If the American people had to endure 90 minutes of cross-talk and interruptions last month at the first presidential debate, the alternative – clashing, simultaneous town hall events on Thursday with President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was not much of an improvement.
Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the first debate and, citing safety, the presidential debate commission declared that the second debate, scheduled for Oct 15, would have to be virtual. Trump refused, so Biden scheduled a town hall on ABC. Trump then scheduled his own on NBC — at the exact same time. “I figured, what the hell, we’ve got a free hour of television,” the president said at a rally in North Carolina earlier on Thursday.
It’s an open question whether Trump’s gambit of trying to push Biden off the stage worked to his advantage. Biden’s whole campaign strategy has been to fly at a low altitude toward victory. Trump might have made that easier with a rambunctious performance compared with Biden’s — which one of Trump’s advisers likened to “watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” suggesting that a similarity to the beloved Fred Rogers was a bad thing.
Here are six takeaways from the night’s dueling town halls.
Trump stomped on his own message with his refusal to denounce QAnon.
After Trump went through days of headlines and headaches as a result of his refusal to condemn white supremacy during the first presidential debate, he was ready on Thursday to offer a hedge-free denunciation. “I denounce white supremacy, OK?” he said to the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, almost before she had finished her question.
The rare forcefulness on the topic made Trump’s mealy-mouthed refusal, minutes later, to disavow the false QAnon conspiracy theory all the more stark.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Trump claimed, despite having amplified a discredited claim by the theory’s proponents just days ago.
Guthrie swiftly walked through how the far-right movement falsely claims Democrats are a satanic cult that practices pedophilia. “Can you just once and for all state that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?” she pressed.
“I do know they are very much against pedophilia — they fight it very hard,” Trump said. Later, he repeated that line, almost with encouragement: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”
Trump has long been wary of speaking ill of supporters, and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory are among his most ardent backers. “I understand they like me very much,” he said over the summer, after noting that they “love our country.”
Guthrie might have delivered the most memorable line of the night when she quizzed Trump about a recent retweet of a discredited conspiracy theory that Biden had orchestrated actions to have SEAL Team 6, one of the country’s elite military units, killed to cover up the supposedly faked death of Osama bin Laden. Trump said with a shrug, “I’ll put it out there.”
“I don’t get that,” Guthrie replied. “You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle.”
Biden suggested making masks and vaccines mandatory.
The question of how to manage a pandemic that has overwhelmed the nation over the past six months is almost certainly the starkest difference between Biden and Trump, and that was clear in their town halls.
Trump minimized the danger of the virus, despite having been hospitalized after falling ill with it. He has poked fun at Biden for wearing a mask and has resisted the idea of making masks mandatory. Trump has theatrically removed his mask at his campaign rallies; Biden disclosed that before walking onstage, he had been wearing two masks, a preventive measure that some doctors say is effective.
Biden said that he himself would take a vaccine by the end of the year, and would urge other Americans to do so, “if the body of scientists say that this is what is ready to be done and it’s been tested.”
He also said he might support making vaccines mandatory — but acknowledged that such a measure would be difficult to enforce. “You can’t say everyone has to do this, but it’s like you can’t mandate a mask,” he said.
With that, Biden was walking onto tricky terrain. There is a long history of resistance to mandates in this country; think Obamacare and the individual mandate. And a significant number of Americans have resisted taking vaccines in the past; one of the big questions is how many Americans will take a coronavirus vaccine once it is developed, mandate or not.
“It is thorny,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant. “But he was realistic. People have to have confidence in a vaccine. So you can’t play games like Trump.”
Biden also said he expected Trump to take a COVID-19 test before their next debate on Oct. 22, in accordance with the rules set down by the presidential debate commission. “Before I came up here, I took another test,” he said. “I’ve been taking it every day.”
He said he would not have come to the town hall if he had tested positive. “I didn’t want to come here and not expose anybody,” he said. “And I just think it’s just decency to be able to determine whether or not you are you’re clear.”
Trump clung to an unpopular posture on masks and the pandemic.
Masks are politically popular. They are embraced as a public health necessity by experts and a broad cross-section of the American public. One of Trump’s own advisers, Chris Christie, said Thursday he had been “wrong” not to wear a mask at the White House. But Trump, despite having recently contracted the coronavirus and requiring hospitalization for it, still cannot bring himself to arrive at a full-throated embrace of mask-wearing.
“I’m OK with masks — I tell people, ‘Wear masks,’” he said. But he couldn’t resist an addendum. “Just the other day,” he said, he had seen a study that showed that people using masks were still contracting the virus.
He tried to twist the position of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, on masks. And he dismissed the scientific consensus.
“People with masks are catching it all the time,” he added.
It was exactly the kind of digression that has left Republicans frustrated: Six months, 8 million cases and more than 215,000 deaths later, the president is still trying to bend the reality of the pandemic to his politics rather than the other way around.
The pandemic has upended American life like no other event, and death rates per capita are higher than in other developed nations, yet Trump continued to claim that his administration’s response had been a success. “We’re a winner,” Trump declared, talking about “excess mortality.” He added, “What we’ve done has been amazing, and we have done an amazing job.”
Biden finally addressed court packing — sort of.
Biden did make one bit of news: After energetically avoiding the question recently, he signaled that he would announce before Election Day whether he supports expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court. But he said he wanted to wait until after the Senate had acted on the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This has been a difficult issue for Biden, and it seems likely that it wasn’t a planned answer. Many Democrats have called for expanding the Supreme Court after Trump and Senate Republicans charged forward with filling the vacancy created by Ginsburg’s death, even though it was so close to the election. Should that happen, Trump will have placed three justices on the high court.
Biden has made it clear in the past that he did not support the idea. He has avoided the question during the campaign by saying he didn’t want to play into Trump’s hands and turn attention away from what Republicans were doing with the Ginsburg vacancy. But he agreed with the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, that voters had a right to know his views, and he set out a schedule for disclosing them.
It might not have been enough to put the issue behind him.
“His ‘court-packing’ response, or nonresponse, was a bit mystifying,” Priscilla Southwell, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon, said by email. “So, he says that the voters should know his position on this issue, but not until the confirmation process has concluded. By that time, a majority of voters will have already voted, including this voter.”
Trump had kind words for conspiracy theorists; he wouldn’t say whether he had tested negative for the coronavirus on the day of the first debate (“Possibly I did. Possibly I didn’t”); and he continued to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.
He did not have much to say, however, about a sweeping second-term agenda.
When Trump did speak about policy, it was mostly about relitigating his record. He was most fluent, and clearly most comfortable, when speaking about the economy and warning of the impact of electing Biden, saying the nation would “end up with a depression the likes of which you’ve never had.”
He said he was negotiating a stimulus plan with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, even though they are not on speaking terms. “I’m ready to sign a big, beautiful stimulus,” he said. As an aside, he also offered one of the all-time great understatements about his imprint on an often pliant GOP.
“Maybe I’ve changed the party a lot over the last three years,” Trump said.
But the lack of a vision for the next four years — and for navigating the remaining months and years of the pandemic — is a glaring and unaddressed weakness for Trump. When Guthrie gave him a chance to make his closing pitch for another four years, he began, “Because I’ve done a great job.” There were few other specifics beyond the classic Trumpian boast. “Next year,” he promised, “is going to be better than ever before.”
What if Biden loses?
Biden is in many ways an entirely conventional candidate for the White House, particularly compared with Trump. He has devoted a lifetime to elected office: 36 years in the Senate, two terms as vice president under Barack Obama, and three bids for the White House. So his willingness to answer questions about what he would do if he lost was striking: As a rule, that’s a question candidates avoid. (The textbook answer: “I don’t intend to lose.”)
Perhaps it was because polls show him in a strong position against Trump. Or because Trump has recently been talking about losing. But when a voter asked about how he might try to influence a second Trump administration if he lost, Biden said he would probably go back to teaching, “focusing on the same issues relating to what constitutes decency and honor in this country.” He added, “It’s just a thing that got me involved in public life to begin with.”
Stephanopoulos leaned in with a question: What will it say about the country if Trump is reelected?
“Well, it could say I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be.”