Less than two weeks after being hospitalized with COVID-19, President Trump was back on the national stage on Thursday night during a televised town hall event—one that saw the President defend the online conspiracy theory known as QAnon and pledge to accept a peaceful transfer of power should he lose next month’s election.
On a night that was supposed to see the second presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump fielded questions from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and a live audience in Miami while Biden simultaneously staged a similar event—one of a completely different pace and dynamic—in Philadelphia with ABC’s George Stephanopolous.
Trump’s town hall saw the President in typical form, lobbing unsubstantiated claims and voicing controversial, factually dubious statements while also fervently defending his administration’s record. Guthrie played an assertive moderator, constantly attempting to pin Trump down on his factual inaccuracies and evasiveness, sometimes to Trump’s chagrin. Still, the President remained mostly in his element—rolling with the punches and trotting out some of his favorite claims.
He again shifted much of the blame on China for a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans to date, and claimed he “tell[s] people to wear [face] masks” while, in the next breath, noting that “people with masks are catching [the virus] all the time.” He hailed his administration’s economic accomplishments before the coronavirus pandemic decimated the U.S. economy, claiming gross domestic product will climb “through the roof” next year and erroneously claiming that Biden “wants to raise taxes on the middle classes.” And in response to a question from a Black female audience member, Trump again espoused his belief that he has “done more for the African-American community than any President except for Abraham Lincoln.”
But the most flagrant elements of the President’s performance came when Guthrie pressed him on the matter of QAnon, and Trump’s refusal to condemn an online conspiracy theory that has spread prolifically—appearing repeatedly at his own rallies—despite having no basis in truth. “I know nothing about QAnon,” Trump said, despite Guthrie having just explained the theory’s far-fetched claims to him. He then went a step further, noting that he “know[s] they’re against pedophilia” and adding that QAnon followers “may be right” in their beliefs.
It was enough to make Guthrie shoot back at the President’s dog-whistles and conspiracy-mongering. When he tried to brush off his retweeting of numerous baseless theories attacking Biden, Guthrie retorted: “You’re the President. You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
The night did see Trump at least tip his cap to reason and decency, in parts. Right before the QAnon discourse, Guthrie managed to elicit a condemnation of white supremacy from the President—though he quickly pivoted to shift the blame on his opponent and radical elements on the left. “You didn’t ask Joe Biden whether he denounces antifa,” Trump said, despite Biden having repeatedly condemned violent forms of protest.
And Trump even went so far as to acknowledge that he would accept a “peaceful transfer” of power should he lose to Biden the election, after having evaded such a commitment for much of the campaign. Again, however, he was quick to qualify: “A peaceful transfer, I absolutely want that—but ideally, I don’t want a transfer, because I want to win.”
Elsewhere, the President could not say whether he was tested for COVID-19 before his debate with Biden on Sept. 29, which itself came two days before his positive diagnosis, nor how he tested before the debate—raising the possibility that he knowingly walked into the debate COVID-positive. “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” Trump said, while also acknowledging that he wasn’t getting tested for the virus every day.
He also appeared to confirm some of the details of the New York Times’ bombshell report on his federal income taxes last month, describing his reported $750 tax liability as merely a “filing number” and brushing off his reported $400 million-plus in liabilities as “a peanut.”
Though Guthrie tried her best to hold the President accountable on various counts, he repeatedly managed to spin his way out of jams with a typically Trumpian, unapologetic deftness.
When she pressed him on having opposed President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court eight months before the 2016 presidential election—only for Trump himself to nominate Amy Coney Barrett for the bench less than 40 days before the 2020 election—he claimed it was Senate Democrats’ poor treatment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, during Kavanaugh’s highly contentious 2018 confirmation hearings, that had changed his mind.
“The whole ballgame changed when I saw the way they treated Justice Kavanaugh,” he said of a Supreme Court nominee who was accused of sexual assault, as Trump himself has been numerous times. “There has never been anybody treated as badly as now-Justice Kavanaugh.”
And he even went as far as to claim his administration would “take care” of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, despite the fact that his administration tried and failed to rescind DACA. When Guthrie stated that very fact, as well as the administration’s failure to produce any comprehensive immigration reform bill, Trump resorted to blaming the pandemic.
In the end, no amount of truth or accountability could get in between the President and his impetuous pitch that America is—and will continue to be—a better place under his guidance. “Next year is going to be better than ever before,” Trump said, closing the evening.
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