President Trump and Joe Biden offered starkly different visions for the country and a sharp contrast in leadership styles on Thursday as the presidential contenders took part in dueling town halls on NBC and ABC.
NBC’s hourlong event with Trump drew strong criticism from the entertainment industry and many others who saw it as a way of indulging Trump, who pulled out of a planned second presidential debate with his Democratic opponent. NBC was urged to move its event out of the 8 p.m. hour so as not to conflict with ABC’s 90-minute session with Biden, which was announced first after Trump dropped out of the debate.
“Today” anchor Savannah Guthrie sparred aggressively with Trump throughout the one-hour event. She set the tone early, asking him to disavow white supremacy and QAnon, the online conspiracy theory about a pedophile cult.
Trump said he knew little about it, though he had heard they were “strongly against pedophilia.”
“I agree with that,” he said.
When she followed up, asking him to say there was no pedophile cult, he declined.
“I don’t know that,” Trump said. “Neither do you know that. Why aren’t you asking me about antifa?”
Guthrie appeared ready for a fight. “You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle that can just retweet whatever,” she said at one point.
Guthrie also grilled Trump about his tax returns, asking if it was true — as the New York Times reported — that he paid only $750 a year. He said the figure was a “statutory number — a filing fee.”
“If they have my tax returns, they have to go to jail,” Trump said. “It’s illegal.”
Meanwhile on ABC, chief anchor George Stephanopoulos pressed Biden about whether Democrats will seek to add justices to the Supreme Court, assuming that conservatives take a 6-3 advantage with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Biden declined to answer directly, but said he would offer “a clear position before Election Day pending on how they handle this.”
Biden said he wants to keep the focus on the inappropriate nature of Barrett’s confirmation process, and that if he were to declare his position one way or another now, “that’s the headline.”
He also advised viewers: “Presidents come and go. Justices stay and stay and stay.”
Speaking at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, Biden fielded questions about racial justice, income inequality, infrastructure and police reform. His avuncular delivery and ease in discussing the nitty-gritty details of policy stood in sharp contrast to the more belligerent tone over on NBC.
Biden offered some personal asides, such as his oft-repeated line that when he was a kid growing up in Clermont, Penn., most men “either became a cop, a firefighter or a priest. I wasn’t qualified to do any of them.” He made a point of asking each questioner whether he had sufficiently answered the query.
He also castigated Trump’s leadership during the pandemic.
“The president has a responsibility to lead and he didn’t do that,” Biden said. “He didn’t talk about what needed to be done. He kept worrying, in my view, about the (stock) market.”
On NBC, Trump bristled as Guthrie pressed hard on his administration’s response to the virus.
“I knew you’d be doing this,” he said. “I know you very well.”
Biden made a strong statement about protecting LGBTQ rights, and he promised to end policies enacted by Trump that curb the rights of transgender people. He noted with dismay the recent rash of murders of transgender women of color.
About 60 voters, all wearing masks, attended the event at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Several got to ask questions, many of which were quite pointed. One questioner complimented Trump on his smile, and then asked why he was trying to do away with DACA, the program that shields immigrant children from deportation. Trump responded that the pandemic had led to a clampdown on immigration.
As for the third presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 22, Biden said, “I expect to be there.” He said he would abide by rules for the event established by the Commission on Presidential Debates and would submit to COVID-19 testing in advance.
“It’s just decency to be able to determine whether you’re clear,” he said, a reference to Trump’s prickliness about the debate rules and the president’s recent bout with the virus.
Trump, for his part, declined to answer whether he had tested negative before the first debate, saying he didn’t remember.
The dueling live town hall events set up a ratings battle, as Trump hopes to tout the enthusiasm behind his campaign. Biden’s telecast was more popular by the crude metric of viewers of the live YouTube streams of both events; official ratings data will have to wait until Friday.
At a rally in Greenville, N.C., earlier in the day, Trump said he was being “set up.”
“I’m doing this town hall with ‘Concast,’ because it’s a con job,” he said. “It’s NBC, the worst.”
Trump and Biden were originally supposed to hold a town hall debate on Thursday night with C-SPAN host Steve Scully. But the event was canceled after Trump refused to participate in a virtual event following his positive test for COVID-19.
Several high-profile Hollywood creatives, including many connected to NBC, signed an open letter Thursday urging the network to change the time of the Trump event, and arguing that NBC was “enabling” Trump’s bad behavior.
NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde responded, saying it would be unfair to offer Trump a different time slot than the one that had been afforded to Biden at an NBC town hall on Oct. 5.