US President Donald Trump defended his handling of Covid-19, while his Democratic challenger Joe Biden accused him of panicking, in a split-screen showdown at duelling town hall events that were telecast live simultaneously from two cities.
President Trump was in Miami, Florida for his event on Thursday night with NBC News and Biden was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the interaction hosted by ABC News.
Trump challenged the moderator Savannah Guthrie, questioning her motivation in several testy exchanges. His campaign slammed her later as a surrogate for Biden. Biden was his usual self — soft-spoken and respectful of the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, and the audience.
Trump trails Biden by 8.9 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls and by 10.5 points in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. With polling set to close — nearly 18 million Americans have already voted — on November 3, the president faces an uphill task.
“We have done an amazing job, and it’s rounding the corner,” Trump said, repeating the rosy picture on the pandemic that has killed more than 217,000 Americans and infected nearly 8 million.
Asked about his own Covid-19 bout, Trump sounded evasive. “I probably did,” he said when asked if he had tested on the day of his first, in-person, debate with Biden. “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.” He and the first lady had tested positive the day after the September 29 debate.
At an election rally earlier in the day, Trump lashed out at Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist, who has publicly disagreed with the president many times, calling him a Democrat.
An exchange on QAnon, a far right conspiracy theory that the president was battling a global cabal of pedophiles, turned testy during the townhall. “I know nothing about QAnon,” he said at first. When the moderator said she just had told him about it, he shot back, “You told me, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fact.” He went on to say they were against pedophilia.
“He said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic,” Biden said referring to an interview Trump gave to Bob Woodward for the book Rage in which he said he knew early on about the severity of the illness but had kept it from Americans as he did not want them to panic.
“Americans don’t panic,” said Biden, “He panicked.”
The former vice-president was evasive himself, however, on the question of expanding the Supreme Court bench — called court-packing — that has been suggested by some Democrats to offset its overwhelming 6-3 conservative tilt when Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee, joins it after confirmation.
“No matter what answer I gave you, if I say it, that’s the headline,” the former vice-president said. Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris have dodged a straight answer to the question before, using the same line of reasoning, that they do not want to distract attention from Republicans ramming Barrett’s nomination in the final weeks of the election.