This is all because Trump refused to do Thursday’s planned virtual town hall debate due to his Covid-19 diagnosis, so Biden decided to schedule a solo town hall on ABC at 8 pm ET. Trump, looking to counterprogram Biden, convinced NBC to schedule his own town hall at the same time — hoping to win the ratings war and come out looking stronger than Biden.
Trump may regret that strategy; he faced hard questions from voters and NBC host Savannah Guthrie on issues ranging from wearing masks to electoral fraud to Trump’s refusal to disavow extremist groups, eliciting a series of responses that ranged from blatantly false (claiming masks don’t really work) to the dangerously absurd (suggesting some parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory might actually be true).
Meanwhile, Biden’s town hall was calm, polite, and packed with policy substance. Biden laid out plans for how he would get Covid-19 under control and reorient the economy toward being more equitable for lower-income Americans — two things Trump has not accomplished. For voters yearning for a return to some sense of normalcy, Biden hit all the right notes.
The night-and-day contrast served to highlight the core differences between the two options in front of the American people: continuing the reality TV maelstrom of the Trump presidency or a shift to a Biden presidency, where politics returns to being boring, and maybe even calm.
What follows is our attempt to figure out who benefited from the events and their striking contrasts — and who came out looking just a little bit worse.
Winner: Joe Biden
Biden’s town hall made a big case for the return of boring normalcy in the White House. Even though it may not have made for the most riveting television, it could well work in his favor.
Biden’s town hall harked back to the days when Americans didn’t have to worry about what the president was doing — or tweeting — every day. As Trump was being asked why he wouldn’t wear a mask at the NBC town hall, Biden was talking about how he has started wearing two masks, and talked about his plan for implementing mask-wearing around the country.
“We’re in a situation where we have 210,000-plus people dead and what’s he doing? Nothing. He’s still not wearing masks,” Biden said of Trump. “It is the presidential responsibility to lead. And he didn’t do that.”
While Trump’s recent Covid-19 diagnosis signaled the president’s failure to contain the coronavirus in his own White House, Biden finally got to explain — uninterrupted — how he would coordinate a federal response to stop the virus’s spread around the United States. He even brought notes.
Talking to the American people directly about Covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on millions of people’s lives was Biden’s strong suit in the first debate. The town hall format seemed to benefit him even more. Biden seemed sharp and prepared — talking about commonsense virus control tactics like wearing masks and making sure schools had good air ventilation.
“We need more teachers in our schools to be able to open, smaller pods,” Biden said. “We need ventilation systems changed. There’s a lot of things we know now.”
Just recognizing that there’s a way to make schools safer for students to return could be a welcome answer to millions of overworked, stressed parents who are trying to juggle working from home and overseeing their kids’ remote schooling at the same time.
Pollsters have found a consistent theme among voters who dislike Trump and favor Biden: They’re tired of the daily chaos of the past four years — whether it’s the revolving door for White House chiefs of staff or Trump catching Covid-19 himself.
If a comparatively boring town hall means America can go back to the days where the country doesn’t have to worry about what the president is tweeting, that’s a win for Biden.
Loser: Donald Trump
Trump wouldn’t say whether he was tested for the coronavirus before the first debate with Biden. He couldn’t defend his refusal to require mask use at his rallies. He tried to downplay broadcasting a wild conspiracy theory that Biden tried to have members of Seal Team 6 killed by saying “that was a retweet, I do a lot of retweets.” He suggested parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory could be true, saying “I don’t know” when Guthrie asked him whether he believes the Democratic Party is run by a cult of satanic pedophiles.
That may sound like a list of the lowlights from the night. But it was all in the first 15 minutes of the event.
You could call this “Trump being Trump,” and you’d probably be right. But the difference is that, this time around, Trump was facing questions from ordinary Americans whom he couldn’t talk over and a host who was unafraid to follow up repeatedly and fact-check the president in real time. This format made it much harder for Trump to ignore questions through his patented combination of lying, bluster, and deflection — forcing him to engage on his own record, the area where’s at his weakest.
Take this health care exchange, for example. After a question about making health care affordable and accessible, Guthrie followed up by asking Trump about his administration’s plans to replace Obamacare — and the glaring contradiction between its claim to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions and its argument, in court, that all of Obamacare (including said coverage) is unconstitutional.
Here’s the end of the exchange:
GUTHRIE: You’ve been in office almost four years. You had both houses of Congress, Senate and House, in Republican hands. And there is not a replacement yet.
TRUMP: That’s right. I’m sorry. But if you look, we had both houses and what did we do? We got rid of the individual mandate.
GUTHRIE: The promise was repeal and replace.
TRUMP: Look, look, we should be on the same side. I want it very simple. I’m going to put it very simple. We would like to terminate it and we would like to replace it with something that’s much less expensive and much better. We will always protect people with preexisting conditions.
GUTHRIE: But if you’re successful in court in November, the preexisting conditions, that promise will be gone.
TRUMP: If we don’t succeed, we are running the remnants of whatever is left because we took it apart. We are running the remnants of whatever is left much better than the previous administration, which ran it very badly. We would like to have new health care, much better and much less expensive.
Trump is unable to explain why he couldn’t come up with a better health care plan when his party controlled all three branches of government. His answer to the question about preexisting conditions is gibberish, largely because there is no good answer.
Trigger Alert: I’m about to say something that will upset many people reading my Twitter feed tonight.— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) October 16, 2020
My group of undecided voters say that the more Trump speaks, the worse he looks.
If the town hall format brought out Biden’s strengths — his ability to empathize with voters, his long experience with and knowledge about policymaking — it brought out Trump’s weaknesses in the same areas. His event served to remind us that his presidency has been four years of chaos and conflict, with too little in the way of substance done to help ordinary Americans in an especially difficult time in our history.
Trump is trailing badly in the polls, and he desperately needed a strong performance to try to turn things around. This seems, if anything, more likely to make that hole a bit deeper.
There were a few moments in Thursday’s ABC town hall where Biden sounded a bit like the progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a onetime rival for the Democratic nomination.
If Biden’s audience was looking for wonky statistics on issues from the economy to climate change, the former vice president had them.
Biden came prepared for his town hall with notes, at one point casually throwing around statistics about the British Thermal Unit as it pertains to wind and solar power, and talking about pelletizing chicken and cow manure to take out the methane that contributes to climate change.
“Electric vehicles will save billions of gallons of oil ... [and create] 1 million automobile jobs,” Biden said. “But we’re lagging. We’re not investing. We’re not doing the research.”
Discussing a long-standing racial wealth gap, Biden recognized that even as the economy has slowly recovered over the summer, the economic picture looks far bleaker for Black and brown workers. The most recent overall unemployment rate is 7.9 percent. But when you break it down along racial lines, the story on what’s happening is quite different: White unemployment is 7 percent, while Black unemployment is 12.1 percent and Hispanic unemployment is 10.3 percent.
“[Trump] talks about a V-shaped recovery; it’s a K-shaped recovery,” Biden said, pointing to the theory that those with means in America are bouncing back quite easily, while everyone else is suffering. “If you are on the top, you’re going to do very well. If you’re on the bottom, in the middle or the bottom, your income is coming down.”
At one point, Biden had a mea culpa about his 1994 crime law — one of the more controversial parts of his Senate history that contributed to mass incarceration in the 1990s and following decades.
After host George Stephanopoulos asked whether it was a mistake to support it, Biden simply responded, “Yes, it was.”
But Biden also tried to deflect blame away from the law’s original drafting, saying the worst effects of the crime bill came from state and local police departments implementing it themselves.
“Here’s where the mistake came: The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” Biden said. “What happened? They eliminated the funding for community policing.”
While Biden has adamantly come out against defunding the police and maintained that “most cops don’t like bad cops,” he told Stephanopoulos he wants more reforms and additional resources going to community policing and strengthening mental health resources.
Even if viewers may have disagreed with some of Biden’s stances, the nominee came prepared and showed off his policy chops.
This election is a choice between two candidates. To actually decide whom they want to vote for, voters typically need to be informed about both candidates’ views and positions. But tonight, voters had to choose between the Biden town hall or the Trump town hall.
It was a real-time example of FOMO (fear of missing out) in action. If you were on social media during the town halls, you might have seen people talking about the town hall that you weren’t watching. But you couldn’t contribute to the conversation because you couldn’t tune in.
Only in this case, the stakes are very high. This isn’t missing a movie’s opening day or brunch with your friends. It’s missing the kind of event that voters genuinely rely on to inform their decisions about who will run the most powerful country in the world. That’s particularly true in this case, because tonight’s main political event was supposed to be a debate between Biden and Trump.
It didn’t have to be this way. The debate could have been held virtually, given Trump’s recent coronavirus infection, but the Trump campaign rejected the idea of a virtual debate. The town halls could have been scheduled at different days or times, but Trump reportedly wanted to beat Biden in the ratings in a direct, same-hour matchup.
So we got a mess of FOMO. Americans — and especially any remaining undecided voters — were left less informed as a result.
Winner: Savannah Guthrie
Savannah Guthrie is a lead anchor on the Today show for a reason — and on Thursday night, it showed.
NBC got a lot of flak for programming a Trump town hall at the same time as the Biden event on ABC, especially given that it was the president who dropped out of the originally scheduled debate in the first place. Guthrie’s quick line of questioning, pushback, and real-time fact-checking of the president probably made the White House wish they had just done the debate.
Guthrie, who has co-anchored Today since 2012, opened the night reminding the audience why the event was happening in the first place — the president got Covid-19 and refused to participate in a virtual debate proposed for safety reasons, causing this dueling town hall mess.
And then she got to the questions. Were you tested the day of the last presidential debate in Cleveland, which took place just two days before Trump’s positive coronavirus test? How often are you tested? Why did you hold the event honoring Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the White House without precautions? Shouldn’t you have known better? Are you blaming grieving military families for giving you Covid-19? Why did it take you two days to denounce white supremacy?
Then Guthrie asked the president about QAnon. In asking her question, she reminded him what it was — the dangerous conspiracy theory spreading across the internet that claims Democrats are behind a pedophilia ring and that sees Trump as a savior.
“Can you just once and for all state that this is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?” she asked. “I know nothing about QAnon,” he said. “I just told you,” she responded.
Guthrie also asked the president about something he retweeted suggesting that Biden had a Navy SEAL team killed to cover up that the death of Osama bin Laden was faked. (This is not true.)
“That was a retweet, that was an opinion of somebody,” Trump said.
“You’re the president; you’re not someone’s crazy uncle where you just retweet whatever,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie stepped into a tough spot on Thursday, and in that spot, she seized on the chance to ask questions that really matter to the American people — and press on their behalf to get answers.
Guthrie gave Trump as many opportunities as she could to denounce the online conspiracy theory about a satanic pedophilia ring run by global elites.
He wouldn’t do it.
“I don’t know anything about QAnon,” Trump said at first.
Guthrie pointed out she’d just explained the theory in brief: Prominent Democrats are satanic pedophiles and Trump is going to save the world from them.
So would Trump denounce QAnon? Quite the opposite.
“Let me just tell you what I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia and I agree with that,” Trump said. “I do agree with that.”
Guthrie pressed: “But there’s not a satanic cult.”
“I don’t know that,” the president said. “And neither do you know that.”
The rest of the short version of QAnon is that a top-level official — “Q” — is leaking a top-level state secret on the internet. Its believers thrive on tiny hints they claim they detect in official statements and social media posts by Trump and his confidants.
Now they had the president in front of a huge TV audience, saying that what he did know about QAnon, he agreed with.
Loser: The individual mandate
The mandate has taken a beating lately, both from Trump and from health policy wonks.
At his town hall, the president defaulted to his favorite answer when a journalist or anybody points out he has not released a comprehensive health care plan, in case the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare early next year and millions of people could be at risk of losing health coverage.
When asked by a voter who buys her own health insurance about what his health care plan would be, Trump instead talked about his most significant legislative achievement on health care. As part of their tax bill, Republicans eliminated Obamacare’s financial penalty for failing to carry health insurance that was established by the 2010 health care law. (They had also, of course, failed to repeal and replace Obamacare earlier the same year.)
“We got rid of the individual mandate on Obamacare, which was the worst part of Obamacare, and now you could actually say it’s not Obamacare because that’s how big it was,” the president said.
Trump is right about one thing: The mandate was very unpopular. It makes sense for him politically to highlight how he got rid of it.
But he’s wrong about something else: Ending the mandate may not actually be that big of a deal in terms of how Obamacare functions.
A consensus has been forming among health policy experts that the mandate wasn’t as crucial to the law’s markets as its authors thought it would be because the actual size of the financial penalty was relatively small. More than 80 percent of the people who buy private insurance on the marketplaces get federal tax credits, which makes their premiums more affordable. Obamacare’s enrollment has declined only slightly since the mandate was repealed, from 12.2 million in 2017 to 11.4 million in 2020.
Yet Republican state officials, supported by the Justice Department, are suing to overturn the law in its entirety because the mandate is now gone. (To get into the weeds on the topic, read Vox’s Ian Millhiser.) Those millions of Americans who buy insurance on the marketplaces, and more than 12 million people covered by Medicaid expansion, could lose insurance unless there is a plan to cover them in that scenario.
“I want to give great health care,” the president said Thursday night, sounding much like he did four years ago. The rest is still TBD.
Loser: Trump’s purported toughness
If there’s anything we’ve been told over the past five years about Donald Trump, it’s that he’s “tough.” But responses to Trump’s performance in Thursday night’s town hall conversation with Guthrie from conservative media figures seemed to imply otherwise. They focused not on Trump’s answers, but on how “bullied” he was by Guthrie for asking him moderately difficult questions.
it takes a lot to make Trump look like the bullied one, but @SavannahGuthrie nailed it with flying colors. what an over-the-top performance by this frantic host— GregGutfeld (@greggutfeld) October 16, 2020
Trump is the president of the United States, and presumably would have the capacity to answer tough questions about his handling of the coronavirus and other issues (not to mention he had mocked Guthrie earlier Thursday during a rally).
And yet Fox News host and occasional Trump rally guest Sean Hannity introduced his show Thursday night saying, “NBC fake news did their best to ambush President Trump at tonight’s town hall,” and describing Guthrie as Biden’s surrogate.
Hannity kicks off his show tonight by complaining that Savannah Guthrie was very nasty to Trump.— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) October 16, 2020
"NBC fake news did their best to ambush President Trump at tonight’s town hall... it was a political debate with the morning host of [TODAY] serving as, well, Joe Biden's surrogate pic.twitter.com/y6thtHvDnH
The Trump campaign mirrored that language in a statement, again calling Guthrie a “Biden surrogate” and adding, “President Trump masterfully handled Guthrie’s attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room.”
Trump’s allies, in the face of his performance, focused on working the refs — the media. The rule for interviewing Donald Trump is very clear: He can be mean to you, but you have to be nice to him, obsequiously so, no matter what he says or does.
But this was Trump’s choice. As he said about the decision to do the town hall: “They asked me if I’d do it, and I figured what the hell? We’ll get a free hour of television.”
He did indeed. And now some of his biggest allies are very upset about it.