The second presidential debate was called off, but President Donald Trump and Joe Biden still spent Thursday night on national TV, answering questions from voters in separate town hall events.
The forums came as Trump ramps his public schedule back up following his hospitalization with coronavirus, which prompted the Commission on Presidential Debates to call for a virtual debate — and led Trump to back out of the rematch with Biden altogether.
The Democratic ticket is dealing with its own brush with the virus, as at least three people who have been around Biden or Sen. Kamala Harris announced positive tests Thursday, temporarily sidelining the vice presidential nominee. (Both members of the ticket tested negative Thursday.)
Here are the key moments from the two events:
Trump won’t say whether he was tested for Covid on day of first debate
Trump, appearing on NBC from Miami, wouldn’t say whether he took a coronavirus test on the day of the first presidential debate, saying he couldn’t recall.
“I don’t know, I don’t even remember,” the president told the moderator, Savannah Guthrie. “I test all the time. I can tell you this,” Trump said.
Trump said he gets tested regularly and couldn’t remember whether he was tested just before taking the debate stage on Sept. 29. The Commission on Presidential Debates required all people in the debate venue to be tested before entering. Candidates were tested by their campaigns and reported results largely based on an honor system, according to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.
Trump tested positive for the virus only a few days after the debate. He was hospitalized the following weekend to be treated for the disease.
Biden punts on whether he’d support making a Covid vaccine mandatory
Asked whether he would make a coronavirus vaccine mandatory, Biden acknowledged that such a requirement would be tricky to implement, and beyond that, it’s unclear just what the specifics of approved vaccines are going to be.
“It depends on the state of the nature of the vaccine when it comes out, and how it’s being distributed,” Biden said.
Biden did note that children are required to be inoculated against measles and other infectious diseases in order to attend school. But he said he would lean on the nation’s governors and other elected officials to implement the vaccination recommendations put forward by medical experts.
Biden also said he believes there is “real progress” toward having a safe and effective vaccine, though it likely would not be widely available until early next year — longer than the timeline Trump has said he wants — and that he would personally get a vaccine once it is deemed safe.
Trump refuses to denounce QAnon
Trump refused to denounce the conspiracy theory QAnon, saying he doesn’t know whether there is a secret government cabal of pedophiles as the theory claims.
When asked about the viral phenomenon, which has been deemed a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI, Trump said, “I know nothing about QAnon,” even though Guthrie had just explained the theory to him.
“I do know that they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said. “I agree with that.”
Trump has praised Republican candidates who espouse the theory, which has been repeatedly debunked. Even after Guthrie pushed Trump, asking him whether there was a ring of child traffickers in the heart of the government, the president said it was impossible to know.
Covid didn’t change Trump’s view on masks
Trump said his stance on wearing masks hasn’t changed since contracting coronavirus, adding that there are “two stories” on whether wearing them is necessary.
“You have a story where they want, a story where they don’t want,” Trump said.
The president has repeatedly come under fire for not urging the public to wear masks, despite the consensus among his health experts that it could help curb the disease. Trump often asked reporters to remove their masks during White House news briefings, and his campaign events frequently have scant enforcement on mask wearing.
Trump cited his adviser Dr. Scott Atlas, whom he misidentified as Scott Atkins, who has cast doubt on the efficacy of mask wearing. But Guthrie pointed out Atlas is not an infectious disease expert and that numerous studies have gone contrary to his claims.
Biden says ’94 crime bill was a mistake
Biden said he believed the 1994 criminal justice package he penned was flawed after it contributed to mass incarceration, particularly for people of color.
After answering a woman’s question about the law by touting its support at the time, Biden was asked specifically if in hindsight the law was a mistake. “Yes, it was,” Biden said, though he maintained that the main problem was how the new law was implemented at the state and local level.
Biden said that “things have changed drastically” in the quarter-century since his crime bill’s passage, and some of its components have not aged well.
“It had a lot of other things in it that turned out to be both bad and good,” Biden said.
Biden touted other legislation he’s supported — including the Violence Against Women Act and a ban on assault weapons that has expired — and argued his record should be viewed in its entirety.
Trump and his allies have hammered Biden over the bill, particularly in the hope of drawing away traditionally Democratic-leaning Black and Latino voters.
Biden also said he still supports his decades-old comments endorsing more police officers on the streets — “if they’re involved with community policing, not jump squads.”
Biden has also fended off accusations by Trump that he supports the effort to “defund the police,” repeatedly disavowing the idea.
Trump doesn’t deny he owes over $400 million in debt
Trump denied owing any money to foreign entities, but would not deny having a debt of more than $400 million that was reported in an investigative report by The New York Times.
When asked whom he owed the debt to, Trump stumbled over his defense, saying The Times had illegally obtained his tax records. He also claimed that amount of debt was “peanuts” compared with his overall assets.
Guthrie pushed Trump, saying he seemed to be confirming that he has over $400 million in debt. Trump responded by saying, “What I’m saying is that it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth.”
He also claimed that none of his debts are to foreign banks or Russian actors. He said he “will probably, because it’s so easy to solve … let you know who I owe money to.” But when asked why he doesn’t release his tax returns as all other modern presidents have done, Trump said that “common sense and intelligence” were keeping him from releasing them.
Biden keeps Supreme Court changes on the table
Biden said that while he is “not a fan” of so-called “court packing” or otherwise overhauling the federal judicial system, the calculus changes if Republicans successfully push through Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination before the election.
“It depends on how this turns out,” Biden said. “It depends on how much they rush this.”
Biden has been coy about his position on altering the Supreme Court, saying definitive answers on the question would be a distraction and overshadow the GOP’s effort to seat Barrett during the homestretch of a presidential election.
If Barrett is confirmed, which is expected to happen barring any last-minute surprises, Biden said he is “open to considering what happens from that point on,” and he said he would make his position on the Supreme Court clear before Election Day. But “it depends on how they handle this,” Biden said of Senate Republicans.
A voter has a thing for Trump’s face
The president got some praise during his town hall — but not on his policies, persona or the other aspects of his presidency that usually grab his supporters’ attention.
Instead, a voter had some choice words about his face.
“I have to say, Mr. President, you have a great smile,” said a voter identified as Paulette Dale. The president hesitantly thanked her as the audience applauded.
“You’re so handsome when you smile,” she said with a wide grin.
Guthrie introduced Dale as a registered Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was leaning toward Biden. Dale followed up her comments by asking Trump whether he planned to continue efforts to cut the DACA program for young undocumented immigrants.
Trump says Kavanaugh confirmation changed view on nominations
Trump said his approach to nominating Supreme Court justices changed after the tumultuous confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.
“The whole ball game changed when I saw the way they treated Justice Kavanaugh,” he said. “I have never seen any human being — and I’m not just talking about Supreme Court — I have never seen a human being treated so badly with false accusations and everything else.”
Trump brought up the justice in defending his push for Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat left empty by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett’s nomination comes only weeks before Election Day, and Guthrie pointed out that Trump opposed President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination in the final year of his presidency because it was an election year.
Most Republicans have defended the party’s about-face on the issue by arguing the same party now controls both the White House and the Senate, unlike when Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland in March 2016. But Trump’s acknowledgment on Thursday broke from that narrative, implying a more personal motivation.
Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by a number of women, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony of alleged assault gripped national attention for weeks.
Biden: If I lose, ‘I didn’t do a good job’
Biden pondered what it would mean if he were to lose to Trump, answering that “it could say I’m a lousy candidate, and I didn’t do a good job.”
“I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be,” Biden continued, saying that he wanted to unify the country if he is elected.
He added that he probably would continue to lecture at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Delaware if he is not moving into the White House come January.
Biden quickly moved onto a more optimistic note, saying that “people need hope” and that he’s “never been more optimistic” about America’s future.
The 77-year-old former vice president has previously said he sees himself as a “bridge” between two eras of Democratic politics and he was inspired to run — after forgoing a bid in 2016 — after watching the far-right demonstrations and violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and Trump’s handling of the situation.
Maddow: That was all NBC News, not us
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow firmly differentiated her network from the organizers of the Trump town hall, hinting at the internal conflict at NBC over its decision to hold an event overlapping Biden’s ABC appearance.
“Well, that happened,” Maddow said just after MSNBC’s airing of the town hall concluded. “Let me remind you that what you just saw was a production of NBC News. We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event.”
POLITICO reported earlier Thursday that MSNBC head Phil Griffin strongly opposed NBC News President Noah Oppenheim’s decision to host the town hall at the same time as Biden’s event. ABC had scheduled Biden’s town hall before NBC announced its own program with Trump, which aired in the same time slot. Critics of NBC said the counterprogramming would be beneficial for the president, who refused to participate in the debate originally planned for Thursday night because it had been switched to a virtual format.
Maddow and her colleague Chris Hayes have hinted on their shows their displeasure with NBC News’ programming but stopped short of openly denouncing it. Hayes’ show got skipped on MSNBC to make room for a broadcast of the town hall.
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