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 their differences in temperament, views on racial justice and approaches to the pandemic that has reshaped the nation.
Trump defended his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 215,000 American lives, and was evasive when pressed about whether he took a required covid-19 test before his first debate with Biden. He refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy group, though he did denounce white supremacists.
The president also appeared to acknowledge that 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 his $400 million in debt was a “very very small percentage” of 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 during President Barack Obama’s administration. Though vague at times, he acknowledged it was a mistake to support a 1994 crime bill that led to increased Black incarceration, and he 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, and the Commission on Presidential Debates’ concern that the president might still be contagious, that created Thursday’s dueling town halls, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before Election Day.
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 faceoff originally scheduled for the evening after debate organizers said it would be held virtually because of his covid-19 diagnosis.
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters.
Trump was argumentative, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie. He complained about the questioning, though he eventually said for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election, though he stressed the need for it to be a fair election.
“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 said 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 took a 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 he squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times, his answers droned on.
Dressed in a blue suit and 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 he 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.”
Biden also blasted Trump’s foreign policy, declaring that “‘America first’ has made ‘America alone’” and “This president embraces all the thugs in the world.”
He turned introspective when asked what it would say about America if he lost.
“It could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”
Biden said he plans to participate in next week’s debate but that he would ask Trump to take a covid-19 test before arriving. “It’s just decency” for everyone around him, including non-candidates like camera operators, Biden said.
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville.