WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump was evasive Thursday night when pressed if he took a COVID-19 test before his first debate with Democrat Joe Biden as the two men squared off again, in a way, after their scuttled second showdown was replaced by dueling televised town halls several channels apart.
Biden, appearing nearly 1,200 miles away, denounced the White House's handling of the virus that has claimed more than 215,000 American lives, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration. Trump, meanwhile, was defensive and insisted that the nation was turning the corner on the virus, even as his own battle with the disease took center stage.
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 that created Thursday's odd spectacle, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before Election Day. The moment seemed fitting for a race unlike any other, as yet another campaign ritual was 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. Trump backed out of plans for the presidential faceoff originally scheduled for the evening after debate organizers said it would be held virtually following Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
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. The difference in the men’s tone was immediate and striking.
Trump was Trump. He was loud and argumentative, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, refusing to outright condemn the QAnon conspiracy group, testily declaring he would denounce white supremacy but complaining about the questioning — and eventually saying for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election, but only after casting an extraordinary amount doubt on the likeliness of fairness.
“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.”
Biden meanwhile, took a far different, softer, approach with audience questions. The former vice president, who struggled growing up with a stutter, stuttered slightly at the start of the show and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times his answers droned on.
Biden says there should be “zero discrimination” against transgender people and he promised to restore protections for them that President Donald Trump has sought to remove.
At his ABC News town hall Thursday, Biden said he would reverse Trump’s moves to revoke protections for transgender people against sex discrimination in health care and restrict military service by transgender men and women. He also condemned violence against transgender women of color.
He told an anecdote about his late son, Beau Biden, helping pass a transgender protection law in Delaware while serving as state attorney general, an effort inspired by a worker in the attorney general’s office.
The former vice president also recounted a story from his youth where he witnessed two men kissing and said his father turned to him and said, “Joey, it’s simple: They love each other.”
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 “let me see... $92 billion.”
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville. But the cancellation of Thursday’s debate still reverberated for both campaigns.
Trump and Biden battled on Sept. 29 in Cleveland in a debate defined both by the president’s constant hectoring of his opponent, which sent his support lower, and by its place on the calendar: just two days before Trump announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.
Trump was hospitalized for three days, and while he later convalesced at the White House the debate commission moved to make their second debate remote — which the president immediately rejected.
Earlier Thursday, Trump appeared at a rally in North Carolina, underscoring the challenge confronting him in the final weeks as multiple polls have shown him trailing Biden nationally and in many swing states. Trump has spent much of the week on defense, campaigning in states he won in 2016, such as North Carolina and Iowa, where he campaigned Wednesday.
But despite the polling, Trump predicted a “big, beautiful red wave” on Election Night, before referencing another one of his major challenges: A cash disadvantage to the Biden campaign, which just announced raising a record-breaking $383 million in September.
President Donald Trump tried to end his contentious town hall meeting on a positive note.
Asked what he’d say to undecided voters, the Republican president declared Thursday night that he’s “done a great job” in his first term and predicted that “next year is going to be better than ever before.”
Trump’s upbeat final answer followed an intense hourlong session in which voters and moderator Savannah Guthrie pressed him repeatedly on difficult topics. Trump was sweating at times and appeared visibly angry about the aggressive questions, especially early in the session.
In the end, Trump dodged specific questions about the timing of his personal coronavirus testing, his plans for the nation’s health care and his tax returns. He also faced tough questions about white supremacy, conspiracy theories and his reluctance to embrace face masks during the pandemic.
Thursday’s event was held in place of the second presidential debate, which was canceled after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis. He’s scheduled to face Democrat Joe Biden next week for the final debate before Election Day.
Joe Biden is putting distance between his clean energy goals and the Green New Deal, saying the policy plan popular with progressives isn’t achievable within the timeframes it has laid out.
At a Thursday town hall, he pointed to a piece of the deal that calls for 100% renewable and zero-emission energy sources by 2030. Biden says that “you can’t get there” and that the country needs more time to invest in technologies that will eventually lead to net-zero emissions.
He’s detailing his own climate plan that includes ending subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies, putting more land into conservation, planting more trees and plants to absorb carbon from the air and even finding more creative ways to use animal manure. Biden also says the country needs to ramp up its efforts around expanded use of electric vehicles.
His campaign website calls the plan a crucial framework for meeting the nation’s climate challenges.
“My deal’s a crucial framework, but not the New Green Deal,” Biden said, misstating the plan’s name.