President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden faced off against each other Thursday night on opposite television channels instead of opposite sides of the stage— and with vastly different approaches.
On NBC, Trump was pushed to address questions he's avoided, pressed about his health and finances, in sometimes testy fashion. On ABC, Biden delivered lengthy detailed responses in a policy-heavy discussion, continuing to dodge questions about "packing" the Supreme Court and regretting his support of the 1994 crime bill.
Trump was asked by the moderator, "TODAY" show anchor Savannah Guthrie, whether he had tested negative for the coronavirus before the first presidential debate, a timeline the White House has refused to clarify. He tested positive two days after the debate. Guthrie noted that the candidates were on "the honor system" to be tested beforehand.
"I probably did," Trump said. "Possibly I did, possibly I didn't," he said, adding that he thought he was likely to have tested negative either that day or the day before.
She also asked Trump whether he had developed pneumonia after he contracted the virus, a question his doctors have refused to answer. "No, but they said the lungs are little bit different, a little bit — perhaps infected," he said.
Trump also committed to a peaceful transition of power if he isn't re-elected.
In a testy exchange with Guthrie, Trump refused to condemn the QAnon conspiracy movement, which pushes a baseless assertion that he is waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of satanic pedophile Democratic politicians, liberal celebrities and the "deep state."
"I know nothing about QAnon," he said, but "I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard."
While he was at times combative and argumentative with Guthrie, Trump calmly defended his record to the undecided voters who asked him questions, and in a departure from his rallies, he spent little time attacking Biden. One of his questioners even complimented his looks. "You're so handsome when you smile," she said, prompting a smile from the president.
Pushed about a New York Times report that he is on the hook for $421 million in debt that is set to come due after the election, Trump declined to say whom he owes the money to, and he disputed the amount before appearing to confirm it. He called the massive sum a "small amount."
"In fact, some of it I did as favors to institutions that wanted to loan me money, $400 million compared to the assets that I have, all of these great properties all over the world."
As for whether he owes money to foreign entities, he said, "I don't owe money to any of these sinister people."
As for The Times' report that he paid $750 in taxes the year he was running for president, Trump said: "It's a statutory number. I think it's a filing number, you pay 750."
In Philadelphia on ABC, a relaxed Biden gave long-winded answers that focused on policy and his record.
Biden's first question was related to the coronavirus, and he used it to criticize Trump's leadership.
"It's a presidential responsibility to lead, and he didn't do that, because, in my view, he kept talking about the stock market," Biden said.
He spoke in depth about his economic plan. He was asked about how he'd energize young Black voters, and he talked about making systemic changes to American institutions from criminal justice to homeownership and schools to early childhood education to close the racial wealth gap.
Asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos whether it was a mistake to support the 1994 crime bill, Biden said, "Yes, it was." He added, "Things have changed drastically since then."
Asked whether he still believes that "more cops mean less crime," Biden said, "Yes, if in fact they're involved in community policing and not jump squads."
Biden was again pushed about his position on "court packing" when he was asked about Trump's Supreme Court nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett — and he again declined to answer, but he acknowledged that he's "not a fan" of the idea.
He said he will let voters know his full position depending on how the Senate handles Barrett's confirmation, which he said would put the country's health care system in jeopardy.
In Miami, Trump touted Barrett and said he didn't know how she'd vote on issues like Obamacare because he had never asked her about them. Asked whether he expected her to vote in his favor on issues, he said he didn't know.
Biden campaign communications director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement after the town halls, "Tonight, once again there was one leader and one liar."
Bedingfield said that Biden gave "thoughtful answers" to questions from voters while "1,100 miles away, and in a false, alternate reality of his own making, President Trump was combative and lashed out at voters. He refused to denounce QAnon. He defended an unhinged conspiracy theory about the brave American soldiers who took out Osama Bin Laden. He lied about the effectiveness of masks. And, as dozens of states see rising COVID infections, Trump said we are 'rounding the corner.'"
Trump's campaign sought to reinforce his frequent argument that he is running against the press, not Biden.
“Even though the commission canceled the in-person debate that could have happened tonight, one occurred anyway, and President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate. President Trump masterfully handled Guthrie’s attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room," said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
The second presidential debate was canceled after Trump backed out because he objected to the decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to make it a virtual event. The commission made the change after Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.
Biden has consistently led Trump in polls, and the margin widened after Trump delivered a widely panned debate performance and then contracted Covid-19, increasing the pressure on him to find a way to revive his flagging campaign.
The simultaneous town halls ignited criticism among some supporters of Biden, who called on NBC to reschedule the event with Trump, which was scheduled after Biden's event was.
More than 100 actors and directors involved in NBCUniversal productions signed a petition calling for the town hall to be moved.
NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said that while the network shares the "frustration" of the events' being held at the same time, the decision was "motivated only by fairness, not business considerations," because NBC had hosted a similar event with Biden on Oct. 5 during the same 8 p.m. time slot.
Both town hall venues had extra coronavirus-related safety measures in place.
The Trump event took place outdoors at Pérez Art Museum Miami in accordance with guidelines set forth by health officials and consistent with all government regulations. Guthrie and the president were supposed to be at least 12 feet apart from each other and the audience.
Audience members were socially distanced, and they were required to wear masks, answer symptom questionnaires and have their temperatures checked before they entered the outdoor venue.
The Biden town hall, at the National Constitution Center, was held in accordance with state and local government health and safety regulations and guidelines set by health officials, according to ABC.
The debate the town halls replaced was the first to have been canceled since regular televised presidential debates began in 1976. The debate, which had been scheduled to take place in Miami, was to have been moderated by C-SPAN's Steve Scully, whom the network indefinitely suspended Thursday after he admitted having made up a claim that his Twitter account had been hacked.
The final presidential debate is still scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee, with NBC News' Kristen Welker moderating. "I expect to be there," Biden told Stephanopoulos.