- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Talk about social distancing.

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden are set to “square off” in competing TV town hall events that are more than 1,000 miles apart on Thursday.

The setup has voters wondering why they can’t be on the same stage for a more conventional face-off less than three weeks until Election Day.

“The reality here is that they should be on the stage,” said Eric Beach, founder of the pro-Trump group Great America PAC. “Yes, it may get out of line. It may have rhetoric that is not very flattering, but you’re competing for the highest office in the land, and you need to be able to counter each other, position your ideas, and contrast each other.”

NBC News will host an hour-long, socially distanced town hall with Mr. Trump and Florida voters in Miami starting at 8 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Mr. Biden’s has a 90-minute ABC town hall in Philadelphia that starts at the same time.

Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the anti-sexism group UltraViolet, said NBC is bailing Mr. Trump out after he was “afraid” to debate Mr. Biden.

“From ‘Access Hollywood’ to the upcoming town hall, NBC has enabled Donald Trump for decades,” Ms. Thomas said. “By hosting this town hall for Donald Trump, NBC is complicit in his attacks on our democracy and democratic processes.”

The network suggested it was essentially giving equal time to Mr. Trump after NBC anchor Lester Holt moderated a town hall discussion with Mr. Biden on Oct. 5 in the same time slot and format.

The Commission on Presidential Debates canceled the Oct. 15 debate between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden last week after the president balked at plans to change it to a virtual format because of his coronavirus diagnosis.

The president’s team pushed for the commission to reconsider and hold an in-person debate as scheduled. Mr. Trump has been back on the campaign trail since Monday after his physician said he was no longer at risk of spreading the virus.

Mr. Trump announced Oct. 2 that he tested positive for COVID-19 and was subsequently hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for several days.

NBC said it set up the TV town hall after federal health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, reviewed Mr. Trump’s recent health data and concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that he is “not shedding infectious virus.”

The data included a PCR test collected and analyzed by the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Fauci serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

NBC said Mr. Trump and moderator Savannah Guthrie will be at least 12 feet apart from each other and the audience, which will be socially distanced and will be required to wear masks and take a temperature check beforehand.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are still set to square off at their second and final in-person debate in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22.

The announcement Wednesday also prompted questions as to why NBC scheduled the event to directly compete with Mr. Biden‘s, depriving viewers of the chance at watching both candidates live.

The NBC event will also air on MSNBC and CNBC, increasing the likelihood that more TV viewers will be watching Mr. Trump on Thursday compared to Mr. Biden.

NBC’s Oct. 5 town hall with Mr. Biden attracted 6.7 million viewers across three networks, with an NBC audience of about 3.9 million.

An ABC town hall with Mr. Trump last month drew 3.8 million viewers.

More than 73 million viewers tuned in for the Sept. 29 presidential debate.

Though the town halls are unlikely to attract the same level of viewership, Great America PAC’s Mr. Beach said the format will likely benefit Mr. Trump.

“By going on NBC, that’s not a pro-Trump audience and he’s able to not only compete in terms of ratings but also have a message that goes out to a little bit of a different audience than he’s used to,” he said.

He said Mr. Biden and the debate commission are to blame for the canceled debate.

“If [Mr. Biden] wants ratings, he needs to answer the questions — and he hasn’t been able to do that,” Mr. Beach said. “So if he’s not able to do that and ABC’s not willing to push him on it, then nobody’s going to watch his town hall anyhow.”

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