Biden, appearing nearly 1,200 miles away, denounced the White House’s handling of the virus, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration in which he served. Though vague at times, he acknowledged it was a mistake to support a 1994 crime bill that led to increased Black incarceration and suggested he finally will offer clarity on his position on expanding the Supreme Court if Trump’s nominee to the bench is seated before Election Day.
Trump, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with COVID-19, dodged directly answering whether he took a test the day of the Sept. 29 debate, only saying “possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.” Debate rules required that each candidate, using the honor system, had tested negative prior to the Cleveland event, but Trump spoke in circles when asked when he last tested negative.
It was his positive test two days later that created Thursday’s odd spectacle, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before Election Day. The moment seemed fitting for a race unlike any other, as yet another campaign ritual changed by the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of society.
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 chaotic and combative first debate late last month. The difference in the men’s tone was immediate and striking.
Trump was Trump. He was loud and argumentative, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, complaining about the questioning — and eventually saying for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election, but only after casting an extraordinary amount doubt on the likeliness of fairness.
He again sought to minimize revelations from a New York Times investigation that he has more than $400 million in debt and suggested that reports are wrong that he paid little or no federal income taxes in most years over the past two decades. He insisted that Americans should not be alarmed by his debt and repeatedly insisted that he is “underleveraged.”
Biden meanwhile, took a far different, softer, approach with audience questions. The former vice president, who struggled growing up with a stutter, 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.
Dressed in a blue suit and holding a white cloth mask in one hand, the Democratic nominee also brought a small card of notes on stage 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, the Senate and hold the House after November.