On a night they were to debate each other, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden instead split up for their own dueling town hall forums that seemed to exist in completely different realities.
Programmed against each other in primetime — Trump on NBC, Biden on ABC — the candidates could not have offered more divergent messages in terms of tone, temperament, and substance. On NBC, the president, posed in a half-sit-half-stand in Miami, insisted he’s got everything under control — even as he embraced delusional conspiracy theories and waffled in response to questions about a pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans. On ABC, Biden sat back with his legs crossed at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. If you tried to switch between the two, it would’ve been like flipping between WrestleMania and the Masters.
Trump, whose COVID-19 diagnosis two weeks ago prompted the cancelation of Thursday’s originally scheduled debate, was pressed from the start by moderator Savannah Guthrie and the audience about how he has handled the pandemic. He was combative and defensive, at times setting Guthrie up as a pseudo-debate opponent. Biden, the former vice president, fielded tough questions, too, but kept in check a testiness he at times has trouble hiding. He offered calm, and often long-winded, answers tethered to policy and American ideals.
Both also made headlines that might not be helpful to their campaigns, though as is often the case, the president’s headlines were louder. Trump refused to condemn QAnon, the mass delusion that alleges the president is fighting a cabal of satanist pedophiles, while also hedging on the benefits of masks to fight the pandemic. And Biden altered his stance on expanding the number of seats on the US Supreme Court. The proposal, known as court-packing, has gained currency among progressives, especially with the Republican-controlled Senate likely to confirm Trump’s latest nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett — a move that could solidify a conservative majority on the nine-justice court.
Biden, who for days had purposely said little about the matter, said he’s “not a fan” of court-packing, but suggested he was keeping options open depending on how the Senate handles the Barrett confirmation. Asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if he’ll have a firm public position before Election Day, Biden said, “Yes, depending on how they handle this.”
Trump’s early equivocations in his own town hall were about masks. He played down how useful mask-wearing is to fight the spread of the coronavirus by mischaracterizing a federal study.
“As far as the mask is concerned, I'm good with masks. I'm OK with masks. I tell people, 'Wear masks.' But just the other day they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it,” Trump said incorrectly.
“They didn’t say that. I know that study,” Guthrie interjected.
“That’s what I heard, and that’s what I saw,” Trump said.
When Guthrie brought up the fact many rally attendees go maskless, the president deferred to two people whom Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, has been physically close to testing positive.
“She’s got people now — that people have it. I’m not blaming her. I’m not saying, ‘Oh she did a terrible thing.’”
Trump also didn’t just refuse to disavow QAnon again — he openly embraced the movement as fighting against the sexual abuse of children, a fight the movement in reality hurts. He claimed several times he knew nothing about the movement, even after it was described to him by Guthrie.
After a raucous back and forth, attendees were able to ask the president questions. Most centered around Trump’s response to the pandemic. One woman asked what the president would do to better prepare law enforcement to collaborate with communities and protect the lives of Black and Latinos from police brutality.
He didn’t directly respond, but rather praised Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform bill that Senate Democrats blocked in June and knocked as inadequate and partisan. And then he pivoted to a common — and very much disputed — phrase he’s used to describe his administration’s relations with Black people: “Some people don’t like it when I say it but a lot of people agree: I have done more for the African American community than any president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.”
And he was pressed on the New York Times report on tax returns the paper obtained showing Trump owes more than $400 million in debt. He didn’t say where the money was owed and didn’t confirm or deny the amount, but insisted that “$400 million is a peanut.”
Biden’s town hall was a much milder encounter. Stephanopoulos was not overly confrontational. He pressed at times for clarity when Biden didn’t directly answer a question, but the two never talked over or argued with each other. The former vice president received several pointed questions, though, from the socially distanced audience.
“Besides ‘You ain't Black,’ what do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you, as further participation and a system that continually fails to protect them?” asked Cedric Humphrey, a young Black man who referenced Biden’s interview in May with Charlamagne tha God. (“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump — then you ain’t Black!” Biden told the radio host.)
Biden did not address his earlier comment in a response and avoided some of the defensive reflexes that have marred him in the past. Instead, Biden winded through a long answer that name-checked former president Barack Obama and John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and member of Congress.
“Am I worthy of your vote — can I earn your vote? And the answer is, there's two things I think that ... I've demonstrated that I've cared about my whole career,” Biden said. “One is, in addition to dealing with a criminal justice system to make it fair and make it more decent, we have to be able to put Black Americans [in a position to be] able to gain wealth, generate wealth.”
Stephanopoulos interjected after a few minutes to ask Humphrey if he had heard all he needed to hear. “I think so,” Humphrey replied.
Biden cut in: “There's a lot more. If you want to hang out afterward, I'll tell you more.”
Later in the night, Biden turned contemplative when asked how, if he loses to Trump, he’d use his platform to keep working toward “the ideals of a more perfect union.”
“Well, to be very honest with you, I think that's very hard,” he replied.
Biden talked of returning to academia, where he spent time after his vice presidency at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware, “focusing on these same issues relating to what constitutes decency and honor in this country.”
Trump and Biden are scheduled to debate once more, on Oct. 22 in Nashville. Whether that debate happens could depend on how comfortable the Commission on Presidential Debates and Biden are with the health and safety protocols. (The commission canceled Thursday’s debate after Trump refused a virtual format.) Trump and his doctor have said he tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, two days after the first presidential debate in Cleveland. But the president and the White House have repeatedly dodged questions about when his last negative test was before that positive test — and Trump again declined to clarify Thursday under questioning from Guthrie.
Biden, in response to a question from Stephanopoulos, said he expects Trump to test negative on Oct. 22 before their debate.
“It’s just decency,” Biden said, “to be able to determine whether or not you're clear.”