President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden weren’t on the same stage on Thursday night but two simultaneous town halls managed to clearly lay out the stark differences between the candidates.
Trump and Biden were both forced to answer tough questions as the President vied for an elusive campaign reset while trying to defend his response to the coronavirus pandemic, his embrace of conspiracy theories and his stance on White supremacists under tough questioning from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
At the same time, Biden was repeatedly pressed to clarify his position on whether he will support adding members to the Supreme Court, his work on the 1986 and 1994 crime bills and his positions on fracking and the Green New Deal. He was also forced to explain his controversial comment that if Black Americans don’t support him “you ain’t Black.”
The two separate town halls replaced the face-to-face debate that was to take place Thursday night but then was canceled by the Commission on Presidential Debates after Trump contracted the coronavirus and refused to participate in a virtual debate with Biden.
The separation of the two candidates on different networks Thursday night – each in their own sphere with their own moderator – created an even more stark contrast between their personal styles and approaches for voters who flipped back and forth between the two channels.
From the very beginning of the NBC town hall, Trump was an antagonistic participant, interrupting and criticizing the premise of questions from Guthrie – sometimes before she had even finished asking them – and often offering falsehoods as part of his answers. That dynamic immediately created a contentious back-and-forth between Trump and Guthrie that ratcheted up the crackling tension of the NBC event, as she interjected to fact-check his answers or ask if he was serious about his statements.
Trump alternately played victim and aggressor as they parried back and forth at rapid-fire speed. “You always do this,” he said, looking angry during a tense exchange when Guthrie questioned his equivocations about White supremacy. “You’ve done this to me and everybody. … Are you listening? I denounce White supremacy. What’s your next question?” he snapped.
When Guthrie persisted on that subject, Trump complained, “Here we go again.” Guthrie noted that Trump has sometimes sounded “hesitant” about condemning White supremacists. He immediately pivoted to his denunciation of Antifa and “these people on the left that are burning down our cities that are run by Democrats” and demanded why the press doesn’t ask more questions about their activities.
Voters flipping over to Biden’s town hall might have felt like they’d entered a different universe. The former vice president spoke in measured tones during that more policy-heavy event. Unlike the first debate where Trump tried to rattle Biden by interrupting nearly every one of his answers, Biden would listen to the question from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos or a voter and then answer at length, sometimes with long, winding responses.
An unavoidable focus on Covid-19
In one of the most news-making moments of the night, the President admitted that he may not have taken a coronavirus test on the day of his debate with Biden, even though he was required to do so by the Commission on Presidential Debates and tested positive for Covid-19 two days later, possibly exposing his opponent and members of the audience – not to mention all the many supporters who attended his subsequent rallies without masks.
When asked about the President’s answer later Thursday evening, Biden noted that he himself had taken another test before attending Thursday night’s town hall – “the deep test” – to make sure he was negative, because he didn’t want to “come here and expose anybody”
“It’s just decency, to be able to determine whether or not you are clear,” Biden said. “I’m less concerned about me than the guys on the cameras … the Secret Service guys you drive up with. All those people.”
Over at the NBC event, Trump again refused to say when his last negative test had been before the debate, claiming he couldn’t remember. He did not express any regret for the Rose Garden event where he nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court on the Saturday before his diagnosis, which is now widely viewed as a “super-spreader” event where attendees were not socially distanced and few wore masks.
He once again brought up that he had attended an event “with the parents of fallen heroes” at the White House the next day, and noted that some of those attendees “came up to me and they would hug me and they would touch me and I’m not going to not let them do it, to be honest with you.”
“I don’t think that’s probably where it was caught, but maybe it was,” Trump added.
“Are you trying to suggest that? Do you believe a grieving military family gave you Covid?” Guthrie asked him, looking incredulous.
“No,” Trump replied, “I don’t know where it came from.”
Though the poor marks for Trump’s handling of the pandemic are creating a huge drag on his reelection chances – particularly with women – he still has refused to change tactics, dismissing the efficacy of masks and continuing to hold huge rallies where there is no social distancing. At least for now, he is also ignoring the ominous signs that another wave of the coronavirus is hitting the US as deaths top 217,000 and cases near 8 million.
On Thursday at the NBC town hall, Trump put forward the false claim that “85% of the people tha wear masks catch it.” In North Carolina, he also falsely said that 99% of people are recovering from coronavirus: “99%. 99 plus, plus.”
Guthrie bluntly told him that the study he was supposedly citing from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t say what he was claiming it said about masks. Ultimately the President backed down on his objections to masks, stating he was fine with Americans choosing to do wear them.
“Savannah, we’re on the same side,” Trump said at one point. “I say wear the mask, I’m fine with it. I have no problem.”
Biden, in his own town hall, excoriated the President’s response to the pandemic: “He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” the Democratic nominee said, noting that Trump had said the virus would go away by Easter.
The former vice president said there should have been more national standards earlier in the pandemic and that the President should be pushing all Americans to use masks as a way to stop the spread, including by leaning on governors to mandate mask use.
Trump “didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s leadership when the virus first reached US shores. “He worried if he talked about how bad this could be, unless we took these precautionary actions, then, in fact, the market would go down. And his barometer of success of the economy is the market.”
Trump was pressed by Guthrie about the state of his finances and The New York Times reports that he has debts of approximately $421 million, loans that he has personally guaranteed and that will come due in the next four years. Trump nodded when she mentioned the amount of his debts, but then insisted that the newspaper’s numbers are “all wrong” a moment later. In an acknowledgment of his debts, he later said, “$400 million is a peanut.”
He would not tell Guthrie who he owes, but told her that he does not owe money to Russia. When Guthrie asked whether he owes anything to foreign banks, Trump replied: “Not that I know of.”
“I don’t owe money to any of these sinister people,” Trump said, adding that he is “very under-leveraged.”
Biden again dodges on court packing
While Biden’s answers were less defensive and more thoughtful, he faced his own difficult moments when he dodged or didn’t directly tackle the questions he was asked.
Biden attempted to clear up his position on “court packing” – the term for adding justices to the Supreme Court in order to get more sympathetic rulings – after weeks of trying to evade the question.
At the beginning of his answer, Biden reiterated once again that he is “not a fan” of court packing but said his position will depend on how the Supreme Court confirmation of Barrett is “handled.” Pressed on what he meant, Biden said it would be contingent on if there was a “real” debate on the Senate floor. “I’m open considering what happens from that point on,” he said.
Pressed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if voters have a right to know his position, he said, “They do have a right to know where I stand. They have a right to know where I stand before they vote.”
“So you’ll come out with a clear position before Election Day?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Yes. Depending on how they handle this,” the former vice president said, referring – presumably – to Senate Republicans.
Biden also faced some intense questions from members of the audience. A young Black man in the audience recalled Biden’s flip comment to radio host Charlamagne tha God that if a Black person was struggling to decide between supporting him or Trump, “you ain’t Black.”
“Besides ‘you ain’t Black,’ ” the man asked, how could Biden convince Black voters to take part “in a system that has failed to protect them?”
Biden delivered a lengthy answer that highlighted his work on education, criminal justice, his $70 billion plan for historically Black colleges and universities and his plans to try to create more fairness in the nation’s tax and economic systems to help Black families build more wealth.
“If young Black women and men vote, you can determine the outcome of this election. Not a joke. You can do that,” Biden told his questioner.
It was a long-winded, policy-based answer that didn’t address the anger expressed by some Black voters – when Biden originally made the “you ain’t Black” quip – that he and the Democratic Party might be taking their votes for granted
Trump needs a game-changer but falls on his usual tactics
Trump, who resumed campaign events in recent days, has traveled the country falsely suggesting that he emerged “immune” from his serious bout with the virus, and he has not shown any willingness to change tactics that seem focused on targeting his base, even though he is trailing Biden in national polls and key battleground states.
He doubled down on his baseless theories about voter fraud during Thursday night’s town hall at a time when more than 17 million people have voted.
When Guthrie pointed out that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that Trump’s own FBI director, Christopher Wray, has underscored that point under oath, Trump openly dismissed Wray’s words and said he “is not doing a very good job.”
He continued to seize on instances where a small number of ballots were mishandled, even after Guthrie noted that some 150 million ballots could be cast across the country.
As Guthrie briskly moved the discussion along, Trump refused to disavow a wide array of other conspiracy theories, including about the group known as QAnon. The President claimed not to know what the group believes, even after Guthrie explained the group’s beliefs to him during the town hall and in spite of the fact that he frequently retweets QAnon theories and followers.
“What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. And I agree with that. I mean I do agree with that,” he said.
“But there’s not a satanic pedophile ring –” Guthrie said.
“I have no idea. I know nothing about them,” Trump responded.
“You don’t know that?” Guthrie said.
“No, I don’t know that, and neither do you know that,” Trump said.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Thursday evening.