Trump Pressed on Coronavirus Response in Town Hall, Biden Asked to Outline Alternative Plan

By Sabrina Siddiqui and Rebecca Ballhaus

President Trump was pressed on his handling of the pandemic amid rising coronavirus cases during a contentious town hall on Thursday, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden was asked what he would do differently.

The candidates were given dueling opportunities to make their case directly to American voters live from two swing states with less than three weeks until the November election and only one remaining presidential debate. Polls show Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump nationally and in several battleground states.

Mr. Trump, in his NBC News town hall in Miami, faced several questions from voters about why he hadn’t acted earlier to respond to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 217,000 lives across the U.S.

Defending his response, Mr. Trump pointed to his decision to restrict travel from China in January and said he didn’t want to “panic” the country by raising alarms early in the year. “We have done an amazing job, and it’s rounding the corner,” he said.

In a competing town hall hosted by ABC News in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden said the president had “panicked” in the face of crisis and was directly responsible for the rising death toll and spread of the virus, bringing the nation’s total to more than 7.9 million confirmed cases.

“He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” Mr. Biden said. “It is the presidential responsibility to lead.”

Mr. Trump struggled to answer a question about why he didn’t encourage his supporters to wear masks, saying that he supported mask-wearing but questioned whether they were always effective. When a voter asked whether his contraction of Covid-19 has changed his mind on wearing masks, the president said it hadn’t.

Mr. Biden meanwhile criticized Mr. Trump for sending mixed messages about public health guidelines and for rarely wearing a mask.

“The words of a president matter,” Mr. Biden said. “When a president doesn’t wear a mask…people say, ‘Well it mustn’t be that important.’”

The president often appeared frustrated by the rapid-fire nature of NBC News host Savannah Guthrie’s questions. At the first debate against Mr. Biden earlier this month, Mr. Trump was criticized by Democrats and some fellow Republicans for aggressively interrupting his opponent for most of the 90-minute event. His advisers have urged him to take a slightly calmer approach in the final debate next week.

In a statement following the event, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh accused Ms. Guthrie of acting as a “debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate.”

Pressed on when he last received a negative Covid-19 test before contracting the virus earlier this month, Mr. Trump said he didn’t recall.

“Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” he said, when asked if he had been given a test the day of the first presidential debate against Mr. Biden, for which all guests were required to test negative. The president said he is tested regularly but not daily.

The White House for weeks has declined to say when the president’s last negative test before contracting the virus took place, raising questions about whether the president could have had the virus for days before he tested positive.

Mr. Trump was hospitalized earlier this month after he and several White House and campaign aides tested positive for the virus.

Mr. Trump’s diagnosis prompted the organizers of the second presidential debate, initially scheduled for Thursday, to change the format to a virtual event. The debate was canceled after the president said he wouldn’t participate unless it was held in person.

Mr. Biden instead signed up for a town hall on Thursday evening hosted by ABC News. Days later, NBC News announced it had scheduled a competing town hall with Mr. Trump. Both networks said the events were in accordance with local health guidelines.

NBC News drew criticism, both publicly and internally, over its decision to program the president’s town hall opposite Mr. Biden’s, with critics saying the move forced viewers to choose between the two candidates. A spokesman for the network said it programmed Mr. Trump’s town hall opposite Mr. Biden’s because it had given the same slot to the Democratic nominee in a previous town hall and wanted to keep all things equal.

At a campaign rally in North Carolina hours before the town hall was set to begin, Mr. Trump spent several minutes attacking NBC News, referring to the network as “Concast” and “the worst.” He said he had agreed to do the event because, “I figure what the hell, we get a free hour of television.”

“I’m being set up tonight,” he told the crowd. “If you want to see a little entertainment, watch.”

Mr. Biden’s town hall also saw the candidate at times put on the defensive over his record on racial justice and position on expanding the Supreme Court.

Mr. Biden once again wouldn’t say if he supported calls by some on the left to increase the number of justices on the nation’s highest bench. Although he said he had “not been a fan of court packing,” Mr. Biden reiterated his view that Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, shouldn’t be confirmed before the election.

Mr. Biden signaled his position on adding to the court was contingent upon how Republicans proceeded with the nomination. “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on,” he said.

Challenged on whether voters had a right to know his stance before the election, Mr. Biden said Americans will know “before they vote” but again said he was waiting to see how Judge Barrett’s confirmation process played out on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Biden also defended his role in crafting a sweeping 1994 crime bill that critics said led to mass incarceration of Black men. Mr. Biden said he disagreed with aspects of the law, such as a three-strikes provision that paved the way for mandatory minimum sentences.

“It had a lot of other things in it that turned out to be both bad and good,” Mr. Biden said, pointing to the Violence Against Women Act measure he helped write that provided more resources to combat domestic violence. He nonetheless acknowledged the law, as implemented, was “a mistake.”

“The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden again vowed to decriminalize marijuana and push for police and sentencing reforms if elected.

Mr. Trump was also grilled over how he would handle an election loss, the Supreme Court and the economy. He said he would like to see a peaceful transition of power but declined to commit to one. He said he hadn’t told his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Barrett, how he would want her to vote on abortion rights. And he said the economy was in strong shape, though employment plummeted to depths unseen in post-Depression records during the pandemic, and has only partially recovered.

The president also dodged a request that he denounce QAnon, a right-wing, loosely organized network of people who embrace a range of conspiracy theories, including that Mr. Trump is under attack by Satan-worshippers.

“I know nothing about QAnon,” Mr. Trump said, then added: “I do know they are very much against pedophilia.”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of registered voters found Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump by 11 points nationally. According to the survey, voters appeared to be motivated more by concerns about the direction of the country than their own economic gains.

Mr. Trump returned to the campaign trail this week with rallies in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Iowa, while Mr. Biden traveled to Ohio and Florida. The final sprint comes as millions of Americans have already cast their ballots in early voting.

Earlier Thursday, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris canceled campaign travel after an aide tested positive for coronavirus.

Mr. Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said Ms. Harris suspended all campaign travel through Sunday “out of an abundance of caution” after her communications director and a nonstaff flight crew member both tested positive for the virus. A member of Mr. Biden’s in-flight crew tested positive for coronavirus.Campaign cash on hand as of Sept. 30Source: Trump and Biden campaignsNote: Figures include party and joint fundraisingcommittees..millionBidenTrump

Mr. Biden’s campaign emphasized that none of the individuals who tested positive had come into close contact with the Democratic nominee or his running mate. Both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris tested negative for coronavirus on Thursday, the campaign said.

Ms. Harris had been scheduled to make campaign appearances in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the coming days. The campaign said those events would be held virtually instead and Ms. Harris would return to in-person campaigning on Monday.

Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign and its joint fundraising committees raised $247.8 million in September, communications director Mr. Murtaugh said late Thursday. The figure was announced a day after Mr. Biden’s campaign announced a fundraising haul of $383 million in September, surpassing the record-breaking amount he collected a month earlier.

The Trump campaign said it had $251.4 million in cash on hand, roughly $180 million less than the $432 million Mr. Biden’s campaign said it had in the bank.


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