President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden squared off, in a way, in dueling televised town halls that showcased striking differences in temperament, views on racial justice and approaches to a pandemic that has reshaped the nation.
Coming just two and a half weeks before Election Day, the events Thursday night offered crystalizing contrasts and a national, if divided, audience.
The president appeared to acknowledge revelations from a recent New York Times report that he had outstanding loans and left open the possibility that some of it was owed to a foreign bank. But he insisted that he didn’t owe any money to Russia or any “sinister people” and suggested that $400 million in debt was a “very, very small percentage” compared to his overall assets.
Biden was vague at times, but he suggested he will offer clarity on his position on expanding the Supreme Court if Trump’s nominee to the bench is seated before Election Day.
Trump and Biden were supposed to spend Thursday night on the same debate stage in Miami. But that faceoff was scuttled after Trump’s coronavirus infection, which jolted the race.
The presidential rivals took questions in different cities on different networks: Trump on NBC from Miami, Biden on ABC from Philadelphia. Trump backed out of plans for the presidential faceoff originally scheduled for the evening after debate organizers said it would be held virtually following his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters, after the pair held a combative first debate late last month.
Trump was Trump, rebuking his FBI director, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, complaining about the questioning — but saying for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election.
“And then they talk, ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer?'” Trump said. “And the answer is, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else.”
He again suggested that a New York Times report was wrong when it said that he paid little or no federal income taxes in most years over the past two decades.
Biden stuttered slightly at the start of the program and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times his answers droned on.
Holding a white cloth mask in one hand, the Democratic nominee brought a small card of notes onstage and referred to it while promising to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. He said doing so would save, as he consulted his notes, “let me see … $92 billion.”
Biden vowed to say before Election Day whether he will support expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate and hold the House after November.
He has for weeks refused to answer the question but went further Thursday night. He said, “I’m still not a fan” of expanding the court, but said his ultimate decision depended on how the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court “is handled” and “how much they rush this.”
Biden turned introspective when asked what it would say if he lost.
“It could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”
Biden said he plans to participate in next week’s debate but he would ask Trump to take a COVID-19 test before arriving. “It’s just decency” for everyone around him, including non-candidates like camera operators, Biden said.
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville.