President Trump’s Town Hall Turns Contentious; Joe Biden Focuses on Policy

October 16, 2020by Evan Halper, Eli Stokols, Melanie Mason and Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times
With dueling town halls, President Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden will clash on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, albeit not on the same stage. (Jim Watson/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON _ As President Donald 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 underscored how starkly the candidates contrast in style and substance.

As Biden was already answering voter questions in a Philadelphia event hosted by ABC, Trump was tangling with Savannah Guthrie, moderator of the NBC event Trump headlined in Miami, growing increasingly heated and argumentative.

The president 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.

The QAnon theory Trump refused to repudiate alleges that Trump is battling a syndicate of 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 Barack Obama and Vice President Joe 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 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.

Biden, by contrast, strove to present himself as a detail-oriented policy wonk, at one point brandishing a card to detail specific tax rates.

The former vice president scoffed at Trump’s explanation _ repeated again onstage in Miami on Thursday _ 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 healthcare 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 televised events took the place of an originally scheduled second debate, which President Trump refused to participate in despite trailing significantly in the polls.

The president was in dire need of a strong and persuasive performance. His 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 advisers 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, Sen. Kamala Harris, recently flew to campaign events with people who later tested positive for the virus.

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.

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.”

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 is 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.”

The pandemic, which has killed more than 217,000 people in the U.S., was a central focus of questions asked of both candidates. The continued efforts by the White House to downplay the virus and its effects, and the disorganized federal response to the surge of illness, has cost Trump key support, polls show.

But even after his own hospitalization, Trump has not changed course. He continues to hold large, packed rallies where attendees are not wearing masks or distancing, prompting public health experts to brand them “superspreader” events.

As Trump continues to skid in the polls, other Republicans have urged him to take a more disciplined approach to the campaign _ to tone down the conspiracy theories, misleading claims and mocking the mask-wearing of his opponent _ and focus on the economy, an area in which a large number of voters have confidence in Trump. But the president has given no indication he will listen.

The president’s Twitter feed Thursday was full of rage, including an attack on the event he would headline. “I will be doing a major Fake @NBCNews Town Hall Forum,” Trump wrote. “I wonder if they’ll treat me as well as Sleepy Joe? They should.”

He told the crowd at a Thursday afternoon rally in Greenville, North Carolina, 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.

Not far from the Miami venue, supporters of both candidates had already lined the streets hours before the event was to start. One woman held a flag that said “Socialism Sucks. Trump 2020.”

Biden supporter Natasha Vidal, holding a megaphone, accused Trump of murder, citing the Americans who have died of COVID-19.

“Did you see how horrible Trump did in the first debate?” the 52-year-old asked. “Of course he doesn’t want to debate Joe Biden.”

___

Halper and Stokols reported from Washington, Mejia from Miami and Mason from Los Angeles.

___

(c)2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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