Chattanooga Times Free Press

Du­el­ing town halls

- BY JONATHAN LEMIRE, WILL WEISSERT AND DAR­LENE SUPERVILLE US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Joe Biden · Donald Trump · Washington · Democratic Party (United States) · Russia · Russian Empire · White House · Barack Obama · U.S. government · U.S. Supreme Court · NBC · Miami · New York City · Savannah Guthrie

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, left, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump com­peted for TV au­di­ences in du­el­ing town halls Thurs­day night in­stead of meet­ing face-to-face.

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 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 216,000 Amer­i­can lives, and eva­sive when pressed about whether he took a re­quired COVID-19 test be­fore his first de­bate with Bi­den. 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 he didn’t owe any money to Rus­sia or “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 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 each can­di­date, us­ing the honor sys­tem, had tested neg­a­tive prior to the Cleve­land event.

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.

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.

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

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.

Bi­den mean­while, took a 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 enun­ci­ate words. At times his an­swers droned on.

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.

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AP PHO­TOS
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 ?? AP PHO­TOS/ CAROLYN KASTER, EVAN VUCCI ?? Left: Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den par­tic­i­pates in an ABC News town hall in Philadelph­ia on Thurs­day. Right: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks dur­ing an NBC News town hall in Mi­ami on Thurs­day.
AP PHO­TOS/ CAROLYN KASTER, EVAN VUCCI Left: Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den par­tic­i­pates in an ABC News town hall in Philadelph­ia on Thurs­day. Right: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks dur­ing an NBC News town hall in Mi­ami on Thurs­day.

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