Biden and Trump talk COVID-19, Supreme Court at competing town halls
Trump discusses his views on QAnon conspiracy theory, Biden doesn't rule out expanding Supreme Court
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden attacked President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, as the two candidates held duelling televised town halls after their second planned debate was cancelled.
The prime-time split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of how deeply unusual this year's campaign has been amid a coronavirus pandemic that has infected nearly eight million Americans, including the president himself. Millions have already voted early ahead of election day on Nov. 3.
Biden, speaking to voters in Philadelphia on ABC, sought to put Trump's handling of the pandemic front and centre, blaming the Republican president for downplaying the virus that has killed more than 216,000 people in the United States.
"He said he didn't tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic," Biden said in Philadelphia on ABC. "Americans don't panic. He panicked."
Trump defended both his response to the pandemic as well as his own personal conduct, including staging a Rose Garden event at the White House where few wore masks or practiced social distancing, which resulted in numerous attendees contracting the disease.
"Hey, I'm president — I have to see people, I can't be in a basement," Trump said on NBC in front of an outdoor audience of voters in Miami, implicitly criticizing Biden for spending months off the campaign trail as the pandemic raged.
Trump, who aggressively interrupted Biden during a chaotic debate two weeks ago, showed little interest in altering his belligerent tone.
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He said he "heard different stories" about the efficacy of masks, even though his own administration's public health experts have said wearing them is key to stopping the spread of the virus.
He did not answer questions about the last time he tested negative before getting the virus, saying he did not recall precisely.
The president also declined to denounce QAnon, the false conspiracy theory that Democrats are part of a satanic global child sex trafficking ring, first praising its adherents for opposing pedophilia before saying he knew nothing about the movement.
Trump also dodged questions about a New York Times investigation of two decades of his tax returns, which he has refused to release publicly despite decades of precedent for presidential candidates.
He appeared to confirm the paper's report that he has some $400 million US in personally guaranteed loans, arguing that the amount was a "peanut" compared with his worth. He also did not deny the Times report that he paid only $750 US in federal income tax during his first year in the White House, although he said at one point the paper's numbers were "wrong."
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With less than three weeks to go until the Nov. 3 U.S. election, the Republican president is trying to change the dynamics of a race in which Biden has a double-digit advantage in some national polls.
North Carolina, a highly competitive state, began more than two weeks of in-person early voting on Thursday, following huge turnout in Georgia and Texas earlier in the week.
Video from local media showed large numbers of people waiting for the polls to open in Greensboro and Winston-Salem and gathering in the pre-dawn hours to vote at two arenas in the state's largest city, Charlotte.
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Gerry Cohen, a member of the election board in the county that includes most of the city of Raleigh, N.C., saw more than 400 people in line at a community centre before polls opened.
"I've never seen this many in line here," he said on Twitter.
Early voting records
Nearly 18 million Americans have cast ballots either in person or by mail so far, representing 12.9 per cent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.
Voters are seeking to avoid in-person lines on Election Day to stay safe as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continue to rise but also to make sure their ballots will count. Many are concerned that Trump will challenge widely used mail-in ballots, after he claimed without evidence that they were fraudulent.
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Trump's campaign is counting on a surge of last-minute votes. But Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted from Friday to Tuesday suggests there are far fewer undecided likely voters this year — around eight per cent — and they are just as likely to pick Biden as they are Trump.
Four years ago at this stage of the campaign, more than twice as many people were similarly wavering between Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The Reuters/Ipsos polling shows Biden holding a 10-percentage-point lead nationally, with a tighter margin in the battleground states that will help decide the election.
Supreme Court fight
The Senate confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat, prompted careful answers from both candidates. Republicans have pushed to seat Barrett before the election after refusing to do so for President Barack Obama's nominee in 2016, saying it was inappropriate in an election year.
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Biden said he was not a "fan" of court-packing, the idea promoted by some Democrats of adding justices to countermand what they view as a stolen seat. But he declined to rule it out after moderator George Stephanopoulos pressed him, saying: "It depends on how this turns out."
Trump would not say whether he would like to see abortion rights invalidated, an outcome that many legal scholars believe is more likely with the conservative Barrett on the court.
"I think that she's going to make a great decision," he said. "I did not tell her what decision to make."
Democratic fundraising organization ActBlue said on Thursday it collected $1.5 billion US online from July to September, the most it had ever raised in one quarter. By comparison, major Republican fundraising platform WinRed said on Monday that it collected $623.5 million US in the same period.
"We've raised more money than I ever thought we could," Biden told donors at an event.
Both candidates have been visiting battleground states this week, with Trump holding rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa and Biden traveling to Ohio and Florida.
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Speaking to a rally in Greenville, N.C., on Thursday, Trump promised an economic recovery if he was re-elected. "We're going to have a red wave," he said.
The U.S. economy tanked in the second quarter due to the coronavirus pandemic, and at least 25 million remained on jobless benefits at the end of September, Labour Department figures showed on Thursday.
Trump pulled out of Thursday's scheduled debate when the commission in charge of organizing the event said it would be held virtually after he contracted the coronavirus. A final debate is still scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn.
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A group of 100 Hollywood actors and producers wrote a letter of protest to NBC, saying that airing Trump's town hall was "enabling the president's bad behaviour while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public."
The Biden campaign said on Thursday that two people involved in the campaign had tested positive for COVID-19, including one on the staff of Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate.
Biden had also been on a plane with an aviation company employee who tested positive but was not in close contact, his campaign said in a statement. He tested negative for COVID-19 on Thursday as well as Wednesday, his campaign said.
"This shows how seriously we take COVID, how we have since March done everything in our power as a campaign to ensure the safety of our staff and volunteers and voters," Biden's campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, told reporters on a call.