Trump, Biden Clash Over Virus in Dueling TV Town Hall Events
October 16, 2020
President Donald Trump said Thursday he did an “amazing job” handling the coronavirus pandemic and defended his retweets of conspiracy theories while Democrat Joe Biden at the same moment was faulting the president’s leadership on the pandemic and stewardship of the economy.
The two candidates — who appeared in dueling televised town halls Thursday night — contrasted sharply in style and substance, with Biden giving what amounted to a public policy seminar while Trump discussed topics including the far-right conspiracy theory movement QAnon’s views on pedophilia.
“We saved two million people,” Trump said on NBC in Miami, as he praised his handling of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 217,000 people in the U.S. and left millions infected. Trump also questioned the use of masks to slow the spread of the virus — a step endorsed by his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — saying people have still fallen ill after wearing them.
Biden, speaking on ABC from Philadelphia, said Trump failed to take necessary steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus: “It is the presidential responsibility to lead and he didn’t do that.”
67,708 in IndiaMost new cases today
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Biden said the administration failed to provide enough testing and contact tracing and that businesses and schools need more funding and guidance to reopen and contain the virus.
The concurrent appearances made for one of the stranger moments of the 2020 campaign, fracturing television viewership as the candidates delivered their messages without the added tension and drama of a debate.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic has met with disapproval from an increasing number of voters and has contributed to Biden expanding his lead over the president, polls show. Trump has regularly downplayed the threat posed by the virus, touting an experimental antibody treatment he received while hospitalized for it and saying social-distancing measures advocated by Democrats did more harm than good.
In response to questions, Trump disavowed White supremacy -- after he drew intense criticism for failing to do so in his first debate with Biden on Sept. 29.
But he also defended his retweet of a conspiracy theory that baselessly claimed that SEAL Team Six killed only a body double of Osama bin Laden and that President Barack Obama and Biden as vice president had members of the team killed to cover it up. Trump said he was putting the information out for people to make their own decision.
“I do a lot of retweets and frankly because the media is so fake and so corrupt, if I didn’t have social media, I don’t call it Twitter I call it social media, I wouldn’t be able to get the word out,” Trump said.
Asked about QAnon, a debunked conspiracy theory, Trump said he couldn’t disavow it because he didn’t know enough about it. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said. “They fight it very hard.”
Trump appeared to confirm reports that he owes $400 million but didn’t specify his creditors. “The amount of money, $400 million, is a peanut, it’s extremely underlevered,” Trump said. “And it’s levered with normal banks. Normal banks. Not a big deal.”
Biden said that he would contain the virus “by being rational” and pointed to the plan he released to help businesses and schools navigate the new reality. He also disputed Trump’s assertion about the speed of the recovery.
“He talks about a V-shaped recovery -- it’s a K-shaped recovery,” Biden said.
Biden said that he would personally take a coronavirus vaccine if scientists ensured that it is ready and has gone through the appropriate clinical trials. But Biden hedged his answer on whether he would mandate a vaccine nationally once it is developed, saying it would be difficult to ask everyone to take it, the same say it’s difficult to mandate masks nationally.
Biden said his pledge to repeal 2017 tax cuts would only apply to the wealthy, and that he would leave the middle class cuts untouched.
Biden weighed in on the hearings of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Capitol Hill this week, saying that proceeding with a confirmation before the election is “inconsistent when millions of people have already voted to put someone on the court.”
He again said he’s “not a fan” of a proposal by some liberal groups to expand the number of justices on the high court. But he left the door open to doing so. “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on,” he said, hinting that he would think about reforms to the court if Barrett is confirmed.
Trump repeated his claim that he’d protect health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions even though his Justice Department is suing to end Obamacare. “The problem with Obamacare is that it’s not good,” Trump said. “We’d like to terminate it.”
Asked whether he’ll pursue previous efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting certain young, undocumented immigrants from deportation, Trump said, “We are going to take care of DACA, we’re going to take care of Dreamer, it’s working right now, we’re negotiating different aspects of immigration and immigration law.”
The two candidates originally were supposed to debate Thursday night. Instead of sparring with each other, the town hall format gave the candidates a less contentious opportunity to lay out their positions, and engage one-on-one with voters about issues they care about. But they couldn’t answer each other’s statements.
Trump backed out of the originally scheduled town hall format debate after his campaign rejected revised plans by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates for the candidates to appear remotely because of his infection with Covid-19. The campaign insisted that the president and his aides, a number of whom have also tested positive for coronavirus, posed no health risk. Trump did not say whether he was tested before the Sept. 29 debate in Cleveland.
NBC’s decision to schedule Trump’s town hall at the same time as Biden’s drew criticism from a group of more than 100 actors, writers and producers who complained in a letter toComcast Corp. andNBCUniversal, calling it “a disservice to the American public.”
“We believe this kind of indifference to the norms and rules of our democracy are what have brought our country to this perilous state,” according to the letter, signed by director J.J. Abrams, actor Jon Hamm and writer-director Aaron Sorkin.
NBC said its decision to air the Trump town hall at the same time Biden’s began was out of a desire for “fairness” after hosting Biden in that hour last week.
“If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later time slot we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum,” NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said in a statement.
With 19 days until the election, early voting is already underway in two dozen states. In-person and mail-in voting are surpassing records amid concerns about Covid-19 transmission at polling places and what strategists in both parties say is heightened interest in the race.
— With assistance by Tyler Pager, Justin Blum, Mark Niquette, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, Justin Sink, and Jennifer Epstein