On NBC, Donald Trump blustered, harangued and outright lied during a contentious town hall meeting in Miami moderated by Savannah Guthrie that practically burned through the TV screen. On ABC, Joe Biden engaged in a sober, wonky and low-key exchange in Philadelphia with George Stephanopoulos that at times felt like slipping into warm, welcoming bath.But those dueling town halls, with their extremely different level of energy and decorum, might have provided perhaps the starkest example yet of the choice voters have to make on Nov. 3. On Twitter, in particular, there seemed to be a growing weariness with the drama and bombast that accompanies any Trump event and an embrace of what Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox, called “the delightful boringness of Joe Biden.” As Yglesias explained, the fact-filled exchanges on taxes and funding for education that took place between Biden and Stephanopoulos came as “an incredible relief” after “four exhausting years of Donald Trump.”
Was there a winner? If so, it might have been Guthrie, the Today co-host, who had the unenviable task of trying redeem her network after it was roundly criticized for scheduling its Trump town hall at the exact same time as the previously scheduled Biden one on ABC, leading #BoycottNBC to become a trending topic on Twitter.
Guthrie pressed and challenged Trump in ways he was definitely not used to, especially not during his recent spate of appearances and call-ins with his adoring sycophants on Fox News, holding the president’s feet to the fire on his incendiary tweets, his deceptions about the dangers of COVID-19 and his continuing refusal to simply denounce white supremacy. “A shout out to @SavannahGuthrie,” tweeted the New Yorker‘s Susan Glasser, one of several journalists who took to Twitter to praise the Today co-host, “who is standing her ground and sticking up for the right of independent journalists to ask real questions of a President even when he is spewing crazy conspiracy theories and untruths.”
And the former lawyer had perhaps the line of the evening, when she asked Trump about his retweets of the totally insane conspiracy theory that the Obama-Biden administration tried to have S.E.A.L. Team Six killed to cover up their faked death of Osama bin Laden. The president first dodged the question by saying, “I know nothing about that.” But as Guthrie quickly pointed out, “You retweeted it,” Trump bobbed and weaved again, saying, “That was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position.”
“You’re the president,” an incredulous Guthrie said to Trump. “You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
That characterization quickly became a theme on social media, especially after Mercedes Schlapp, an adviser to the Trump campaign, tweeted (with a misspelling) that the Biden town hall felt to her like she was “watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.” For some, that was just the point:
The election is now officially Mr Rogers v. Your Crazy Uncle.
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) October 16, 2020
The split screen between Joe Biden and Donald Trump tonight is wild. Biden, calmly sitting and talking about infrastructure and mask mandates. Trump, combative and challenging every question as he refuses to denounce QAnon and sows doubt in the election.
— Matt Viser (@mviser) October 16, 2020
Here are the eight other key moments from last night’s dueling debates.
Testing for COVID-19
In his town hall, Trump refused to say if he took coronavirus test before the presidential debate with Joe Biden on Sept. 29. “Did you test the day of the debate?” Guthrie asked the president, pointing out that the Commission on Presidential Debates had mandated that everyone who attended the Cleveland debate, including the two candidates, be tested that day. (White House doctors have been evasive about when Trump last tested negative before entering Walter Reed Hospital on Oct. 2 with a diagnosis of coronavirus.) “I don’t know,” Trump responded. “I don’t even remember.” Pressed repeatedly by Guthrie to give a yes or no answer, Trump waved her off, saying, “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.”
In contrast, on ABC, Joe Biden was emphatic on the importance of regular testing, especially before public events like a debate or town hall, telling Stephanopoulos he had tested negative earlier on Thursday and that he would not have come to the town hall if the results had been positive. “It’s just decency to be able to determine whether or not you’re clear,” Biden said. “I’m less concerned about me, but the people — the guys [with] the cameras, the Secret Service guys you drive up with, all those people.”
Biden said he took a Covid-19 test before this appearance, contrasting with Trump. "If I had not passed that test, I didn’t want to come here. I think it’s just decency to be able to determine your clear. "
— adam nagourney (@adamnagourney) October 16, 2020
A Refusal to Denounce QAnon
Trump appeared to grow defensive when Guthrie pressed him several times to denounce white supremacy and the unfounded conspiracy theory called QAnon. “You always do this to me,” a visibly irritated Trump said to Guthrie when she started to ask him about his why he had refused in the past to forcefully denounce white supremacy. “Why didn’t you ask Joe Biden why he doesn’t denounce antifa?” Trump asked, referring to the loose collection of far-left groups that the president has blamed, without evidence, of fomenting violence during racial justice protests.
Trump’s testiness grew as Guthrie then brought up Qanon, explaining that it was a conspiracy theory that “Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and you are the savior of them,” and asked if he would “once and for all” denounce them?”
“I know nothing about QAnon,” Trump responded.
“I just told you,” Guthrie said.
“What you tell me doesn’t necessarily make it fact,” Trump responded before adding, “I know nothing about it. I do know that they are very much against pedophilia,” he said, before pivoting again: “I’ll tell you what I do know about: I know about antifa and I know about the radical left.”
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) October 16, 2020
Packing the Court
Although both Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris deflected questions in their respective debates about whether they would support the possible addition of more justices to the Supreme Court if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed this campaign season, Biden finally gave an answer of sorts when pressed again by Stephanopoulos: Maybe.
After saying he has not “been a fan of court-packing,” Biden suggested he might open to the idea in the future
“So you’re still not a fan?” Stephanopoulos asked him.
“Well, I’m not a fan,” Biden said, but added: “It depends on how this turns out,” referring to the Barrett confirmation process. “How it’s handled. Pressed on what he meant by that, Biden said, “It depends on how much they rush this,” explaining that if the Senate votes on Barrett’s nomination before the election, “I’m open to considering what happened from that point on.”
Trump and His Debts
The president, after two weeks of calling a New York Times investigation into his finances “fake news,” seemed to confirm last night one of its key findings: that he owed about $400 million to creditors. In a long exchange about his finances, Trump claimed that his accumulation of debt was a byproduct of working in the real estate business, despite evidence that the bulk of his profits in the last decade have come from payments he received as the star of The Apprentice and franchising the Trump name.
“Are you confirming that, yes, you do owe some $400 million?” Guthrie asked.
“What I’m saying is that it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth,” Trump replied.
“When you look at vast properties like I have, and they’re big and they’re beautiful and they’re well located, when you look at that, the amount of money, $400 million, is a peanut, it’s extremely underlevered,” [he probably meant to say “underleveraged]. “And it’s leveraged with normal banks,” he added. “Not a big deal.”
Support for Transgender Rights
One of the questioners at Biden’s town hall was a woman who identified herself as a mother of two young daughters, one of whom is transgender, and who asked about Biden’s commitment to LGBTQ rights. “The Trump administration has attacked the rights of transgender people, banning them from military service, weakening nondiscriminatory protections and even removing the word ‘transgender’ from some government websites,” the woman said. “How will you as president reverse this dangerous and discriminatory agenda and ensure that the lives and rights of LGBTQ people are protected?”
“I would just flat-out change the law,” Biden responded. “I would eliminated his executive orders, number one … There should be zero discrimination. He added, “And what’s happening is too many transgender women of color are being murdered. They’re being murdered.”
First time voter, immigrant, and mom to a transgender child asks Biden what he will do to reverse Trump’s bigoted policies and protect her child. She’s crying, and so am I. Because he gets it.
Trans rights are human rights.
— Tamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes) October 16, 2020
Hearing Joe Biden say that my trans child deserves the same rights as everyone else meant more than me to me than a lot of parents will ever understand. Thank you @joebiden for giving me hope that my son can have the future he deserves.
— 🏳️🌈NastyMommaDragon ❄️🌊🧷🗳🏖🗽 (@mommadragon4) October 16, 2020
A Unexpected Moment of Frankness
At one point, Stephanopoulos asked Joe Biden about the possibility of losing to Donald Trump. saying. “If you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?” This is the kind of question that politicians either laugh off or bluster through or answer by saying bluntly, “I’m not going to lose.” But Biden gave an unexpectedly reflective answer. “It could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” he said, before adding: “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”
Who Was That Masked Woman?
Almost from the beginning of the Trump town hall, a third person began to attract almost as much attention as either Trump or Guthrie: A woman in a pink dress and red mask, sitting behind the president’s left shoulder and nodding vigorously at every one of Trump’s comments. Twitter immediately began wondering who she was, how she got that prime seat and whether she had been paid by the Trump campaign to show support for the president.
The black woman nodding in agreement with President Trump is everything right now… pic.twitter.com/OLp0jHCDG5
— Errol Webber For Congress (CA-37) (@ErrolWebber) October 16, 2020
The woman nodding behind Trump is my new least favorite human.
— Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) October 16, 2020
Journalists, if you don’t find out who that woman is nodding behind Trump at an “undecided” voter town hall, then I don’t know what you’re getting paid for
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) October 16, 2020
Shortly after the town hall ended, The Miami Herald identified her as Mayra Joli, an immigration attorney and pro-Trump activist, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress on 2018, and who once declared herself Miami’s “master of selfies.”
After the event, she greeted the president, according to a video posted to her Facebook page. “We have your back! You see, you see you are the best,” Joli is shown saying to Trump shortly after the event finished.
“Where are you from?” Trump replied.
“I’m from the Dominican Republic, but I’m American, I’m an American,” Joli said.
“I appreciate all the support,” the president said.
The Empathy of Joe Biden
Was this the most telling moment of the night? After the formal town hall ended, Biden stayed behind, putting back on his mask and answering follow-up questions from the few remaining audience members in the hall. It was a scene that was shown, soundless, in the background as cable news commentators dissected the evening, but that spoke volumes about the seriousness and the sheer decency of the former vice president. It was a moment that quickly caught the attention of Twitter:
Not everyone got to ask their question of Biden, because they ran out of time on air. Biden stayed and is answering everyone’s questions. This is the type of president we deserve. Vote Biden.
— Scott Dworkin (@funder) October 16, 2020
Biden is so … decent. After four years of Trump he’s like a glass of ice water in hell. It’s just so appealing to imagine that soon we’ll have a president who is serious, predictable, unembarrassing, wonderfully boring.
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) October 16, 2020