WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump angrily refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy or accept responsibility for the surge of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., Joe Biden laid out his policy plans in a more muted style on a separate stage Thursday night.
Their dueling town halls on rival networks marked another first in a tumultuous race repeatedly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
As Biden was answering voter questions in a Philadelphia event hosted by ABC, Trump was tangling with Savannah Guthrie, moderator of the NBC event Trump headlined in Miami, growing increasingly heated and argumentative.
The president bristled when asked about his difficulty disavowing white supremacy. “You always do this to me,” he said. “I denounce white supremacy, OK?”
He refused to condemn QAnon, stating that he doesn’t know enough about it to take a position, despite Guthrie explaining the group’s baseless web of beliefs.
He then demonstrated specific knowledge of one of its core conspiracy theories involving pedophilia that is entirely false. “I know nothing about it,” Trump said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
When Guthrie pressed Trump to reject the community’s essential worldview, and described some of its most extreme and bogus elements, the president gave no ground: “I don’t know,” he insisted. “No, I don’t know.”
As Trump was effectively defending a fringe corner of the internet, Biden was speaking about corporate tax rates and citing the business-analysis service Moody’s, underscoring the extraordinary gulf separating the two candidates in their views, policies and connections to facts.
“It’s about growing the economy,” Biden said, a political platitude that would fit in any ordinary election year — and an illustration, in some ways, of Biden’s central campaign promise: to restore stability and a measure of predictability to the White House.
When Trump complained about her line of questions, Guthrie referred to his tweets and retweets of bizarre disinformation campaigns, including a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama and Biden, when he was vice president, killed the members of SEAL Team 6 to cover up a botched raid that didn’t in fact lead to the death of Osama bin Laden. Voters, Trump said, could decide for themselves.
“You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever,” Guthrie said.
Trump was just as testy with the first voter, who asked 20 minutes into the broadcast about his recorded admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the coronavirus pandemic despite knowing its seriousness, and with the next questioner, who asked why the president has been so reluctant to wear a mask.
Biden, by contrast, strove to present himself as a detail-oriented policy wonk, at one point brandishing a card to detail specific tax rates.
The former vice president scoffed at Trump’s explanation — repeated again onstage in Miami on Thursday — that he downplayed the coronavirus to avoid causing unnecessary fear.
“Americans don’t panic,” Biden said. “He panicked.”
Biden confirmed he would take a coronavirus vaccine if it was vouched for by a panel of scientists, not just Trump, and would encourage others to do the same. He said as president he would consider making the vaccine mandatory but added caveats: “It depends on the state of the nature of the vaccine, when it comes out and how it’s being distributed.”
At times, the details gave way to meandering omnibus answers, such as when a young Black man asked him what he would do to ensure voters like him would not opt out of the election entirely.
Biden’s answer veered from early education to mental health care to funding historically Black colleges and universities to funding entrepreneurs of color. The audience member, asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos whether Biden’s answer addressed what he needed to hear, hesitantly responded, “I think so.”
Biden leapt in to promise more specifics: “If you’re going to hang on afterward, I’ll tell you more.”
Biden also confronted issues that have been challenging for him to address throughout the campaign, including his views on expanding the Supreme Court and his record on the 1994 crime bill. Under questioning he appeared to say that he would clarify his position on expanding the Supreme Court before Election Day. And he seemed to briefly acknowledge that it was a mistake to support the crime bill, a measure in which he played a central role, though he went on to immediately suggest the perceived problem came in how the states implemented it.
“Yes it was,” he said, when asked if it was a mistake to support it. “But here’s where the mistake came: The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally.”
The televised events took the place of an originally scheduled second debate, which Trump refused to participate in despite trailing significantly in the polls.
The president was in dire need of a strong and persuasive performance. His support has continued to slide since the chaotic Sept. 29 debate with Biden, when Trump’s barrage of interruptions, insults and misinformation did not play well with the voters he needs to win over. The former vice president’s lead has grown since then, with most polls showing him ahead of the president by double digits nationwide.
Trump, who checked into the hospital with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, days after his in-person faceoff with Biden, backed out of the debate that had been scheduled for Thursday night when it was moved online as a public safety precaution.
Trump deflected questions about whether he took a coronavirus test the day of the last debate, as the candidates both agreed to do.
“I don’t even remember,” he said. “Possibly I did. Possibly I didn’t.”
Trump repeated an unsubstantiated claim he made earlier in the day, saying there is a new study about COVID-19 that he claimed showed “85% of the people who wear masks catch it.” When Guthrie told him there is no such study, he responded, “That’s what I heard.”
Asked about a recent New York Times investigation that revealed he had paid minimal or no income taxes for years, Trump attacked the reporting and claimed falsely that it was “illegal.” He denied owing any money to Russians and briefly appeared to promise Guthrie he would “let you know who I owe” money to, and at one point he delivered a kind of miniature filibuster by listing various properties he owns.
Perhaps notably, Trump said he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election — a promise he declined to make in the first debate — though he quickly added the qualification that he would insist on an “honest election” and raised unsubstantiated theories about voter fraud. When Guthrie pointed out that FBI Director Christopher Wray had said there was no sign of such widespread voter misconduct, the president shot back, “Then he’s not doing a very good job.”
Trump and Biden are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville.