In a split-screen display, US voters heard dramatically different visions from Donald Trump and Joe Biden, his democratic challenger, at dueling town hall-style events on Thursday night, less than three weeks before the election.
Appearing at the same time on different channels in different battleground states, Trump and Biden answered questions from voters instead of participating in what was scheduled to be the second of three presidential debates in Miami. But the unusual evening, a fitting coda to a campaign unlike any in modern history, allowed the candidates to present themselves to voters in a different format after their shambolic debate last month.
Speaking on NBC News from the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, a combative Trump defended his handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans, while inaccurately claiming the nation was “rounding the corner” in its fight against the virus.
“We’re a winner,” he told moderator, Savannah Guthrie, who challenged his assertions. “We have done an amazing job. And it’s rounding the corner. And we have the vaccines coming and we have the therapies coming.”
Nearly 1,200 miles away, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden slammed the president’s response and called for a far more robust national response during a town hall with ABC News.
“He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” Biden said, noting that Trump acknowledged to the journalist Bob Woodward in February that coronavirus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus”.
“The president was informed how dangerous this virus was,” the former vice-president said.
Perched on a stool outside the museum in Miami, Trump, who was only recently released from the hospital after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, was evasive about whether he had been tested on the day of the first presidential debate, as was required of each candidate. “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” he said.
Loud and defensive, Trump clashed repeatedly with Guthrie, who challenged him as he unfurled a litany of false claims about voter fraud in the US, which he offered as a potential rationale for not accepting the results of the November election.
“They talk about, ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer?’ And the answer is yes, I will – but I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else,” Trump said.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Trump said.
“You do know,” Guthrie shot back.
“I don’t know,” he said again.
Just days before, Trump tweeted a false claim by the group that alleged president Barack Obama fabricated the killing of Osama bin Laden, prompting a rebuke from a member of the Seal Team Six that participated in the mission.
Asked why he elevated this conspiracy theory, Trump downplayed any responsibility, insisting that he was simply sharing “an opinion of somebody”.
“You’re the president!” Guthrie exclaimed. “You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”
In another contentious exchange, Trump appeared to confirm a New York Times investigation that revealed he is $421m in debt, saying: “When you look at vast properties like I have … the amount of money, $400m, is a peanut.” He added: “Not a big deal.”
The evening wasn’t entirely confrontational for Trump.
“You’re so handsome when you smile,” a voter named Paulette told the president, who smiled bashfully and thanked her before deflecting her question on immigration.
Seated comfortably in a plush chair onstage, Biden, earnest if discursive, engaged with the voters seated in the auditorium, who asked him about his plans for the virus, taxes and the supreme court. After the event, he lingered in the hall and continued to speak to audience members.
Biden again refused to state his position on court-packing, telling moderator George Stephanopoulos that he had previously opposed the idea of adding additional justices the court. But he left the door open to changing his mind, depending on how Senate Republicans handle the confirmation of the supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in the coming weeks. Asked if voters would have a clear understanding of his position before election day, Biden said they would.
“They do have a right to know where I stand,” he said. “And they’ll have a right to know where I stand before they vote.”
Pressed on his role authoring the 1994 crime bill, and the impact it had on mass incarceration, Biden conceded that elements of it were a “mistake” but argued that conditions had changed “drastically” since the law was passed.
In a poignant moment, Biden was asked by the mother of a trans daughter what he would to protect LGBTQ rights.
“I will flat out just change the law,” Biden said, vowing that a Biden administration would work to ensure her daughter had the same rights and opportunities as her other daughter.
The candidates were originally scheduled to square off in Miami, until Trump abruptly withdrew from the forum after the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would be held remotely due to concerns the US president might still be infectious with coronavirus. Shortly afterward, the Biden campaign proceeded to set up a telecast with ABC News in Philadelphia and the commission formally cancelled the debate.
But Trump, slipping farther behind in national and battleground state polling, was unwilling to cede the prime-time coverage to his opponent. On Wednesday, NBC news announced that it would hold a town hall with Trump in Miami on Thursday night, at the same time ABC will air its forum with Biden.
Speaking on Fox Business ahead of the event Trump bashed NBC News and claimed he was being “set up tonight” in what amounted to “a free hour on television”. And he previewed the event during a rally in North Carolina by swiping at moderator Savannah Guthrie and other network anchors.
Trump returned to the campaign trail this week following his hospitalization with the coronavirus. Ahead of his first public rally on Monday night, the White House physician Sean Conley said that the president had tested negative on consecutive days and was no longer contagious.
Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, canceled her travel through the weekend after two people who had traveled with her tested positive for the coronavirus.
The campaign said Harris had not been in close contact with either person and had since tested negative for the virus. Biden was also tested for the virus on Thursday and his campaign said the result was negative.