US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden competed for TV audiences in duelling town halls instead of meeting face to face for their second debate as originally planned.
Hot-button issues including the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, white supremacy and the conspiracy theory, Q-Anon, dominated both events on Thursday night.
Biden opened his ABC town hall with George Stephanopoulos by describing how he would have handled the coronavirus differently. Speaking to voters in Philadelphia, Biden blamed President Trump for concealing the deadliness of the virus that has killed more than 216,000 people in the United States.
“He said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic,” Biden said. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.”
Trump, meanwhile, defended both his response to the pandemic as well as his own personal conduct.
“Hey, I’m president – I have to see people, I can’t be in a basement,” Trump said to NBC moderator Samantha Guthrie in front of an outdoor audience of voters in Miami.
The split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of the many ways the campaign season has been changed by a pandemic that has prompted more than 18 million people to cast ballots more than two weeks before Election Day on November 3rd.
When asked about Q-Anon, the false conspiracy theory that holds that the Democrats are anti-Trump Satanic pedophiles, President Trump insisted he knew nothing of the movement, although he has been asked about it many times before. He has previously said he was pleased with the movement because it praises him.
“I know nothing about QAnon…I do know they are very much against pedophilia…But I know nothing about it,” Trump told Guthrie Thursday night before going on to criticize anti-fascist and left-wing movement, Antifa.
“I’ll tell you what I do know about. I know about antifa and I know about the radical left,” Trump said. “And I know how violent they are and how vicious they are. And I know how they are burning down cities run by Democrats not run by Republicans.”
On his previous reluctance to denounce White Supremacy- a topic that dominated headlines after his presidential debate last month with Joe Biden, Trump said: “I denounce white supremacy. I’ve denounced white supremacy for years.”
Guthrie pushed him to condemn the movement in a way he had refrained from doing on the debate stage.
“What are you listening? I denounce white supremacy. What’s your next question?” Trump responded.
The President was then asked about a New York Times report citing tax returns showing he has business debts exceeding $400 million. He dodged questions about the investigation of two decades of his tax returns, which he has refused to release publicly but described his debts as a “very very small percentage.”
He also did not deny the report that he paid only $750 in federal income tax during his first year in the White House, although he said at one point the paper’s numbers were “wrong.”
Meanwhile, over in Philadelphia, Biden was repeatedly pressed to clarify his position on whether he will support adding members to the Supreme Court, his work on the 1986 and 1994 crime bills and his position on fracking. He was also forced to explain his controversial comment that if Black Americans don’t support him “you ain’t Black.”
Biden said he was not a “fan” of court-packing, the idea promoted by some Democrats of adding justices to counteract what they view as a stolen seat. But he declined to rule it out after Stephanopoulos pressed him, saying: “It depends on how this turns out,” referring to Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett.
Later on, a young Black man in the audience recalled Biden’s “you ain’t Black” comment and asked the former vice president how he could convince Black voters to take part “in a system that has failed to protect them.”
Biden delivered a lengthy answer that highlighted a number of his economic and educational proposals.
With the election less than three weeks away, campaigning has picked up the pace this week, with Trump holding rallies in the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa, and Biden travelling to Ohio and Florida.
A final debate is still scheduled for October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.