Mr Trump was asked by host George Stephanopoulos how he could square his repeated claim the coronavirus would “disappear” with far more pessimistic comments he made on tape to Bob Woodward at the very start of the pandemic.
“You’ve often talked about Winston Churchill and FDR,” said Mr Stephanopoulos, “and they did reassure people … But they also were straight. They said this war is going to be tough, it’s going to be a real fight, we have to persevere.”
As he has before, Mr Trump gave his own version of Churchill’s story. “When Churchill was on the top of a building, and he said everything’s going to be good, everything’s going to be – be calm. And you have the Nazis dropping bombs all over London, he was very brave because he was at the top of a building.
Watch: Trump defends 'Keep calm and carry on' approach on virus crisis at Michigan rally
“It was very well known that he was standing on buildings, and they were bombing. And he says everyone's going to be safe.
“I don't think that's being necessarily honest, and yet I think it's being a great leader. But he said, you're going to be safe. Be calm, don't panic. And you had bombers dropping bombs all over London.
“So I guess you could say that's not so honest, but it's still a great leader.”
Mr Trump, who restored a bust of Churchill back into the Oval Office after he was inaugurated, has many times waxed on apocryphal-at-best stories of Churchill’s leadership during the Blitz.
Whereas in reality the prime minister’s speeches were intentionally written to convey the gravity of the threat from the Luftwaffe, Mr Trump has repeated the myth that he promulgated the slogan “keep calm and carry on” – which was never used during the war.
Instead, addressing the House of Commons in 1940, he told MPs: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” he said. “We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”
Trump compares his response to the coronavirus to Churchill during World War 2, then says, "we have done probably the best job, certainly of any major country, anywhere in the world on the pandemic." (Again, the US has by far the most reported cases & deaths of any country.) pic.twitter.com/WXDPkX1Hoc— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 11, 2020
It is true that Churchill sometimes watched air raids from rooftops, though he never addressed crowds from them, and that he made public visits to bombed-out areas. Mr Trump, by contrast, refused to wear a mask in public until this summer, and has repeatedly blamed the virus on China and downplayed the US death toll.
Mr Trump’s staff too have compared him to Churchill on occasion. After a bizarre incident this summer where protesters were cleared from outside the White House with tear gas so that the president could stand wordlessly in front of a church holding up a bible, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany praised his flair for symbolic leadership.
“Through all of time,” she told the White House press corps, “we have seen presidents and leaders across the world who have had leadership moments and very powerful symbols that were important for a nation to see at any given time to show a message of resilience and determination.
"Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bombing damage. It sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people.”
Outside the White House, various Trump supporters have indulged in the comparison – one of them, Nick Adams, going so far as to write a book entitled “Trump and Churchill, Defenders of Western Civilization”. It carries a foreword by former Republican house speaker Newt Gingrich.
The Bulwark, a news site founded by members of campaign organisation Republican Voters Against Trump, called the book “pure pornography for the Red Hat crowd, so much so that it should be delivered in a brown paper wrapper”, and wrote that Mr Trump does not in fact have much in common with Churchill.
“Instead, Trump very much resembles Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill,” reads the review. “The elder Churchill was born into privilege, reached high office, and was prone to caustic, unhinged outbursts as he battled a brain ravaged by syphilis.”