Baltimore Sun

Can­di­dates face vot­ers

Trump, Bi­den wage ri­valry long dis­tance in du­el­ing town halls

- By Jonathan Lemire, Will Weissert and Dar­lene Superville US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Washington · Donald Trump · Democratic Party (United States) · Joe Biden · Russia · Russian Empire · White House · Barack Obama · U.S. government · U.S. Supreme Court · NBC · Miami · Savannah Guthrie · New York City · Amy Coney Barrett

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Demo­crat Joe Bi­den squared off, in a way, Thurs­day night, their scut­tled sec­ond de­bate re­placed by du­el­ing tele­vised town halls that show­cased strik­ing dif­fer­ences in tem­per­a­ment, views on racial jus­tice and ap­proaches to the pan­demic that has re­shaped the na­tion.

Trump was de­fen­sive about his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s han­dling of the coro­n­avirus, which has claimed more than 217,000 Amer­i­can lives, and eva­sive when when pressed about whether he took a re­quired COVID-19 test be­fore his first de­bate with Bi­den.

An­gry and com­bat­ive, he re­fused to de­nounce the QAnon con­spir­acy group —and only testily did so on white su­prem­a­cists.

The pres­i­dent also ap­peared to ac­knowl­edge he was in debt and left open the pos­si­bil­ity that some of it was owed to a for­eign bank. He in­sisted that he didn’t owe any money to Rus­sia or any “sin­is­ter peo­ple” and sug­gested that be­ing $400 mil­lion in debt was a “very, very small per­cent­age” com­pared to his over­all as­sets.

Bi­den, ap­pear­ing nearly 1,200 miles away, de­nounced the White

House’s han­dling of the virus, declar­ing that it was at fault for clos­ing a pan­demic re­sponse of­fice es­tab­lished by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in which he served. Though vague at times, he ac­knowl­edged it was a mis­take to sup­port a 1994 crime bill that led to in­creased Black in­car­cer­a­tion and sug­gested he fi­nally will of­fer clar­ity on his po­si­tion on ex­pand­ing the Supreme Court if Trump’s nom­i­nee to the bench is seated be­fore Elec­tion Day.

Trump, less than two weeks af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with COVID-19, dodged di­rectly an­swer­ing whether he took a test the day of the Sept. 29 de­bate, only saying “pos­si­bly I did, pos­si­bly I didn’t.” De­bate rules re­quired that each can­di­date, us­ing the honor sys­tem, had tested neg­a­tive prior to the Cleve­land event, but Trump spoke in cir­cles when asked when he last tested neg­a­tive.

It was his pos­i­tive test two days later that cre­ated Thurs­day’s odd spec­ta­cle, which de­prived most view­ers of a si­mul­ta­ne­ous look at the can­di­dates 19 days be­fore Elec­tion Day. The mo­ment seemed fit­ting for a race un­like any other, as yet an­other campaign rit­ual changed by the pan­demic that has rewrit­ten the norms of so­ci­ety.

The pres­i­den­tial ri­vals took ques­tions in dif­fer­ent cities on dif­fer­ent net­works:

Trump on NBC from Mi­ami, Bi­den on ABC from Philadelph­ia. Trump backed out of plans for the pres­i­den­tial face-off orig­i­nally sched­uled for the even­ing af­ter de­bate or­ga­niz­ers said it would be held vir­tu­ally fol­low­ing his COVID-19 di­ag­no­sis.

The town halls of­fered a dif­fer­ent for­mat for the two can­di­dates to present them­selves to vot­ers, af­ter the pair held a chaotic and com­bat­ive first de­bate late last month. The dif­fer­ence in the men’s tone was im­me­di­ate and strik­ing.

Trump was Trump. He was loud and ar­gu­men­ta­tive, fight­ing with the host, Sa­van­nah Guthrie, com­plain­ing about the ques­tion­ing — and even­tu­ally saying for the first time that he would honor the re­sults of a fair elec­tion, but only af­ter cast­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of doubt on the like­li­ness of fair­ness.

“And then they talk ‘Will you ac­cept a peace­ful trans­fer,’ ” Trump said. “And the an­swer is, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I want it to be an hon­est elec­tion, and so does every­body else.”

He again sought to min­i­mize rev­e­la­tions from a New York Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he has more than $400 mil­lion in debt and sug­gested that re­ports are wrong that he paid lit­tle or no fed­eral in­come taxes in most years over the past two decades. He in­sisted that Amer­i­cans should not be alarmed by his debt and re­peat­edly in­sisted that he is “un­der­lever­aged.”

“It’s a tiny per­cent­age of my net worth,” Trump said of his re­ported debt. But he left open the pos­si­bil­ity that some of his debt is owed to a for­eign bank by saying. “No, I don’t owe Rus­sia money. I owe a very, very small, it’s called mort­gages.”

Bi­den mean­while, took a far dif­fer­ent, softer, ap­proach with au­di­ence ques­tions. The for­mer vice pres­i­dent, who strug­gled grow­ing up with a stut­ter, stut­tered slightly at the start of the pro­gram and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his re­sponse to clearly enun­ci­ate his words.

Hold­ing a white cloth mask in one hand, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee also brought a small card of notes on stage and re­ferred to it while promis­ing to roll back tax cuts for the wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans. He said do­ing so would save, as he con­sulted his notes, “let me see, $92 bil­lion.”

Bi­den vowed to say be­fore Elec­tion Day whether he will sup­port ex­pand­ing the num­ber of jus­tices on the Supreme Court if Democrats win the pres­i­dency, the Se­nate and hold the House af­ter No­vem­ber.

He has for weeks re­fused to an­swer the ques­tion but went fur­ther Thurs­day night. He said, “I’m still not a fan” of ex­pand­ing the court, but that his ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion de­pended on how the con­fir­ma­tion of Amy Coney Bar­rett to the Supreme Court “is han­dled” and “how much they rush this.”

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 ?? EVAN VUCCI/AP (LEFT); RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, left, waits to an­swer ques­tions in Mi­ami. Joe Bi­den walks on stage for his own town hall in Philadelph­ia.
EVAN VUCCI/AP (LEFT); RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, left, waits to an­swer ques­tions in Mi­ami. Joe Bi­den walks on stage for his own town hall in Philadelph­ia.

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