President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden competed for TV audiences in dueling town halls on Thursday night instead of meeting face-to-face for their second debate as originally planned.
Trump was evasive when pressed if he took a COVID-19 test before his first debate with Democrat Joe Biden as the two men squared off again, separately, after their scuttled second showdown was replaced by dueling televised town halls several channels apart.
Less than two weeks after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Trump 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 was changed by the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of society.
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, much like his performance in the first presidential debate, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, refusing to outright condemn the QAnon conspiracy group, testily declaring he would denounce white supremacy but 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.
“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.”
Trump preemptively attacked NBC before the town hall, declaring that at a previous event the network hosted "they asked him questions that a child could answer.”
On Thursday, Trump appeared at his midday rally in battleground North Carolina. He spent much of the rally talking about the virus that's killed over 217,000 Americans.
“It's going to peter out. It's going to end,” he said of the pandemic — just as he had last winter — even as cases have continued to increase nationwide in recent weeks.
And he mentioned that his son Barron “recovered so fast” from the virus — to bolster his argument for why schools can and should fully reopen.
“We’ve learned about this disease. You've got to open up your businesses, open up your schools, get it going," he said.
Trump also took his most overt swipe yet at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, with whom Trump has publicly disagreed on the coronavirus. He said Fauci is a nice guy, “so I keep him around.” But he also described Fauci, who has served in administrations of both parties, as a Democrat.
“Everybody knows that. He’s Cuomo’s friend,” Trump said, a reference to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The president's appearance in North Carolina underscores the challenge confronting him in the final weeks of the election. Trump has spent much of the week on defense, campaigning in states he won in 2016, like North Carolina and Iowa, where he campaigned Wednesday
Video: President Trump talks about Hunter Biden, COVID-19, trade during Iowa visit
Despite polling, Trump predicted a “big, beautiful red wave” on election night, before referencing another one of his major challenges: A cash disadvantage to the Biden campaign, which just announced raising a record-breaking $383 million in September.
“I don't want to say it too loud, because they’ve got all this money, they’ll spend money like crazy,” Trump said, after predicting a GOP wave.