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20 Oct 2020 4:14
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump refused to disavow QAnon, Joe Biden dodged court packing. Here are the key takeaways from the town halls that replaced the debate

    They might have shared the same format, but Donald Trump and Joe Biden brought totally different styles to their competing town hall interviews. Here's what happened at both.

    In lieu of a second debate, US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off in an unusual format, holding two town halls with voters, on two different US networks, at the same exact time.

    The two candidates kept up the duality by taking contrasting approaches to the night.

    Here's what you missed.

    Same format. Two totally different styles

    It was the Trump campaign's refusal to agree to a rule change, itself brought on by a Presidential COVID-19 diagnosis, that led to the second presidential debate being cancelled.

    We'll never know how things would have played out on a town hall stage with both candidates. But in their own theatres, Trump and Biden leaned into the styles they've cultivated all campaign.

    Before voters had a chance to ask him any questions in Miami, Florida, Trump sparred with NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie (who won praise for her forceful handling of the President) as he has with plenty of other media figures in his four years as President.

    After the event, a spokesperson for Trump's campaign declared that the President "defeated" Guthrie, and derided her as a "surrogate" for the Biden’s campaign.

    The President fiercely defended his administration's record and, when backed into corners on issues not favourable for him, attacked his opponent instead.

    "You always do this. You've done this to me and everybody … I denounce white supremacy, OK? I have denounced White Supremacy for years, but you always do it. You always start off with a question. You didn't ask Joe Biden whether or not he denounces Antifa. I watched him on the same basic show with Lester Holt. And he was asking questions like Biden was a child," Trump said when asked why he didn't clearly condemn white supremacists at the first debate.

    His answers were often short, forceful and broad, despite questions from voters and urging from the moderator about specifics.

    Biden spoke to roughly 20 undecided voters for 90 minutes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his support with swing voters will be crucial to beating Trump.

    The former vice-president used his time to dig into the finer points of his policies, but occasionally rambled or strayed from his message and seldom landed a concise or impactful soundbite.

    The moderator, ABC America's chief news anchor George Stephanopolous, gave Biden a few forceful steers, but largely failed to evoke a newsworthy moment from the candidate.

    Like Trump, Biden's style was consistent with how he's framed himself on the campaign trail — as a return to a less exciting era of politics.

    Trump's QAnon answer is likely to get the day's headlines

    Like he did in the first debate with white supremacy, the President gave his critics an opening by failing to disavow the Qanon conspiracy theory.

    "Let me ask you about QAnon. It is this theory that Democrats are a satanic paedophile ring and that you are the saviour of that. Now, can you just once and for all state that that is completely not true?" Guthrie asked.

    "And disavow QAnon in its entirety?"

    "I know nothing about QAnon," Trump responded.

    Guthrie was quick to point out she had just told Trump what it was, and the President replied:

    "I know very little. You told me. But what you tell me doesn't necessarily make it a fact. I hate to say that. I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against paedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it."

    Only hours before the debate YouTube announced it would join Facebook and Twitter in banning content related to the conspiracy theory because it was used to "justify real-world violence."

    This isn't the first time Trump has been asked about the conspiracy theory, or its adherents' apparent support of his presidency. In August, the President told a White House press briefing that he understood the group "likes me very much".

    His refusal to condemn another fringe group, one that Trump's own FBI reportedly labelled a domestic terrorist threat, will ensure the answer chews up the post-debate conversation at a time when the President was looking to amp up the heat on his opponent instead.

    Biden promises an answer on court-packing

    Biden, on the other hand, did little to steal headlines or make waves.

    He said outright that his support for the 1994 crime bill was a mistake. He affirmed that he didn't want to ban fracking. He said he'd encourage governors to implement a COVID-19 mask mandate, but that he wouldn't have the power as President to do it himself.

    But these are all things he or his campaign has said before, just delivered in a new format.

    The answer that got the most immediate attention was not an answer at all. It was the promise of an answer at a later date.

    The issue was whether he would try to expand the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court — an act colloquially known as "court packing" — in light of Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation, which is looking all but guaranteed.

    The Biden-Harris ticket has struggled to voice a satisfactory answer to the question of court-packing.

    In one poll 54 per cent of Americans said they are opposed to the measure, but should Biden win the presidency, having a conservative majority on the court could make it difficult to pass the kind of substantial legislative changes necessary for implementing the Democratic policy platform.

    His running mate, Kamala Harris, also skirted the question during last week's vice-presidential debate.

    Pressed by Stephanopoulos, Biden said he was open to "considering what happens" after he sees how the Senate handles Barrett's nomination.

    He finally said he would announce a formal stance after the Senate confirmation vote but ahead of the election, which could be as narrow a window as three days in a year when record numbers of Americans are voting early.

    Trump said he 'doesn't remember' being tested before the debate. Biden said being tested was 'decency'

    The White House has been criticised for a lack of transparent, and at times deliberately unclear, information regarding the President's coronavirus diagnosis.

    Trump was given a chance to clear up one of the key outstanding issues — whether or not he returned a negative test before the first presidential debate.

    "I don't know. I don't even remember. I test all the time. But I can tell you this — after the debate, like I guess a day or so, I think was Thursday evening, maybe even late Thursday evening, I tested positive," Trump said.

    Biden was asked to conclude his own town hall by responding to whether he'd "demand" Trump get tested before any future debates. He said he expected Trump to abide by the rules laid out by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

    "And by the way, I take a test every day. I took a test before I came up here," he said.

    "I just think it's decency. I'm less concerned about me than the guys on the camera, the guys who drive up in Secret Service."

    Biden made no mention of the fact that two campaign staff working with his running mate, Kamala Harris, tested positive earlier in the day.

    Harris has suspended in-person campaign events until Sunday local time.

    The final debate is (most likely) still happening

    Both candidates are scheduled to appear next Friday (AEDT) in-person, on the same stage, for the last of the scheduled debates.

    Given the events that led to the odd spectacle of duelling town halls, Biden was asked if he would still attend.

    "I'm confident the Cleveland Clinic [which oversees health and safety related to the debate] will not let happen what happened last time. I think they'll demand it'll be safe," Biden said.

    "I expect to be there."

    Trump wasn't asked if he would still appear.

    A significant outstanding question is whether or not the Commission on Presidential Debates will stick by its pledge to introduce more "structure" after significant criticism of the first debate.

    The Trump campaign showed that it was unwilling to compromise on a format change by declining a virtual contest. The prospect of introducing a change like a mute button at the final debate seems similarly likely to be something that could cause the President to back out again.

    Any assumption about the likelihood of a final debate has to factor in whether the election campaign can even go seven days without being upended in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    On the same day of these town hall events, and as extraordinary measures are already happening to make an in-person debate during a pandemic even possible, the United States blew past 8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 217,000 confirmed deaths.


    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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