WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tried to end his contentious town hall meeting Thursday night on a positive note.
Asked what he’d say to undecided voters, the Republican president declared that he’s “done a great job” in his first term and predicted that “next year is going to be better than ever before.”
Trump’s upbeat final answer followed an intense hourlong session in which voters and moderator Savannah Guthrie pressed him repeatedly on difficult topics. Trump was sweating at times and appeared visibly angry about the aggressive questions, especially early in the session.
Thursday’s event was held in place of the second presidential debate, which was canceled after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis. He’s scheduled to face Democrat Joe Biden next week for the final debate before Election Day.
Trump, who nominated Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the Supreme Court, was asked about abortion rights. He said “I don’t want to do anything to influence anything right now,” noting it could be seen as “trying to give her a signal” on how to rule.
Trump says that he didn’t tell Barrett what decision to make and that he didn’t want to do anything to influence her. He says he wants Barrett to get approved and “then I want her to go by the law, and I know she’s going to make a great decision for our country.”
Biden, meanwhile, took a softer approach with audience questions. The former vice president, who struggled growing up with a stutter, stuttered slightly at the start of the show and at one point squeezed his eyes shut and slowed down his response to clearly enunciate his words. At times his answers droned on. He brought a small card of notes on stage and referred to it while promising to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
He said doing so would save “let me see… $92 billion.”
Biden denounced the White House’s handling of the virus that has claimed more than 215,000 American lives, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration. Trump, meanwhile, was defensive and insisted that the nation was turning the corner on the virus, even as his own battle with the disease took center stage.
Trump, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with COVID-19, dodged directly answering whether he took a test the day of the Sept. 29 debate, only saying “possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.”
The town halls offered a different format for the two candidates to present themselves to voters, after the pair held a chaotic and combative first debate late last month. The difference in the men’s tone was immediate and striking.
Trump was Trump. He was loud and argumentative, fighting with the host, Savannah Guthrie, refusing to outright condemn the QAnon conspiracy group, testily declaring he would denounce white supremacy but complaining about the questioning — and eventually saying for the first time that he would honor the results of a fair election, but only after casting an extraordinary amount doubt on the likeliness of fairness.
“And then they talk ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer,’” Trump said. “And the answer is, ‘Yes, I will.’ But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else.”
The two men are still scheduled to occupy the same space for a debate for a second and final time next week in Nashville. But the cancellation of Thursday’s debate still reverberated for both campaigns.
Trump and Biden battled on Sept. 29 in Cleveland in a debate defined both by the president’s constant hectoring of his opponent, which sent his support lower, and by its place on the calendar: just two days before Trump announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.
Trump was hospitalized for three days, and while he later convalesced at the White House the debate commission moved to make their second debate remote — which the president immediately rejected.
Earlier Thursday, Trump appeared at a rally in North Carolina, underscoring the challenge confronting him in the final weeks as multiple polls have shown him trailing Biden nationally and in many swing states. Trump has spent much of the week on defense, campaigning in states he won in 2016, such as North Carolina and Iowa, where he campaigned Wednesday.
But despite the polling, Trump predicted a “big, beautiful red wave” on Election Night, before referencing another one of his major challenges: A cash disadvantage to the Biden campaign, which just announced raising a record-breaking $383 million in September.