President Trump and Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden faced off in dueling town hall events Thursday night instead of debating on the same stage, with the Democrat quickly attacking the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Mr. Trump defending his actions.
Mr. Biden, in Philadelphia on ABC, blasted the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as inept and deceptive.
“Americans didn’t panic. He panicked,” Mr. Biden said in an allusion to Mr. Trump’s claim, repeated Thursday night, that some of his optimistic early words were an effort to prevent mass panic.
“There is a presidential responsibility to lead, and he didn’t do it,” Mr. Biden said.
The former vice president also questioned the administration’s ability to provide an eventual vaccine quickly to the public, claiming that “there is no plan to figure out how to distribute it.”
In Miami, Mr. Trump said on his NBC town-hall meeting that his actions saved the lives of many Americans. He said he took steps that included closing travel to China early in the crisis, contrary to Democratic attacks of “xenophobia.”
“Dr. Fauci said I saved thousands and thousands of lives,” Mr. Trump said of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The president also defended his decision to wear a mask in public only rarely.
“I’m president. I have to see people. I can’t be in a basement,” Mr. Trump said in a backhanded shot at Mr. Biden. “People with masks are catching it all the time” including a staffer for Mr. Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris.
He said of his contracting the disease, “I don’t know where it came from. But as the president, I have to be out there. It’s risky seeing people.”
The spectacle of the candidates speaking simultaneously in different cities on rival networks followed Mr. Trump’s positive test for COVID-19 on Oct. 1, two days after his first debate with Mr. Biden in Cleveland. For the second debate, which had been scheduled for Thursday in Miami, the Commission on Presidential Debates proposed a virtual event because of coronavirus concerns.
Mr. Trump balked at the proposal and asked for the second debate to be postponed. But Mr. Biden scheduled his town-hall event, and the president responded by arranging for his own live network show, also beginning at 8 p.m.
Asked if it was a mistake to support a 1994 crime bill he helped craft that many have blamed for the over-incarceration of people of color in subsequent decades, Mr. Biden said it was.
“But here’s where the mistake came: The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” Mr. Biden said.
He said maximum sentences were eventually reduced.
“Black folks went to jail a lot less than they would have before, but it was a mistake,” he said.
His campaign then said that wasn’t the bill he was talking about.
“VP Biden was talking about the ‘86 crime bill — that’s the one that included mandatory minimums for drug offenses (in fact, the 1994 crime bill did not), which was what VP and George were discussing,” Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, said on Twitter.
Mr. Trump clashed with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie repeatedly as she pressed him over denouncing White supremacy, his taxes and his support from followers in the group calling itself QAnon.
“I denounce White supremacy. I’ve denounced White supremacy for years. You always start with that question,” said Mr. Trump. “What’s the next question?”
When she continued to prod the president on what she described as his past reluctance, he rolled his eyes.
“Here we go again. I denounce White supremacy. And you know something, I denounce Antifa, and I denounce the radical left that is burning cities,” he said, demanding to know why questions about Antifa and other violent left-wing groups aren’t constantly fired at Mr. Biden.
She also pressed him about QAnon, the network of Trump supporters who believe in a conspiracy theory of celebrities and top Democrats operating a child-trafficking ring.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Mr. Trump said.
“You do know,” Ms. Guthrie persisted.
“I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard,” the president said.
Ms. Guthrie also asked about Mr. Trump’s Twitter post about a conspiracy that President Barack Obama had SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up that the death of Osama bin Laden was faked.
“That was a retweet,” Mr. Trump said. “People can decide for themselves.”
“You’re the president,” a frustrated Ms. Guthrie shot back. “You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
Mr. Trump said he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election legitimately and fairly, but he again questioned the security of widespread mail-in balloting.
“They’re fraudulent,” Mr. Trump said. “I want this to be clean. I really feel we’re going to win. I’ve spent three years fighting off these maniacs [Democrats]. I don’t want a transfer, I want to win.”
On the economy, moderator George Stephanopoulos challenged Mr. Biden whether it was wise for him to plan a major tax increase, given the economy’s fragile state.
“When you allow people to get back in the game and have a job, everything moves,” Mr. Biden replied.
Mr. Trump highlighted his policies of cutting taxes and lowering regulations that he said have “created more jobs than ever.”
“If Biden comes in and raises taxes on everybody … you will blow this thing and you will end up with a depression,” the president said.
The president disputed portions of a New York Times series about his finances that alleges he has paid very little in personal income taxes and that he owes more than $400 million. He said the “numbers are all wrong” but appeared to confirm that he is more than $400 million in debt, but he downplayed that by saying he was underleveraged.
“I have a very small percentage of debt, $400 million, compared to the assets I have,” he said. “It’s a tiny percentage of my net worth. It’s a peanut. No, I don’t owe Russia money. It’s called mortgages. It’s very straight.”
Asked whether he expects Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett to rule on his election if the results are disputed, the president said, “It would be totally up to her.”
“I think she would be able to rule for me or against me. I don’t see any conflict whatsoever. I never asked her about it,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Biden said he might tip his hand on whether he would support adding seats to the Supreme Court, a demand by the party’s left wing and a question that he has repeatedly ducked, saying voters would learn after the election.
Voters “do have a right to know [where] I stand, and they’ll have a right to know where I stand before they vote,” he said.
The dispute over the second debate essentially set up a ratings war. Trump allies predicted that the president would draw a larger viewing audience.
Some liberal Biden supporters apparently feared as much.
More than 100 television actors and network producers criticized NBC News for holding Mr. Trump’s town hall opposite the Democrat’s event. They said NBC was allowing the president to “counterprogram” Mr. Biden.
“We are simply asking that NBC air the president’s town hall either before or after Vice President Biden’s so that American voters can have the opportunity to watch both,” they told the network in a letter.
Among the signers were “This Is Us” cast members Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, actor-producer Ben Stiller, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane and Alec Baldwin, who portrays Mr. Trump on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said the network’s decision was “motivated only by fairness, not business considerations.” He said NBC scheduled Mr. Trump at 8 p.m. because it gave the same slot to Mr. Biden in a previous town-hall event.
Mr. Trump, who has accused NBC News of liberal bias and refers to corporate owner Comcast as “Concast,” mocked NBC News anchor Lester Holt, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and Ms. Guthrie before the event.
“I’m being set up tonight,” the president told his supporters. “If you want to see a little entertainment, watch.”
The final presidential debate is set for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
At a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier Thursday, the president intensified his attacks on Mr. Biden over reports that the Democrat enabled his son, Hunter, to gain millions of dollars in foreign payments while he was serving as vice president.
Mr. Trump cited accusations, first reported by The New York Post, that Hunter Biden was paid $10 million per year by a wealthy Chinese businessman for “introductions only” during the Obama administration. The president told supporters in the battleground state that the Democratic nominee enriched his family while allowing U.S. manufacturing jobs to move to China.
“These deals were made at the same time Joe Biden was letting China steal your jobs and take away your factories,” Mr. Trump said. “The Bidens got rich while America got robbed.”
Mr. Biden told supporters that Mr. Trump and his allies are ratcheting up an aggressive “misinformation” campaign because the president is trailing in the polls. Mr. Biden held an 11-point lead over the president: 53% to 42%, according to a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday.
“I know these are anxious times,” Mr. Biden said. “We have 19 days left, and you know, he’s going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at me.”
Referring to his massive fundraising lead over the president, Mr. Biden told donors, “I think you’ve put me in a position to be able to respond in real time in a way that we can compete.”
The president said he won in 2016 after Democrat Hillary Clinton raised more money than he did.
“Ultimately, money doesn’t get you there,” Mr. Trump said. “My father told me a long time ago, ‘If you can win for less money, that’s a good thing.’ “
The president also warned that he intends to take legal action against Big Tech for censoring negative stories about the Bidens.
“It’s like a third arm, maybe a first arm, of the DNC,” Mr. Trump said of the actions by Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a massive campaign contribution.”