Donald Trump, Joe Biden fire shots from afar in dueling town halls

President Trump and Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden faced off in dueling town-hall events on Thursday night instead of debating on the same stage, with the Democrat quickly attacking the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Mr. Trump defending his actions.

Mr. Biden, in Philadelphia on ABC, blasted the president’s handling of the pandemic as inept and deceptive.

“Americans didn’t panic — he panicked,” Mr. Biden said. “There is a presidential responsibility to lead, and he didn’t do it.”

He questioned the administration’s ability to provide an eventual vaccine quickly to the public, claiming, “There is no plan to figure out how to distribute it.”

In Miami, Mr. Trump said on NBC that his actions have saved the lives of many Americans, by closing travel to China early in the crisis and taking other steps.

“Dr. Fauci said I saved thousands and thousands of lives,” Mr. Trump said of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The president also defended his decision to rarely wear a mask in public.

“I’m president. I have to see people. I can’t be in a basement,” Mr. Trump said. “People with masks are catching it all the time.”

He said of his contracting the disease, “I don’t know where it came from. But as the president, I have to be out there. It’s risky seeing people.”

Mr. Trump said he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, but he again questioned the security of widespread mail-in balloting.

“They’re fraudulent,” Mr. Trump said. “I want this to be clean. I really feel we’re going to win. I’ve spent three years fighting off these maniacs [Democrats]. I don’t want a transfer, I want to win.”

Moderator George Stephanopoulos challenged Mr. Biden whether it was wise for him to plan a major tax increase, given the economy’s fragile state.

“When you allow people to get back in the game and have a job, everything moves,” Mr. Biden replied.

The spectacle of the candidates speaking simultaneously in different cities on rival networks followed Mr. Trump’s positive test for COVID-19 on Oct. 1, two days after his first debate with Mr. Biden in Cleveland. For the second debate, which had been scheduled for Thursday in Miami, the Commission on Presidential Debates proposed a virtual event because of coronavirus concerns.

Mr. Trump balked at the proposal and asked for the second debate to be postponed. But Mr. Biden scheduled his town-hall event, and the president responded by arranging for his own live network show, also beginning at 8 p.m.

“I figured, ‘What the hell, we get a free hour on television,’” Mr. Trump told supporters in North Carolina on Thursday.

The dispute essentially set up a ratings war. Trump allies predicted that the president would draw a larger viewing audience.

Some liberal Biden supporters apparently feared as much.

More than 100 television actors and network producers criticized NBC News for holding Mr. Trump’s town hall opposite the Democrat’s event. They said NBC was allowing the president to “counterprogram” Mr. Biden.

“We are simply asking that NBC air the president’s town hall either before or after Vice President Biden’s so that American voters can have the opportunity to watch both,” they told the network in a letter.

Among the signers were “This Is Us” cast members Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, actor-producer Ben Stiller, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane and Alec Baldwin, who portrays Mr. Trump on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said the network’s decision was “motivated only by fairness, not business considerations.” He said NBC scheduled Mr. Trump at 8 p.m. because it gave the same slot to Mr. Biden in a previous town-hall event.

Mr. Trump, who has accused NBC News of liberal bias and refers to corporate owner Comcast as “Concast,” mocked NBC News anchor Lester Holt, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and town-hall moderator Savannah Guthrie before the event.

“I’m being set up tonight,” the president told his supporters. “If you want to see a little entertainment, watch.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign revealed Thursday that an employee of his charter flight company tested positive for COVID-19. Officials said the worker never came within 50 feet of Mr. Biden and there was no reason to quarantine the nominee. Mr. Biden has tested negative for infection from the coronavirus in each of the previous two days.

The journalist who was to have moderated the second debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, was suspended indefinitely by his employer Thursday for lying about a hacking of his Twitter account.

Mr. Scully made the claim when confronted about a questionable exchange with former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci after the president accused Mr. Scully of being a “Never Trumper.”

“I falsely claimed that my Twitter account had been hacked,” Mr. Scully said in a statement. “These were both errors in judgment for which I am totally responsible for. I apologize.”

The final presidential debate is set for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

At a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier Thursday, the president intensified his attacks on Mr. Biden over reports that the Democrat enabled his son, Hunter, to gain millions of dollars in foreign payments while he was serving as vice president.

Mr. Trump cited accusations, first reported by The New York Post, that Hunter Biden was paid $10 million per year by a wealthy Chinese businessman for “introductions only” during the Obama administration. The president told supporters in the battleground state that the Democratic nominee enriched his family while allowing U.S. manufacturing jobs to move to China.

“These deals were made at the same time Joe Biden was letting China steal your jobs and take away your factories,” Mr. Trump said. “The Bidens got rich while America got robbed.”

Mr. Biden told supporters that Mr. Trump and his allies are ratcheting up an aggressive “misinformation” campaign because the president is trailing in the polls. Mr. Biden held an 11-point lead over the president: 53% to 42%, according to a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday.

“I know these are anxious times,” Mr. Biden said. “We have 19 days left, and you know, he’s going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at me.”

Referring to his massive fundraising lead over the president, Mr. Biden told donors, “I think you’ve put me in a position to be able to respond in real time in a way that we can compete.”

The president said he won in 2016 after Democrat Hillary Clinton raised more money than he did.

“Ultimately, money doesn’t get you there,” Mr. Trump said. “My father told me a long time ago, ‘If you can win for less money, that’s a good thing.’”

The president also warned that he intends to take legal action against Big Tech for censoring negative stories about the Bidens.

“It’s like a third arm, maybe a first arm, of the DNC,” Mr. Trump said of the actions by Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a massive campaign contribution.”

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