By Adam Nagourney and Shane Goldmacher
If Americans had to endure 90 minutes of crossover talk and interruptions last month in the first presidential debate, the alternative – simultaneous town hall events Thursday with President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden – was not much better.
Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the first debate and, citing security concerns, the presidential debates committee declared that the second debate, scheduled for October 15, would have to be virtual. Trump refused to participate in that format, so Biden scheduled an assembly with voters on ABC. Trump then scheduled his on NBC at the same time.
“I thought, what the hell, we have an hour of free television,” the president said at a rally in North Carolina on Thursday.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s tactic of trying to push Biden off the stage worked in his favor. Biden’s entire campaign strategy has been to fly low to victory. Trump could have made it easier with his uproarious performance that contrasts with that of Biden, whom one of Trump’s advisers compared to “watching an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” suggesting that a similarity to beloved Fred Rogers was a negative thing.
Here are six keys from the two assemblies with voters last Thursday:
Trump damaged his message by refusing to denounce QAnon
After facing days of headlines and headaches as a result of his refusal to condemn white supremacism during the first presidential debate, Trump was ready Thursday to offer an unconditional denunciation. “I denounce white supremacism, okay?” He told the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, almost before she finished her question.
The rare forcefulness to the issue made Trump’s timid refusal, minutes later, to repudiate QAnon’s false conspiracy theory clearer.
“I don’t know anything about QAnon,” Trump said, despite amplifying a discredited claim by proponents of the theory a few days ago.
Guthrie quickly recapped how the far-right movement falsely claims that the Democrats are a satanic cult practicing pedophilia. “Can you, once and for all, affirm that it is not true and reject QAnon in its entirety?”
“What I know is that they are very against pedophilia, they fight it hard,” Trump said. Later, he repeated that line, almost cheerfully: “What I do know is that they are very much against pedophilia. I agree with that. I agree with that”.
Trump has long been cautious and avoids badmouthing his supporters, and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory are among his most ardent supporters. “I understand that they like me very much,” he said over the summer, after noting that they “love our country.”
Guthrie may have said the most memorable line of the night when he questioned Trump about a recent retweet of a delegitimized conspiracy theory that Biden had orchestrated actions to get SEAL Team 6, one of the elite military units of the country, was assassinated to cover up the supposed death of Osama bin Laden. Trump said, shrugging, “I’ll just leave it there.”
“I don’t understand,” Guthrie replied. “You are the president. He’s not, like, someone’s crazy uncle. “
The president’s niece, Mary Trump, responded on Twitter: “Actually …”
Biden suggested that masks and shots be mandatory
The question of how to handle a pandemic that has overwhelmed the nation in the past six months is almost certainly the most stark difference between Biden and Trump, and that was clear from their voter assemblies.
Trump downplayed the danger of the virus, despite being hospitalized after falling ill. He has mocked Biden for wearing face masks and has resisted the idea of them being mandatory. Trump has removed his mask theatrically at his campaign rallies; Biden revealed that before going on stage he had been wearing two face masks, a preventive measure that some doctors say is effective.
Biden said he would vaccinate himself by the end of the year, and would urge other Americans to do so, “if the body of scientists says this is what is ready to be done and has been tested.”
He also said that he could support mandatory vaccination, but acknowledged that such a measure would be difficult to implement. “You can’t say that everyone has to do this, but it’s like you can’t order the use of masks,” he said.
With that, Biden was treading on difficult ground. There is a long history of resistance to mandates in this country; think about Obamacare and the individual mandate. And a significant number of Americans have resisted getting vaccinated in the past; One of the big questions is how many Americans will accept a coronavirus vaccine once it is developed, with or without a mandate.
“It’s thorny,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant. But he was realistic. People should have confidence in the vaccine. So you can’t play games like Trump. “
Biden also said he expects Trump to undergo a coronavirus test before his upcoming debate on Oct. 22, in accordance with the rules set by the presidential debating commission. “Before coming here, I took another test,” he said. “I’ve been doing it every day.”
He said that, had he tested positive, he would not have attended the assembly. “I didn’t want to come here and expose anyone,” he said. “And I think being able to determine whether or not you are healthy is just decency.”
Trump clung to an unpopular stance on face masks and the pandemic
Face masks are politically popular. They are accepted as a public health necessity by experts and a wide sample of the American public. One of Trump’s advisers, Chris Christie, said Thursday that he was “wrong” not to wear a mask in the White House. But Trump, despite having recently contracted the coronavirus and having required hospitalization for it, still cannot reach a full adoption of the use of the mask.
“I’m fine with the masks, I tell people, ‘wear masks,'” he said. But he couldn’t resist adding something else. “Just the other day,” Trump said, he had seen a study showing that people who wore face masks continued to contract the virus.
He tried to twist the position of Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, on face masks. And he ruled out the scientific consensus.
“People with masks are contagious all the time,” he added.
It was exactly the kind of digression that has left Republicans frustrated: Six months, eight million cases and more than 215,000 deaths later, the president is still trying to adapt the reality of the pandemic to his policy and not the other way around.
The pandemic has disrupted the lives of Americans like no other event, and per capita death rates are higher than in other developed nations, but Trump still claims his administration’s response has been a success. “We are winners,” declared Trump, speaking of “excess mortality.” He added: “What we have done has been incredible, and we have done an incredible job.”
Biden finally talked about adding seats to the Court … or something like that.
Biden made some headlines: After vigorously evading the question recently, he noted that he would announce before Election Day whether he supports expanding the number of Supreme Court seats. But he said he wanted to wait until after the Senate acted on the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This has been a difficult topic for Biden, and it seems likely that it was not a planned response. Many Democrats have called for the expansion of the Supreme Court after Trump and Senate Republicans decided they would fill the vacancy created by the death of Judge Ginsburg, despite the election being so close. If that happens, Trump will have placed three justices on the Supreme Court.
Biden has made it clear in the past that he did not support the idea. He has avoided the question during the campaign by saying he did not want to get into the Trump game and divert attention from what the Republicans were doing with the Ginsburg vacancy. But he agreed with the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, that voters had a right to know his views, and set a timeline for disseminating them.
It might not be enough to put the issue behind you.
“Their response or lack of response about the court was a bit puzzling,” Priscilla Southwell, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said by email. “It says voters should know their position on the issue, but not until the confirmation process is complete. By then, the majority of voters will have voted, including this voter. “
The agenda for a second Trump term: we still have no news
Trump had kind words for the conspiracy theorists; He did not want to say whether he had tested negative for the coronavirus on the day of the first debate (“Possibly yes. Possibly no”); and it continued to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.
However, he didn’t have much to say about a big schedule for the second term.
When Trump spoke about politics, he mostly focused on vindicating his record. He was more fluid and clearly more comfortable, talking about the economy and warning of the repercussions of Biden’s election, saying the nation would “end up with a depression like it has never had.”
He said he was negotiating a stimulus plan with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, even though they did not speak. “I am ready to sign a great and beautiful encouragement,” he said. As an aside, he also offered one of the best euphemisms for his footprint on the often malleable Republican Party.
“Maybe I’ve changed the party a lot in the last three years,” Trump said.
But failing to propose a vision for the next four years – and to navigate the remaining months and years of the pandemic – is a glaring weakness and one that Trump remains unaddressed. When Guthrie gave him the opportunity to close his speech with a proposal to remain in office for the next four years, he began: “Because I have done a great job.” There were few details beyond the classic Trump boast. “Next year,” he promised, “is going to be better than ever.”
What if Biden loses?
Biden is, in many ways, a totally conventional candidate for the White House, particularly compared to Trump. He has dedicated his entire life to popularly elected positions: 36 years in the Senate, two terms as vice president of Barack Obama, and three runs for the White House. So his willingness to answer the questions about what he would ask if he lost was surprising – as a rule, that’s a question candidates avoid. (The manual answer: “I do not intend to lose”).
Maybe it was because polls show him in a strong position against Trump. Or because Trump has recently talked about losing. But when asked by a voter how he could try to influence a second Trump administration if he lost, Biden said he would probably go back to teaching, “focusing on the same questions about what constitutes decency and honor in this country.” He added: “It’s what got me involved in public life to begin with.”
Stephanopoulos asked: What will he say to the country if Trump is re-elected?
“Well, I could say that I’m a lousy candidate and that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “I hope he doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as the president seems to want us to be.”