The Miami session came two weeks after a debate performance that drew widespread criticism of the president for his belligerence and repeated interruptions, and then the contraction of the coronavirus that slowed his campaign.
But much of the hour-long event seemed almost a repeat of what happened in the Cleveland debate, though this time he sparred not with his challenger but with the moderator, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, over the pandemic, white supremacy, conspiracy theories and his taxes. It was not the kind of performance likely to attract support from the voters Trump needs to win.
Thursday was the night when Trump and Biden were to face off in their second of three debates. They were supposed to share the stage in Miami, taking questions from a group of undecided voters. After Trump contracted the coronavirus, the leaders of the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to make it a virtual debate, with Trump at one place and Biden at another.
The president balked at the idea of a virtual event. As a result, the two candidates appeared at separate town hall forums, hosted by different networks but held at the same hour. Commentators billed it as dueling town halls, with Trump in Miami and Biden in Philadelphia in a forum moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
It was an unsatisfying alternative to what might have been, but the sessions did offer a contrast between the two candidates, with Biden more relaxed and the president leaning on the edge of a stool, sometimes with a scowl on his face.
Trump defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying, “I believe we’re rounding the corner” in bringing the virus under control. This came on a day the number of new cases hit 60,000 for the first time since August. He equivocated on the use of masks, claiming he is “okay” with that if people do so, but showing no change in his resistance to wearing one personally.
He turned churlish when asked about his unwillingness in the past to state consistently his opposition to white supremacy. “I denounce white supremacy,” he said, and then immediately accused the media of failing to push Biden to denounce the far-left activists known as antifa. “They’re vicious. They’re violent,” he said.
Asked why he has not distanced himself from the group known as QAnon, an organization that has promulgated conspiracy theories, he said, “I don’t know about QAnon.” But he then went on to say he knew they were against pedophilia “and I agree with that.”
Asked about a tweet he sent out that repeated a bizarre conspiracy theory that claimed Osama bin Laden is still alive and that former president Barack Obama and Biden had had SEAL Team Six, which carried out the raid, killed: “That was a retweet,” he said, “and I do a lot of retweets and because the media is so fake and so corrupt.”
He claimed, falsely, that thousands of ballots are being dumped in garbage cans and put into dumpsters. When Guthrie noted that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray had testified that there is no evidence of widespread fraud with mail ballots, he shot back, “Well then, he’s not doing a very good job.”
The president was far less confrontational when asked questions by the people in the audience. But he passed up opportunities to say with any specificity what his plans for a second term would entail.
Pressed about health care and the administration’s support for a suit now before the Supreme Court that could end the Affordable Care Act, he said his goal is to “terminate” the law and “replace it with something better” and less expensive. “That’s where we’re aiming,” he said, but could not say what that plan would look like.
He insisted any replacement would protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions, which already exists under Obamacare.
Asked what he would do in a second term to resolve the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) issue, the young people who were brought to the United States as children by their parents and who face possible deportation, he said, “You will be very happy” with what he will do, without anything concrete to back up the statement.
Nor was he specific about what kind of an economic plan he would pursue in a second term to help bring the economy back, pointing to where the economy was before the pandemic and charging that a Biden presidency would mean higher taxes that could destroy any hope of a recovery.
When the subject turned to his own taxes, the president seemed to confirm key pieces of reports in the New York Times that he has more than $400 million in debt that would come due in the next few years and that he paid only $750 in taxes the year he was elected. On his debts, he said, “It’s a tiny percentage of my net worth.”
Just as the competing town halls offered contrasts in the style of the two candidates, Trump and Biden continue to run sharply contrasting campaigns. Trump has resumed an active campaign schedule, holding his trademark rallies, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds but with little social distancing and few masks among those in attendance.
Biden continues to campaign before small and socially distanced audiences, with the candidate always masked in an effort to signal that he is following the advice of medical experts. When members of Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s traveling party tested positive for the virus, the campaign announced Thursday that the California senator would not campaign in person for several days.
Not only is Trump moving at an accelerated pace, he and Vice President Pence are campaigning in states that underscore the fact that national and battleground polls continue to put him in a perilous position.
Beyond the big six battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona, Trump and Pence are in a defensive posture in places like Georgia, Ohio and Iowa, all states that the president carried in 2016. In the cases of Ohio and Iowa, he won them easily.
So far this month, national polls tracked by The Washington Post’s polling unit show Biden running an average of 11 points ahead of the president. Only two of the 11 surveys show the president currently receiving more than 43 percent of the vote. None of the 11 had Biden below 52 percent support. More telling, perhaps, is that the margin is basically identical to what it has been since midsummer.
That means opportunities squandered become more and more costly. Trump will have another chance next Thursday, when he and Biden meet in Nashville for their next debate. Already, millions of people have cast their ballots, and by next week, millions more will have voted.
The president showed on Thursday that he’s not going to change anything. He will rise or fall with the style that got him to the White House in 2016.