(CNN) — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden weren’t on the same stage on Thursday night but two simultaneous town halls managed to clearly lay out the stark differences between the candidates.
Trump and Biden were both forced to answer tough questions as the President vied for an elusive campaign reset while trying to defend his response to the coronavirus pandemic, his embrace of conspiracy theories and his stance on White supremacists under tough questioning from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
At the same time, 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 positions on fracking and the Green New Deal. He was also forced to explain his controversial comment that if Black Americans don’t support him “you ain’t Black.”
The two separate town halls replaced the face-to-face debate that was to take place Thursday night but then was canceled by the Commission on Presidential Debates after Trump contracted the coronavirus and refused to participate in a virtual debate with Biden.
The separation of the two candidates on different networks Thursday night — each in their own sphere with their own moderator — created an even more stark contrast between their personal styles and approaches for voters who flipped back and forth between the two channels.
From the very beginning of the NBC town hall, Trump was an antagonistic participant, interrupting and criticizing the premise of questions from Guthrie — sometimes before she had even finished asking them — and often offering falsehoods as part of his answers. That dynamic immediately created a contentious back-and-forth between Trump and Guthrie that ratcheted up the crackling tension of the NBC event, as she interjected to fact-check his answers or ask if he was serious about his statements.
Trump alternately played victim and aggressor as they parried back and forth at rapid-fire speed. “You always do this,” he said, looking angry during a tense exchange when Guthrie questioned his equivocations about White supremacy. “You’ve done this to me and everybody. … Are you listening? I denounce White supremacy. What’s your next question?” he snapped.
When Guthrie persisted on that subject, Trump complained, “Here we go again.” Guthrie noted that Trump has sometimes sounded “hesitant” about condemning White supremacists. He immediately pivoted to his denunciation of Antifa and “these people on the left that are burning down our cities that are run by Democrats” and demanded why the press doesn’t ask more questions about their activities.
Voters flipping over to Biden’s town hall might have felt like they’d entered a different universe. The former vice president spoke in measured tones during that more policy-heavy event. Unlike the first debate where Trump tried to rattle Biden by interrupting nearly every one of his answers, Biden would listen to the question from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos or a voter and then answer at length, sometimes with long, winding responses.
Trump and Biden grilled in prime time
In one of the most news-making moments of the night, the President admitted that he may not have taken a coronavirus test on the day of his debate with Biden, even though he was required to do so by the Commission on Presidential Debates and tested positive for Covid-19 two days later.
He refused to say when his last negative test was before the debate and did not express any regret for the Rose Garden event that is now widely viewed as a “super-spreader” event, where attendees were not socially distanced and did not wear masks.
When asked about the New York Times reports that he has debts of approximately $421 million dollars — loans that he has personally guaranteed and that will come due in the next four years — Trump nodded but then insisted that the newspaper’s numbers are “all wrong.” He told Guthrie that he does not owe money to Russia. But when Guthrie asked whether he owes anything to foreign banks, Trump replied: “Not that I know of.”
“I don’t owe money to any of these sinister people,” Trump said, adding that he is “very under-leveraged,” at one point saying: “$400 million is a peanut.”
Meanwhile, in an incredible split-screen moment a less than three weeks out from Election Day, Biden was taking questions from voters on ABC and excoriated the President’s response to the pandemic.
“He didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market,” Biden said of Trump. “He worried if he talked about how bad this could be, unless we took these precautionary actions, then, in fact, the market would go down. And his barometer of success of the economy is the market.”
Biden attempted to clear up his position on “court packing” — the term for adding justices to the Supreme Court in order to get more sympathetic rulings — after weeks of trying to evade the question.
At the beginning of his answer, Biden reiterated once again that he is “not a fan” of court packing but said that his position will depend on how the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is “handled.” Asked what that means, Biden said it would be contingent on if there was a “real” debate on the Senate floor. “I’m open considering what happens from that point on,” he said.
Pressed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if voters have a right to know about his position, he said, “They do have a right to know where I stand. They have a right to know where I stand before they vote.”
“So you’ll come out with a clear position before Election Day?” Stephanopoulos asked.
Biden replied, “Yes. Depending on how they handle this.”
Biden aims to stay the course
Biden opened his ABC town hall on Thursday night by describing how he would have handled the coronavirus differently, using the comparison to lambast President Donald Trump for his somewhat uneven response to the virus.
“He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” the Democratic nominee said, noting that Trump’s administration said the virus would go away by Easter or be eradicated by the summer heat.
Biden said his administration would have followed the pandemic plan laid out by Barack Obama’s administration before Trump took office, saying his first move would have been sending Americans to China to get the most up to date knowledge on the virus.
Biden said there should have been more national standards earlier in the pandemic and that the President should be pushing all Americans to use masks as a way to stop the spread. Biden said he would lean on governors, as president, to mandate mask use.
Biden, who religiously wears a mask, took a much more conservative approach as he discussed precautionary measures related to the virus during his ABC town hall. He said the government should be “thinking about” making vaccines mandatory once a vaccine is approved.
Biden also faced some intense questions from members of the audience. A young Black man in the audience recalled Biden’s flip comment to radio host Charlamagne tha God that if a Black person was struggling to decide between support him and Trump, “you ain’t Black.”
“Besides ‘you ain’t Black,'” the man asked, how could Biden 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.
Trump needs a game-changer but leans on usual lines
Trump, who resumed campaign events in recent days, has traveled the country falsely suggesting that he emerged “immune” from his serious bout with the virus, continuing the same reckless tactics that marked his campaign before his diagnosis. The President has regularly gathered huge groups of supporters at his rallies where few wear masks, and plans to do more as the election nears.
But the incumbent is in need of a major moment to change the race in his favor. As the town hall started Thursday, he didn’t seem to be in much of a mood to change tact.
When Guthrie pointed out that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and that FBI Director Christopher Wray has underscored that finding under oath, Trump openly dismissed Wray and said he wasn’t doing a very good job. He continued to seize on instances where a small number of ballots were mishandled, even after Guthrie noted that some 150 million ballots could be cast across the country.
As Guthrie briskly moved the discussion along, Trump refused to disavow a wide array of conspiracy theories from voter fraud to the group known as QAnon. The President claimed not to know about what the group believes, excusing his refusal to condemn them by saying he knows they are against pedophilia—and adding that he agrees with that portion of their beliefs.
Trump repeatedly insisted that he didn’t know about the movement, even though he frequently retweets QAnon theories and followers. “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. And I agree with that. I mean I do agree with that,” he reiterated.
“But there’s not a satanic pedophile ring –” Gutherie asked.
“I have no idea. I know nothing about them,” Trump responded.
“You don’t know that?” Gutherie said.
“No, I don’t know that, and neither do you know that,” Trump said.
As Trump has refused to change course — even though the poor marks for his handling of the pandemic are creating a huge drag on his reelection chances, particularly with women — there have been ominous signs that another wave of the coronavirus is hitting the US as deaths top 217,000 and cases near 8 million. On Thursday, Trump also falsely told his North Carolina crowd that masks don’t work 85% of the time, and that 99% of people are recovering from coronavirus: “99%. 99 plus, plus,” he said, despite the fact that more than 217,000 people have died in the US.
Despite those efforts to undercut mask wearing, the President repeatedly said he was fine with Americans choosing to do so. “Savannah, we’re on the same side,” Trump said at one point. “I say wear the mask, I’m fine with it. I have no problem.”
The President was also put on the spot about his inability to make a deal with Congress on the next round of coronavirus stimulus funding. He insisted on Thursday night that he could break through the impasse on the stimulus package being considered by Congress, stating that he could convince Republicans to support the package. Even though many GOP senators have balked at the size of the White House proposal, Trump told Guthrie that if he and Pelosi can agree on a final package, Republicans will support it.