceived the world. And through their deception and their malfeasance, they infected the world, and they crashed the global economy.

MOSLEY: Well, Steve, let's talk, though, about America's response once we were aware...

CORTES: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...That the coronavirus was a real threat. So the president has admitted that he deliberately downplayed the coronavirus. Despite the fact that public health experts say masks are one of the most effective tools in containing the virus - that's just one example - he continued to cast doubt on them. Also, the scientific head of the U.S. vaccine effort says a universally available vaccine isn't likely available till the middle of 2021. So what is the president's plan to prevent tens of thousands of more deaths if he's reelected?

CORTES: Well, you know, look. Looking back toward the early days of the virus - it's important to note this - the president took this very seriously far before a lot of our leaders did. For example, when he put the restrictions on China travel at the end of January, he was called xenophobic by Joe Biden. So that's - Biden is somebody who wasn't taking it seriously when the president was.

MOSLEY: I'm sorry to keep interrupting you, but it wasn't until mid-March that the president acknowledged the gravity of the situation.

CORTES: Look. If you want to talk timeline here, this is important. Let's talk Dr. Fauci, somebody who the critics of the president love to lionize, right? Dr. Fauci on February 29 went on "The Today Show" - as late as the 29 - went on "The Today Show," told a national audience that they should not change anything. No part of their lives, none of their customs should change. Days later - literally days later - he was advocating within the administration for a complete shutdown of the country that then happened two weeks after that February 29 radio. And the reason I bring that up, by the way, is not just to criticize Fauci but to point out that even the leading epidemiologists in the world had extremely different views...

MOSLEY: It was very...

CORTES: ...Within days.

MOSLEY: Yes, it was very chaotic...

CORTES: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...In that moment, during that time.

CORTES: It was the fog of war.

MOSLEY: But...

CORTES: And neither the president nor Fauci had complete clarity at that time.

MOSLEY: That's Steve Cortes, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.

Thank you so much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.