Biden and Trump's Dueling Town Halls: The Highlights from What Was Supposed to Be a Debate

Thursday had been set aside for the second presidential debate, but after organizers said it would be done remotely out of health concerns when Trump was infected, he balked and the debate was canceled

joe biden, donald trump
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty images (2)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are very different — in politics, in temperament, in campaign style. And while they shared the same night and time slot for their dueling town halls on Thursday, the link perhaps only served to underscore the gaps between them.

As Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie noted at the beginning of the NBC town hall with Trump: "This was not how things were supposed to go tonight."

Indeed: Thursday had been set aside for the second presidential debate, conducted town hall-style.

But after organizers said it would be done remotely out of health concerns, when the president was hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, he balked and the debate was canceled.

Biden, 77, instead agreed to a town hall with ABC News. Days later, Trump scheduled a similar format with NBC.

The competing scheduling drew backlash for NBC, while the network insisted it had little choice because it had given Biden an identical time slot and format last week and there were few available days left on the calendar, even if its town hall conflicted with ABC.

At a campaign event earlier on Thursday, Trump, 74, said he expected to be challenged and criticized at the NBC town hall — in contrast, he said, to a previous town hall Biden did with the network where Biden got what he called gentle questioning.

Nonetheless, he said at his rally, "I figured, what the hell, we get a free hour of television."

"And we have Savannah Guthrie," Trump said, voice turning sarcastic. "She's always lovely, isn't she? But I figure why not."

The president — who has a history of mocking and disparaging people who displease him, particularly women — was half right: While NBC had faced criticism for being too accommodating of Trump, Guthrie used much of the town hall to press him for specific answers to her questions.

The event began with a back-and-forth about his recent coronavirus infection and hospitalization in which he admitted he did not know the last time he tested negative before he got sick, even as he attended multiple events with large groups.

Elsewhere in the hour, Guthrie, a Today show anchor, repeatedly pressed Trump on his false or misleading answers and followed up with questions, sometimes interrupting him. (This drew the ire of some viewers, who compared her to the president during the first debate with Biden, where he repeatedly interrupted and heckled Biden. Numerous others, however, praised Guthrie's approach.)

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President Donald Trump (right) answers a question from a voter at an NBC News town hall. CNBC
Donald Trump, <a href="" data-inlink="true">Savannah Guthrie</a>s
From left: President Donald Trump and Savannah Guthrie at NBC News' town hall. CNBC(2)

When Trump discussed his coronavirus infection, Guthrie asked him about symptoms while he was sick and if he had pneumonia. While he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days, his doctors declined to say whether he had lung damage or pneumonia from the virus.

He told Guthrie on Thursday that his doctors said his lungs were "a little bit different, a little bit perhaps infected," but he said he didn't know with what: "I don’t know, I didn’t do too much asking."

She asked if he had had pneumonia and he said no.

"I didn’t have much of a problem with the lungs," he said. "I did have a little bit of a temperature."

Trump's medical team has also said that in addition to fever, he had two drops in his oxygen level requiring supplemental oxygen, but that they were not serious episodes.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S., has become one of the — if not the most — defining issues of the presidential election.

Trump has repeatedly downplayed its severity in public, even as he acknowledged it was more dangerous in private, and he has openly waffled on recommending basic health guidelines such as wearing a mask and social distancing.

When asked about masks at Thursday's town hall, he told Guthrie he was "I'm okay with masks" but went on to insist, incorrectly, that "85 percent of the people that wear masks catch it [the virus]."

Since he returned from the hospital, he has also urged other Americans not to be afraid of the virus or let it "dominate" them. He said at the town hall that he supported people being safe and smart.

The Trump town hall made headlines for the president discussing his infection with the virus, for how he assailed Guthrie's demeanor and Biden.

"Why aren’t you asking me about Antifa, why aren’t you asking me about the radical left, why aren’t you asking Joe Biden questions about why doesn’t he denounce Antifa?" Trump told Guthrie after she raised his history of hesitating to denounce white supremacist and far-right groups. (Antifa is a loosely organized collection of left-wing activist groups across the country, some of whom are violent. Biden has repeatedly denounced violent protesters.)

Trump was also asked about QAnon, a serpentine conspiracy movement on the internet that originated with the claim that Trump was secretly working to capture other leading politicians who were part of a diabolical pedophilia ring.

The baseless theory has since expanded and evolved, to many of its supporters, to more generally encompass a conspiratorial network of satanic pedophiles at the highest levels of government and influence.

Asked about it by Guthrie, Trump demurred.

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President Donald Trump at the NBC News town hall on Thursday. CNBC

"I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it," he said.

Elsewhere at the NBC town hall, Trump took questions about corporate taxes, his personal tax records (which he has kept secret, but which were leaked to The New York Times) as well as his plans for healthcare and other issues.

In a silly, passing moment that grabbed the attention of social media, a voter asking a question gushed about how "handsome" Trump was and how "great" his smile was.

On ABC, Biden evinced a different approach: He and ABC's George Stephanopoulos were by design less heated in their back and forth, given how Biden handles questions (long noted for his sometimes verbose answers).

Nonetheless, some of his exchanges with Stephanopoulos and voters stood out.

He again criticized Trump for downplaying the coronavirus in public — "He said he didn't tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic. Americans don't panic. He panicked." — and he said he regretted an 1980s anti-crime bill he supported at the time.

(An aide later clarified he was referring to a 1986 law, not a more famous and more controversial 1994 law.)

He also criticized Amy Coney Barrett, the federal appeals judge that Trump has nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"My reading online of what the judge said was she didn't answer very many questions at all," Biden said, referring to Barrett's Senate confirmation hearings. "And I don't even think she has laid out much of a judicial philosophy in terms of the basis upon which he thinks are there on a numerated rights in the Constitution."

Barrett's confirmation process has fueled its own controversy, as Democrats say Republicans are hypocritical for now agreeing to nominate someone in an election year after refusing to do so in 2016, under President Barack Obama.

Some Biden supporters have called on him to pack the court, a phrase referring to legally expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court (which has happened — though rarely — in past centuries).

Separately, Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, have faced scrutiny for saying they won't answer if they would "pack" the court because, in their words, it's not yet clear if Barrett will be confirmed.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos at a town hall. JIM WATSON/Getty Images
joe biden, donald trump
Former Vice President Joe Biden at an ABC News town hall on Thursday. JIM WATSON/Getty Images

At the town hall on Thursday, Biden said: "I'm not a fan [of court packing]. I'd say it depends on how this turns out, not how he wins, but how it's handled. ... It depends on how much they rush this."

Taking a question late in the night from the mother of a transgender child, Biden spoke of his own history with the LGBTQ community and discrimination.

"There should be zero discrimination, and what's happening is too many transgender women of color are being murdered," he said. (He also, somewhat awkwardly, spoke of his son Beau Biden's experience with a trans woman at Beau's work, whom the former vice president said was "a young man who became a woman.")

Finally, Biden was asked about the final debate, scheduled to be held on Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Stephanopoulos asked: Will Biden show up and will he require everyone, including the president, be tested for the coronavirus?

"It's just decency to be able to determine whether or not you are clear. I'm less concerned about me ... than the people, the guys with the cameras, two people working in the, you know, the Secret Service guys you drive up with, all those people," Biden said.

"And so, yes, I believe he will do that [take a test]. Look, I'm going to abide by what the commission rules call for," Biden continued. "I was prepared to debate him remotely, which was supposed to happen. And he said he wouldn't do that ... He didn't want to do that."

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