The opposing town halls featuring President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden opened up focusing on the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, with the President being forced to comment on his own diagnosis with Covid-19.
Trump, on NBC, maintained that he felt well during the first presidential debate in late September and that the first time he learned he had Covid-19 was when he tested positive two days later. But he refused to give a straight answer when asked if he was tested before the first debate, as was required by the debate commission.
“I don’t know, I don’t even remember,” Trump said when asked if he took a test on the day of the first debate. He added, “possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.”
Meanwhile, in an incredible split-screen moment a less than three weeks out from Election Day, Biden was taking questions from voters on ABC and excoriated the President’s response to the pandemic.
The plans for the two men to meet face-to-face at a town hall where they would take questions from voters evaporated after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, amid fears that he could have exposed Biden and others to the virus during the chaotic first debate. The Commission on Presidential Debates proposed a virtual debate, but Trump refused — leading Biden to make his own plans with ABC for a solo town hall. Trump’s campaign then arranged for the President to do his own town hall with NBC during the same hour.
That means the tiny sliver of Americans who have still not made up their minds in this sharply polarized election will be forced to flip back and forth between the two network events, with Trump in Miami and Biden in Philadelphia. Though the election is still more than two weeks away, more than 17 million ballots have already been cast in 44 states and the District of Columbia, signs of what could be historic turnout this year.
Trump, who resumed campaign events in recent days, has traveled the country falsely suggesting that he emerged “immune” from his serious bout with the virus, continuing the same reckless tactics that marked his campaign before his diagnosis. The President has regularly gathered huge groups of supporters at his rallies where few wear masks, and plans to do more as the election nears.
Trump claimed on Thursday that the US is “doing fine” as new cases surge and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects up to 240,000 coronavirus deaths by the first week of November, shortly after Election Day.
As Trump has refused to change course — even though the poor marks for his handling of the pandemic are creating a huge drag on his reelection chances, particularly with women — there have been ominous signs that another wave of the coronavirus is hitting the US as deaths top 217,000 and cases near 8 million.
At a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, Trump tried to undercut the credentials of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, by calling him a Democrat and falsely stating that he encouraged Americans “not to wear a mask under any circumstances.”
Early in the pandemic when less was known about the spread of coronavirus, medical experts like Fauci asked the public not to rush out and buy masks because a shortage posed the risk that first responders would not have enough.
In a statement to CNN’s Jim Acosta later Thursday, Fauci said, “I’m not registered with any political party.” Fauci also spoke up publicly earlier this week after his words were taken out of context in a Trump campaign ad, touting the President’s response to the virus. Fauci has served under six presidents from both parties.
On Thursday, Trump also falsely told his North Carolina crowd that masks don’t work 85% of the time, and that 99% of people are recovering from coronavirus: “99%. 99 plus, plus,” he said, despite the fact that more than 217,000 people have died in the US.
In the town hall setting, Biden hopes to show his empathy, a skill that has been a strength for him on the campaign trail, as he speaks with voters about how the medical and economic toll of Covid-19 has harmed their families. Trump has had difficulty in these settings, often falling into a defensive posture as he touts what he views as heroic efforts to stop the spread of the virus and fuel an economic recovery.
Both candidates are likely to field questions about the stalled coronavirus relief package, which is needed to support the wounded economy and millions of Americans deprived of federal unemployment benefits as the pandemic gathers speed.
After shutting down negotiations, Trump reversed himself during his convalescence from Covid-19 and now says he wants an even bigger package than the Democrats, who have a $2.2 trillion proposal.
The President, who styles himself as an unparalleled deal maker, complained Thursday that his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had not yet brought home the “bacon” after tortuous negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Trump also accused the speaker of having “mental problems.” Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dug in, saying he wouldn’t bring any big package to the floor owing to opposition from a group of GOP senators. That probably means there is no chance of any deal before Election Day.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.