Aaron Blake and Eugene Scott
President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden held duelling town halls on Thursday night – forums that took the place of the presidential debate originally scheduled for the same night and which Trump pulled out of when it went to a virtual format.
The decision by NBC to air the event at the same time as Biden’s previously scheduled one on ABC was a source of controversy, but the simultaneous events provided a pretty good window into the contrasting approaches a debate would have, even if not side by side. Here are the takeaways.
1. Trump’s misinformation
A couple recent Trump interviews have stood out for the interviewers’ rare abilities and efforts to call out Trump in real time – one from Fox News’s Chris Wallace and another from Axios’s Jonathan Swan.
On Thursday, we got another in the same category, from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
In the approximately 20 minutes before the town hall was turned over to audience questions, Guthrie thoroughly grilled him. As Trump repeated a series of false claims about the coronavirus outbreak and equivocated on things like QAnon and accepting the election results, Guthrie peppered him with sharp questions, follow-ups and fact checks.
When Trump claimed that a study showed 85% of people who wear masks still get coronavirus, Guthrie noted he falsely characterized the study.
When Trump defended his covid-19 response by citing another study that showed 2 million people could have died from the coronavirus, Guthrie rightly noted that model predicted that only if the government did precisely zero mitigation.
When Trump declined to denounce QAnon because he said he didn’t know what it was about, Guthrie provided details about what it was about and invited him to do it, noting Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has flatly denounced it as a deranged conspiracy. But Trump instead offered that he liked that QAnon was against pedophilia.
When Guthrie pressed Trump on his retweets this week of a bizarre conspiracy theory about Osama bin Laden’s death, Trump explained by saying he was just passing along information. (“That was a retweet, I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.”) Guthrie then provided the retort those tweets have long demanded: that he’s the president, not someone’s “crazy uncle” spouting off on Twitter, and that the information he promotes matters.
Like the Wallace and Swan interviews, Trump was clearly rattled by being so frequently and effectively questioned on his claims. Plenty complained that NBC News was providing him this forum opposite Biden’s town hall despite Trump having pulled out of a debate scheduled for the same night. Guthrie’s almost literal cross-examination (she is a lawyer) of him should allay any fears that this would amount to a free platform for the president.
2. Biden had the steady showing he needs
Biden is leading Trump by a double-digit average in national polls, and is making inroads with many of the demographics that Trump previously won. As a result, the race seems in many ways like Biden’s to lose.
Biden didn’t make any glaring mistakes that would jeopardise his position, even with George Stephanopolous asking tough follow ups on questions on his record on race, policing, fracking, and more.
For the most part, Biden gave answers we’ve heard from him before (with one notable exception – we’ll get to that later). And he gave them in a way that perhaps would have been impossible for him to do during a debate like the one two weeks ago, where he was constantly interrupted by Trump. The town hall format has been kind to Biden in the past, and it was a hurdle he cleared easily Thursday.
3. Trump and QAnon
In the span of less than a minute in the NBC News town hall, Trump sought to once and for all put to bed the denounce-white-supremacy-issue that dogged him after the debate two weeks ago – and then almost immediately created another not-denouncing issue that seems likely to linger in the days to come.
Trump was clearly frustrated with being asked the white supremacy question. After declining at the debate two weeks ago to directly denounce it – and telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which they took as encouragement – Trump and the White House spent 48 hours declining to more directly do so, arguing Trump’s previous answers should suffice. (Trump eventually relented during an interview with Sean Hannity two weeks ago; by that point, though, Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis overshadowed it). Trump repeated Thursday that he denounces white supremacism.
But then, immediately, Guthrie asked Trump whether he would also denounce QAnon, which the US government regards as a dangerous conspiracy theory. And Trump declined. He maintained that he didn’t actually know what it was about, despite having been asked about it two months ago and saying the same thing.
Then, in almost a carbon copy of the Proud Boys comment, Trump said something that could very well be read by QAnon supporters as encouragement.
“I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said. “They fight it very hard.”
The deranged conspiracy theory does indeed involve a supposed battle against pedophilia, but not one that’s based in any reality. The movement has gained strength in recent months, with a recent poll showing Republicans being about evenly split on whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. QAnon supporters and sympathizers have won GOP primaries, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is likely to win a Congressional seat in Georgia. (Despite Greene having been initially denounced by Republicans, earlier Thursday her endorsement was hailed by Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign.)
Trump’s desire not to alienate people who hold fringe views – if not encourage such theories – is well-established. But at a moment in the campaign in which he needs to wage a comeback, he seemingly signed himself up for another few days of why-won’t-you-denounce coverage about something that Americans overwhelmingly reject. Not ideal.
4. Biden on court-packing
Biden, as he has before, said he is “not a fan” of packing the Supreme Court with more justices, something that has been floated by a growing number of Democrats following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But he also has not committed to not doing it.
“It depends on how this turns out,” he said referring to the Senate confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Given the GOP’s control of the Senate, Barrett is on the fast track to being confirmed.
Biden has been cagey in his answers about this. He has said if he gives an answer, that will dominate the conversation rather than the nomination itself.
But that has just prompted persistent questions from reporters to clarify where he stands. When he was asked Thursday to give a more definitive answer, he repeated that line, but he was a little more revealing about how open he is to it.
“It depends on how much they rush this,” he said, adding that if the nomination goes forward quickly, “I’m open to considering what happened from that point on.”
Biden also seemed to say he’ll say more by Election Day.
5. Trump’s last test
Another question that has dogged Trump and the White House in recent days is when was his last negative coronavirus test before his positive test two weeks ago. The White House has declined to disclose it (among many other details), despite it being crucial in determining when the outbreak in the White House began. This has combined with questions about whether he actually complied with a requirement that he be tested before his Septemebr 29 debate with Biden.
Trump offered little clarity on the point. After talking around the issue for a bit and saying he was frequently tested, Guthrie pressed Trump again, and he said he was “probably” tested the day of the debate. Trump added, “Possibly I did; possibly I didn’t.”
Trump was also asked whether he was ever diagnosed with pneumonia and, after initially not giving a direct answer, said he wasn’t.
Trump did expand on another issue the White House declined to address – his lung scans – saying the doctors “said the lungs are little bit different, a little bit – perhaps infected.”