Six Takeaways From Thursday’s Dueling Trump and Biden Town Halls

After the cacophony of the first presidential debate, it turns out simultaneous events aren’t much of an improvement.

By Adam Nagourney and Shane Goldmacher

If the American people had to endure 90 minutes of cross-talk and interruptions last month at the first presidential debate, the alternative — clashing, simultaneous town hall events on Thursday with President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — was not much of an improvement.

Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the first debate and, citing safety, the presidential debate commission declared that the second debate, scheduled for Oct 15, would have to be virtual. Mr. Trump refused, so Mr. Biden scheduled a town hall on ABC. Mr. Trump then scheduled his own on NBC — at the exact same time.

“I figured, what the hell, we’ve got a free hour of television,” the president said at a rally in North Carolina earlier on Thursday.

It’s an open question whether Mr. Trump’s gambit of trying to push Mr. Biden off the stage worked to his advantage. Mr. Biden’s whole campaign strategy has been to fly at a low altitude toward victory. Mr. Trump might have made that easier with a rambunctious performance compared with Mr. Biden’s — which one of Mr. Trump’s advisers likened to “watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood,” suggesting that a similarity to the beloved Fred Rogers was a bad thing.

Here are six takeaways from the night’s dueling town halls.

Trump stomped on his own message with his refusal to denounce QAnon.

After Mr. Trump went through days of headlines and headaches as a result of his refusal to condemn white supremacy during the first presidential debate, he was ready on Thursday to offer a hedge-free denunciation. “I denounce white supremacy, OK?” he said to the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, almost before she had finished her question.

The rare forcefulness on the topic made Mr. Trump’s mealy-mouthed refusal, minutes later, to disavow the false QAnon conspiracy theory all the more stark.

“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Mr. Trump claimed, despite having amplified a discredited claim by the theory’s proponents just days ago.

Ms. Guthrie swiftly walked through how the far-right movement falsely claims Democrats are a satanic cult that practices pedophilia. “Can you just once and for all state that is completely not true and disavow QAnon in its entirety?” she pressed.

“I do know they are very much against pedophilia — they fight it very hard,” Mr. Trump said. Later, he repeated that line, almost with encouragement: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that. I do agree with that.”

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