With less than three weeks to go for the elections, U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden offered contrasting visions for the country at two separate televised townhalls. Mr. Trump had pulled out of the second debate with Mr. Biden when the organizers had said it would be held virtually following the president’s recent infection with the coronavirus. The very different personalities of the candidates were also reflected in the differing tempos of the two townhalls.
Mr. Trump’s and Mr Biden’s differing visions came through in their descriptions of the handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 218,000 Americans. Both candidates took questions from their respective interviewers and socially distanced and masked members of the public in the audience.
Mr. Trump, speaking on NBC to Savannah Guthrie, attempted to deflect blame for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We did the right thing. We were expected to lose 2,200,000 people, and maybe more than that. We’re at 210,000 people. One person is too much, it should have never happened, “Mr Trump said. “Because of China …it happened because of China. And you have to get that and understand that.”
On masks, he repeated – falsely– that a study had found that 85% of those wearing masks contracted the virus ( presumably a reference to a study cited by the Centres for Disease Control; which did reach this conclusion). Most studies have shown that wearing a mask reduces the transmission of the virus.
Meanwhile, at his townhall in Philadelphia with George Stephanopoulos of ABC, Mr Biden presented a contrasting perspective on Mr Trump and masks.
“The words of a president matter,” he said. “When a president doesn’t wear a mask or makes fun of folks like me when I was wearing a mask for a long time, then, you know, people say, ‘Well, it mustn’t be that important.’”
Mr. Biden said that Mr Trump had been informed about dangerous the virus was [ in late January , weeks before a national emergency was declared].
“He didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market,” Mr Biden said.
On the economy too the candidates presented different pictures. Mr. Biden said he would raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, reversing, partly that aspect of the Trump tax cuts. Mr. Trump said raising corporate taxes would cause a depression and that he would work on a “middle income package.” Mr. Biden has repeatedly stated that he does not plan on raising taxes for those earning less than $ 400,000 a year.
Mr. Biden sought to defend his record in passing legislation during the ‘tough on crime’ era in the 1990s, the consequences of which fell disproportionately on African Americans. While he accepted that the legislation was a mistake he said those were different times and the bill was supported by Black mayors and the Congressional Black Caucus and that states had implemented the legislation incorrectly.
“Yes, it was. But here’s where the mistake came. The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally.”
On whether he would consider “packing” the Supreme Court [ increasing the number of justices from nine] if Republicans confirmed Trump nominee Amy Barrett , Mr Trump said the public would know his position by November 3. He said he would consider how the Senate handles the confirmation process of Ms Barrett.
“No matter what answer I gave you, if I say it, that’s the headline tomorrow. It won’t be about what’s going on now, the improper way they’re proceeding,” Mr Biden said.
At his townhall, Mr Trump stuck to his guns on an unsubstantiated claim about voter fraud related to mail-in ballots, Ms Guthrie said FBI Director Christopher Wray’s had concluded (as have others on both sides of the aisle) that there was no widespread fraud associated with the process.
“Then he’s not doing a very good job,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Wray.
On his own taxes, Mr. Trump did not deny that he owed $400 million in debt but said it was “a tiny percentage” of his net worth. [ A New York Times investigation had recently claimed Mr. Trump was $ 421 million in debt].
Mr. Trump was challenged by Ms Guthrie on the question of denouncing white supremacy, something he had failed to do unequivocally during the September presidential debate. He eventually denounced it, quickly pivoting to Antifa (which is an anti-fascist broad movement or ideology and not an organization) and “people on the left”.
“ I denounce white supremacy,” Mr Trump said. “And frankly, you want to know something? I denounce Antifa, and I denounce these people on the left that are burning down our cities, that are run by Democrats who don’t know what they’re doing…”
Mr Trump refused to provide straightforward (or any) denials to other conspiracy theories. When asked by Ms Guthrie if he would denounce the right wing QAnon conspiracy theory group’s claim that Democrats are a “Satanic paedophile ring”, Mr Trump said he knew “nothing” about the group but said he did know they “are very much against paedophilia,” again pivoting to Antifa and the “radical left.”
Mr. Trump also defended his retweeting of a conspiracy theory that Mr Biden killed the navy seal team that had faked the death of Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
On the question of guaranteeing “the peaceful transition of power” Mr. Trump, as he has done before, made allegations of voter fraud, the Democrats spying on his campaign before eventually saying , “Peaceful transfer, I absolutely want that. But ideally, I don’t want to transfer, because I want to win.”
The second and final presidential debate will be held on October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.