Chattanooga Times Free Press
Dueling town halls
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.