President Trump’s town hall turns contentious; Joe Biden focuses on policy
As President Trump angrily refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory or accept responsibility for the surge of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., Joe Biden laid out his policy plans in a more muted style on a separate stage.
Their dueling town halls on rival networks Thursday night marked yet another first in this tumultuous race repeatedly disrupted by the pandemic. The events, much like their face-to-face debate 16 days ago, underscored how starkly the candidates contrast in style and substance.
Trump was defiant and loose with the facts; Biden, deep in the policy weeds and soft-spoken. Biden emphasized that he would try to unify the nation and work to build consensus with Republicans. Trump focused on attacking Democrats in Congress and blaming liberal mayors and governors for urban unrest and the spread of the coronavirus.
While the president was still tangling with Savannah Guthrie, moderator of the NBC event in Miami, Biden was already answering voter questions in the Philadelphia town hall hosted by ABC.
Trump bristled when asked about his difficulty disavowing white supremacy. “You always do this to me,” he said. “I denounce white supremacy, OK?” He refused to condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory, adamantly stating that he doesn’t know enough about it to take a position, despite Guthrie explaining the baseless web of beliefs. Yet he knew enough to opine that the conspiracy adherents “are strongly against pedophilia.”
President Trump and Joe Biden appeared in dueling televised town halls Thursday evening after Trump refused to participate in a virtual debate.
The widely debunked QAnon theory alleges that Trump is battling a syndicate of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who control the federal government. When Trump complained about the line of questions, Guthrie referred to his tweets and retweets of bizarre disinformation campaigns, including a conspiracy theory that President Obama and Vice President Biden killed the members of SEAL Team 6 to cover up a botched raid that didn’t in fact lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Voters, Trump said, could decide for themselves.
“You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever,” Guthrie said.
Trump was just as testy with the first voter, who asked some 20 minutes into the broadcast about his recorded admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the pandemic despite knowing its seriousness, and with the next questioner, who asked why the president has been so reluctant to wear masks.
When asked about the $421 million the New York Times reported that the president’s tax returns show he owes to various lenders, including potentially foreign banks, the president said such an amount is “a tiny percentage of my net worth.” But Trump would not directly confirm the debt amount.
Guthrie pushed back, suggesting that he simply disclose more financial information, as other presidents before him have. Trump repeated his claim that he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service and insisted he owed money to “normal banks.”
Biden, by contrast, strove to present himself as a detail-oriented policy wonk, at one point brandishing a card to cite specific tax rates.
But the former vice president also faced tough questions. Pressed on whether he would consider expanding the Supreme Court in response to the likely confirmation of Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Biden left that door open.
He said that although he is not a fan of court “packing” and wants to keep the focus on the GOP rush to confirm Barrett before the election, “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on” if she is confirmed. Biden committed to making his position clear after Barrett’s confirmation, even if it happens before election day.
On climate change, Biden put some distance between himself and the more progressive faction of his party calling for a sweeping Green New Deal for clean energy.
“My deal is a crucial framework but not the ‘new green deal,’” Biden said, garbling the name. He was dismissive of calls to eliminate all nonrenewable energy by 2030. “You’re going to need to be able to transition,” Biden said.
The former vice president scoffed at Trump’s explanation — repeated again onstage in Miami — that he downplayed the virus to avoid causing unnecessary fear.
“Americans don’t panic,” Biden said. “He panicked.”
Biden confirmed he would take a coronavirus vaccine if it was vouched for by a panel of scientists, not just Trump, and would encourage others to do the same. He said as president he would consider making the vaccine mandatory but added caveats: “It depends on the state of the nature of the vaccine, when it comes out and how it’s being distributed.”
At times, the details gave way to meandering omnibus answers, such as when a young Black man asked him what Biden would do to ensure voters like him would not opt out of the election entirely.
Biden’s answer veered from early education to mental health care to funding historically Black colleges and universities to giving funding to entrepreneurs of color. The audience member, asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos whether Biden’s answer addressed what he needed to hear, hesitantly responded, “I think so.”
Biden leaped in to promise more specifics: “If you’re going to hang on afterwards, I’ll tell you more.” The former vice president did, in fact, stay after the event, taking more questions from audience members.
The televised events took the place of an originally scheduled second debate, which Trump refused to participate in despite trailing significantly in the polls.
The president’s support has continued to slide since the chaotic Sept. 29 debate with Biden, when Trump’s barrage of interruptions, insults and misinformation did not play well with the voters he needs to win over. The former vice president’s lead has grown since then, with most polls showing him ahead of the president by double digits nationwide.
Biden now leads in nearly every major battleground state, and the Democratic nominee is also threatening to overtake the president in some states Trump won easily in 2016.
Trump, who checked into the hospital with COVID-19 days after his in-person face-off with Biden, backed out of the debate that had been scheduled for Thursday night when it was moved online as a public safety precaution.
The men appeared onstage as the virus continues to upend their campaigns. Several Trump advisors and staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus since Trump’s hospitalization, and the Biden campaign revealed Thursday that the former vice president and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, recently flew to campaign events with people who later tested positive.
Harris canceled all campaign travel through Sunday as a precaution. But Biden has not canceled plans to travel to Michigan for a campaign event Friday.
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Trump deflected questions about whether he took a coronavirus test the day of the last debate, as the candidates both agreed to do.
“I don’t even remember,” he said. “Possibly I did. Possibly I didn’t.”
Trump repeated an unsubstantiated claim he made earlier in the day, saying there is a new study about COVID-19 that he claimed showed “85% of the people who wear masks catch it.” When Guthrie told him there is no such study, he responded, “That’s what I heard.”
Biden said he would demand Trump take a coronavirus test before their second debate next week. “It’s just decency to be able to determine you’re clear,” he said.
NBC came under intense criticism for scheduling Thursday’s town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden’s ABC event, which was finalized a week earlier. The dueling nature of the broadcasts deprived viewers of the opportunity to watch both events live, and Trump was widely expected to draw a bigger audience.
More than 100 NBCUniversal stars and producers protested their network’s decision to hold the town hall at the same time as Biden’s in a letter to parent company Comcast, and media critics widely panned the network for the move.
“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy — voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability,” former NBC News star Katie Couric wrote on Twitter. “This is a bad decision.”
It was clear during the debate that the Trump campaign viewed the president’s bombast as an asset contrasted with the more muted Biden. One of Trump’s campaign communications aides, Mercedes Schlapp, tweeted while watching Biden’s town hall that she “feels like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood” — misspelling the name of the classic show starring Mister Rogers.
But the more cerebral approach Biden has taken throughout the campaign has served him well. Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans had been pushing him to strike a calmer tone, focus on his administration’s accomplishments and avoid spouting misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Trump did not appear to take the advice Thursday night. He played to his usual form, and the dueling town halls seemed unlikely to change the contours of a race in which Biden has held a steady lead for months.
Even before Trump took the stage, he signaled his appearance would be more of the same. He told the crowd at a Thursday afternoon rally in Greenville, N.C., that he was being “set up,” and he mocked NBC News personalities. Trump also posted photos of packed crowds at the event, where a large share of the attendees were maskless.
Trump continued to stand by his unsubstantiated claims that voting fraud is rampant, again claiming the election is being rigged against him.
Biden was also asked how he would cope with defeat Nov. 3 and how he might encourage Trump to unite the country in a second term.
“I think that’s very hard,” Biden said, noting Trump has only been emboldened after being impeached. The former vice president predicted that if he lost, he would return to teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has an eponymous center for the study of diplomacy.
His focus, he said, would be “what constitutes decency and honor in this country.”
Halper and Stokols reported from Washington, Mejia from Miami and Mason from Los Angeles.
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