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Trump And Biden's Competing Town Halls Had Starkly Different Tones And Messaging

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two presidential candidates in two simultaneous town hall meetings on two different TV networks offered starkly different approaches to governing last night. President Trump promoted his accomplishments of the past four years, defended sharing unfounded conspiracy theories on social media and said there is no reason to worry that he is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Former Vice President Joe Biden said he would try to bring the country together, although he avoided, for now, some questions about what he would do if elected. White House correspondent Tamara Keith is traveling with the president and joins us from Doral, Florida. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is with the Biden campaign, joining us from Wilmington, Del. Good morning to you.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's start, Tamara, with Trump's event. How did it go?

KEITH: So the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, started out by asking him a lot of pointed questions. That went on for about 20 minutes - got pretty intense at times. And then when it turned to the voter questions, President Trump never really took the opportunity to try to relate to the voters who were asking him questions. This whole thing was a very Trump-y event - very high energy, constantly churning, treading water all over the place. It was classic Trump - sort of a whirling dervish.

KHALID: And how different was it, Asma, if we went over to the Joe Biden event on ABC?

KHALID: Oh, gosh. Such a strong contrast, Tam, from what you're describing. I mean, there was no, really, combativeness, not with any voters. It was this slow, calm and, frankly, some would say, even kind of boring night in comparison. Biden gave these lengthy answers to policy questions and had this sort of intimacy with voters. You know, he'd often end a question by coming back to the person and say, I hope I answered your question. But really, Steve, you know, I was struck by how different this was for him as a format than a debate where he likely would have been interrupted and had to offer these quippy responses. Here, he could speak at length for as long as he wanted.

INSKEEP: Tam, I want to mention that NBC was criticized for scheduling a Trump event at the same time as a Biden event - NBC scheduled their event second - but it did prove to be, in many ways, revealing of the president and what he feels is important in the way he wants to present himself to the world. It's striking how much he discussed his willingness to embrace false conspiracy theories and lies.

KEITH: I mean, he was asked about these things, but then he was given an opportunity to condemn QAnon - this is a bizarre, not-at-all-fact-based conspiracy theory that, among other things, claims Democrats are part of some sort of deep state, devil-worshipping, child-trafficking thing. It also paints Trump as a savior, but he wouldn't condemn it. Here's the exchange with NBC News moderator Savannah Guthrie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I know nothing about QAnon.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: I just told you.

TRUMP: I know very little. You told me, but what you tell me doesn't necessarily make it fact. I hate to say that. I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it.

KEITH: The FBI has labeled the QAnon movement a potential domestic terror threat. Asked about another conspiracy that he tweeted this week, President Trump said that people would just have to judge for themselves whether bin Laden is really dead. And speaking about his coronavirus response, he said masks don't really work, or maybe they don't work or, you know - he just was all over the place on that, which flies in the face of science and recommendations from his own administration. He did, however, condemn white supremacy a couple of times, but he was very defensive about it.

INSKEEP: He seems also to have, unintentionally maybe, revealed some things.

KEITH: Yeah. He was pressed on when he had his last negative coronavirus test. This is something that we've all been trying to get an answer to ever since he tested positive. And he, in theory, was supposed to have gotten a test right before the debate, the last debate, as required by debate rules. And Guthrie asked him about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUTHRIE: So you say you don't know if you got a test on the day of the debate?

TRUMP: I had no problem. Again, the doctors do it. I don't ask them. I test all the time. And they...

GUTHRIE: Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?

TRUMP: You know, if you ask the doctor they'll give you a perfect answer. But they take a test, and I leave and I go about my business.

GUTHRIE: Did you take a test on the day of the debate? - I guess is the bottom line.

TRUMP: I probably did, and I took a test the day before and the day before. And I was always in great shape.

KEITH: Yeah, the doctors have refused to say when he took a test and whether he took it on the day of the debate. Another thing - President Trump admitted that he owes $400 million in loans, as reported by The New York Times in one of its stories about his tax returns. He called that amount a peanut and said it was no big deal.

INSKEEP: Asma, let's go back to the Biden event. And let's not pretend that these events were the same, particularly, in any way - very, very different candidates with very, very different messages. But Biden faced some real questions.

KHALID: He did, and they focused on policy. You know, there were lengthy discussions about the coronavirus, about Biden's tax plan, about his past support in the 1990s for crime legislation. But really, Steve, two items stood out. You know, he has been evasive in recent weeks on the issue of court packing. He has said that he is not a fan of adding justices to the Supreme Court, but he also has said he doesn't want to get into it because he thinks it's a distraction from the current nomination process. You know, he was asked about it again last night, and here he is in this exchange, moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Don't voters have a right to know where you stand?

JOE BIDEN: They do have a right to know where I stand, and they'll have a right to know where I stand before they vote?

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you'll come out with a clear position before Election Day?

BIDEN: Yes, depending on how they handle this.

KHALID: And, Steve, to me, what was interesting is this is sort of the most clarity that we've actually heard from him on this particular issue. You know, there was another really fascinating moment near the end where he was asked, essentially, what does it mean about the country if he loses? And he says that, you know, he feels like it could mean that he's a lousy candidate. But really, what he hopes he doesn't say is that we as a country are as racially at odds with one another as it might seem to be this moment in time. And that gets back to his central thesis that he has been running on since he began this campaign, which is about, you know, civility, decency and restoring the soul of the nation.

INSKEEP: Our colleagues, Asma Khalid and Tamara Keith, thanks to you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.