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Dueling town halls: Trump gets mad; Biden's soft shiv

President Donald Trump wipes his face during a

President Donald Trump wipes his face during a break at his NBC News town hall Thursday in Miami. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

American split screen

President Donald Trump rejected holding a debate on Thursday night rather than accept a virtual version. Grousing earlier in the day to a North Carolina rally about the substitute town hall later hosted by NBC, he said, "I figured, what the hell, we get a free hour on television."

But to what end? Through the hour, he barely got off any shots of note at his opponent, Joe Biden, who holds a steady lead in polls as Election Day draws closer. Instead, he was pressed to explain himself, in a withering interrogation from moderator Savannah Guthrie that turned him visibly angry, and from voters in Miami trying to understand where he wanted to lead the country. Meanwhile, on ABC and with less drama, Biden did a methodical tear-down of Trump and talked nitty-gritty policy.

Trump was evasive to Guthrie's questions about his bout with the coronavirus. Was he tested on the day of his Sept. 29 debate with Biden, as debate commission rules required? "I probably did … possibly I did, possibly I didn't," Trump replied. When was his last negative test before the positive one on Oct. 1? He wouldn't say.

Is any of the $421 million he owes — according to recent New York Times reporting on his finances — debt held by foreign entities? He appeared to say "not that I know of" at one point and "probably" at another, but he also said it wasn't Russia or "any sinister people." He didn't deny the figure.

He professed to know nothing about the QAnon conspiracy cult that embraces him, other than that "they are very much against pedophilia." What about the part that Democrats are behind a satanic pedophile ring? "I know nothing about QAnon," he said.

Guthrie pressed him on why he retweets nutball fantasies from the far fringes — a recent one claimed that Biden was engaged in a conspiracy to have members of Navy SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up the "fake" death of Osama bin Laden. "I'll put it out there and people can decide," Trump said. That led to a Guthrie line that may be the most memorable of the night: "You're the president. You’re not like somebody’s crazy uncle and can just retweet whatever."

On other matters, Trump looked to dial down the heat over his past refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins. The president said, "The answer is yes, I will. But I want it to be an honest election … ideally, I don’t want to transfer, because I want to win." Trump tried to shift into neutral from his past calls for overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion rights. He said he didn't discuss the issue with his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and "perhaps nothing will happen." He pledged to offer a better and cheaper alternative to Obamacare, but as usual he didn't explain how.

Meanwhile, on ABC

Trump campaign senior adviser Mercedes Schlapp sniffed in a tweet about Biden's town hall that it "feels like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers [sic] Neighborhood." That got her lit up on Twitter by Fred Rogers' fans wondering what's wrong with that, but it was true that the Democrat's performance on ABC lacked the WrestleMania vibe over on NBC.

But while speaking in measured tones, Biden went ripping. "If I'm elected president, you will not hear me race-baiting, you’ll not hear me divide you. You’ll hear me trying to unify and unify with bringing people together," he said.

Biden blasted Trump’s foreign policy, declaring that " ‘America first’ has made ‘America alone’ " and "This president embraces all the thugs in the world."

A self-described "disaffected Republican" in the Philadelphia audience asked how Biden would change the tone in Washington and would avoid the temptation to seek partisan "revenge" if he defeats Trump. The former vice president replied: "In politics, grudges don’t work. They make no sense."

On how he would combat climate change, Biden went deep into the policy weeds, including a discussion on the possibility of using pelletized livestock manure as a biofuel source to reduce the net greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture.

On one issue for which Biden has failed to offer clarity, he said he might soon, but not yet. Asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos if voters had a right to know where he stood on the question of expanding the Supreme Court to balance it with Democratic nominees, Biden agreed voters "have a right to know where I stand before they vote." But he indicated he'll wait until Barrett's expected confirmation before Election Day.

So who won the night? Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh declared that Trump "defeated" Guthrie, who he derided as a "surrogate" for Biden. The second and final face-to-face presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, if nothing derails it.

COVID's pall isn't petering out

Coronavirus infections jumped by almost 17% over the past week as the number of new cases increased in 38 states and Washington, D.C., Axios reports. But Trump on Thursday remained consistent in his message for all seasons — "It’s going to peter out," he told a North Carolina rally — and as a spreader of misinformation.

Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview that a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found "85% of the people wearing masks catch it." He repeated that in front of the prime-time national audience at the NBC town hall. That's absolutely, totally and completely wrong. If that were true, most Americans would be infected.

What the CDC study did find in a small group of COVID patients surveyed was that 85% reported they often or always had worn a mask around the time they would have become infected.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported on how the CDC has become demoralized because of White House meddling as well as some internal mistakes. The result has been an erosion of trust in one of the world’s preeminent public-health organizations, complicating its mission of dealing with a virus that has killed more than 217,000 Americans.

A new AP-NORC poll found that 65% of Americans said Trump has not taken the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. seriously enough.

This day in polls

Biden leads Trump by 11 points — 53% to 42% — in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The only maybe-plus for Trump is that Biden's advantage in the nationwide survey was 14 points two weeks ago. The 3-point swing is within the margin of error.

The Democrat also is ahead by 11 points — 54% to 43% — in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of likely voters nationally.

A Monmouth University poll shows Biden ahead in Arizona under two turnout scenarios. With a low turnout, he's up by 2 points; a high turnout gives him a 7-point edge. Arizona went for Trump by 3.5 points in 2016.

A New York Times/Siena College survey finds Trump hanging on to South Carolina, beating Biden by 8 points.

Janison: Short cuts to justice

The precise facts behind the fatal federal takedown of a fugitive homicide suspect in Portland, Oregon, last month remain a bit hazy. But gray areas in governance never seem to interest Trump — particularly when he's onstage as he was Thursday, mugging and talking tough, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Antifa supporter Michael Reinoehl, wanted on suspicion of killing a right-wing activist, was tracked down and shot to death by U.S. marshals in Lacey, Washington. Investigators said he had a loaded handgun in his pocket and his hand on or near the weapon, but there are conflicting witness accounts on whether he was given a chance to surrender. Trump shows a preference for the no-arrest outcome.

"This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this," he recently told Fox News' Jeanine Pirro. He praised the gunning-down again at the Thursday rally — "15 minutes and it was over."

From what we've seen, the president might not fret if his audience found that just slightly suggestive of an extrajudicial killing. Much as he proclaims "law and order," Trump never comes off as a stickler for legal restraints that could prevent what he'd like to see happen in a given situation.

COVID inside cocoon grounds Kamala

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, has canceled all campaign travel through this weekend "out of an abundance of caution" after a flight crew member and her communications director tested positive for the coronavirus, the Biden campaign announced Thursday morning.

Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said Harris wasn't in close contact with either of the infected individuals. Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, have tested negative, but his travel on behalf of the Democratic ticket also was postponed.

On Thursday afternoon, the campaign announced that someone who flew with Biden to Ohio on Monday and Florida on Tuesday also has tested positive. The person was described as an administrative member of the aviation company that charters Biden’s plane. But Biden did not come within 50 feet of the person and isn't required to self-quarantine, O'Malley Dillon said.

It’s the Biden campaign’s first major coronavirus scare, after months of safety precautions that drew mockery from Trump, even after the president, first lady Melania Trump and others contracted the virus themselves, notes The Associated Press.

Giuliani's daughter: Papa don't preach

Among those least impressed with Rudy Giuliani's latest efforts to rescue Trump's candidacy by flogging anew scandal stories involving Biden's son Hunter: Giuliani's daughter, Caroline Rose Giuliani.

Writing in Vanity Fair to endorse Biden, the 31-year-old daughter of the president's personal lawyer said, "Trump and his enablers have used his presidency to stoke the injustice that already permeated our society, taking it to dramatically new, Bond-villain heights."

She went on: "If being the daughter of a polarizing mayor who became the president’s personal bulldog has taught me anything, it is that corruption starts with 'yes-men' and women, the cronies who create an echo chamber of lies and subservience to maintain their proximity to power. We’ve seen this ad nauseam with Trump and his cadre of high-level sycophants (the ones who weren’t convicted, anyway)."

Giuliani's daughter wrote of fights over politics with her father since she was 12, writing that she remembers the former New York City mayor "firing back with an intensity fit for an opposing politician rather than one’s child." While acknowledging "an extremely privileged childhood," she described revealing her father's identity as "something I usually save for at least the second date."

A warning on Russia and Rudy

U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence, four former officials familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

The warnings were based on multiple sources, including intercepted communications, that showed Giuliani was interacting with people tied to Russian intelligence during a December 2019 trip to Ukraine, where he was gathering information that he thought would expose corrupt acts by Joe and Hunter Biden, the report said. The U.S. intelligence raised concerns that Giuliani was being used to feed Russian disinformation to the president.

The intel led national security adviser Robert O’Brien to caution Trump in a private conversation that any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia, one former official said. Trump shrugged his shoulders when he was told, and O’Brien emerged from the meeting uncertain whether he had gotten through to the president, the report said.

NBC News reported that federal investigators are examining whether a foreign intelligence operation is linked to the emails purportedly found in a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden at a Delaware repair shop, messages that were fed by Giuliani to the New York Post. The emails have not been independently authenticated.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Bart Jones and Matthew Chayes. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch has predicted privately that Biden will win in a landslide, the Daily Beast reported Thursday. While Trump has enjoyed nearly unswerving adulation from Murdoch's Fox News, New York Post and The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, Murdoch has concluded Trump is his own worst enemy and botched the coronavirus crisis. Murdoch declined to comment on the Daily Beast's reporting except to deny a report from 2018 that he called Trump an "idiot."
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie revealed in a statement and a New York Times interview that he spent a week in intensive care after catching COVID-19 while around Trump and the White House. He confessed he was "wrong" not to wear a mask at the White House event for Barrett and in his debate preparation sessions with Trump. At home since Saturday, Christie said he still suffers from some fatigue.
  • Trump ignores the adage that all politics are local when he thinks it should be about him. He complained to a rally in Iowa Wednesday that the flooding residents there suffered last month got more coverage on the evening news than his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. On Monday, to a Florida crowd, he spoke of his nomination getting eclipsed on the news by a hurricane that hit the state. Nobel Peace Prize nominations — in Trump's case, by an obscure pair of Scandinavian politicians — are plentiful and unremarkable. There were 318 this year.
  • Three weeks after Trump announced the government would send tens of millions of older Americans $200 to help pay for medicine, the election-season idea is mired in uncertainty over whether such drug discount cards are legal, proper or will ever exist, The Washington Post reports.
  • The drug discount cards are but one example of Trump's efforts to milk government resources in service of his election campaign, Politico reports. He already used the White House for the Republican convention. Millions of boxes of food doled out to needy families have letters signed by the president, taking credit, stuffed inside. A $300 million federally funded ad campaign is planned to "defeat despair" over the pandemic.
  • When Ivanka Trump on Tuesday wished her half-sister a happy birthday on Twitter, she tagged the wrong Tiffany Trump, the Daily News reported. The wrong account appeared to be a bot.
  • C-SPAN announced Thursday that it had suspended host Steve Scully, who would have been moderator for Thursday's scrubbed debate, after he admitted having falsely claimed that his Twitter account was hacked last week. Facing attacks from Trump and conservative media outlets, Scully appeared to seek advice via Twitter from a prominent Trump critic, Anthony Scaramucci, but then denied it. "I was right again!" Trump tweeted triumphantly after Scully's confession.

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