COVID-19 and Civil Unrest Take the Stage at Town Halls for Undecided Voters


Image courtesy of REUTERS/ Kevin Lamarque.

Image courtesy of CNN/Keith Thornhill.

By Shannon Miekka

Less than fifty days away from the 2020 presidential election, two town halls were held this past week for undecided voters to question each presidential candidate. On Tuesday, September 15th, ABC hosted a town hall for President Donald Trump, and on Thursday, CNN hosted the same for the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. The candidates fielded questions about police brutality, civil unrest, climate change, and healthcare, but not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions held the largest focus of both town halls.

Held in Philadelphia and moderated by George Stephanoupolous, President Trump answered questions from a variety of Pennsylvania residents – some of whom voted for him in 2016, while others voted for Hillary Clinton, third party candidates, or abstained from voting at all. In contrast, the Biden town hall had a less diverse range of voters, most of whom were Democrats. 

Anderson Cooper moderated Biden’s unconventional “drive in” town hall, his first since accepting the nomination. It was held in Scranton, Pennsylvania, not far from where Biden grew up. He spent a large portion of his town hall attacking the president’s administration, especially the response to the pandemic. 

The number of nationwide coronavirus deaths recently surpassed 200,000, so both town halls began with questions about COVID-19. The president showed sympathy to COVID victims and survivors, including one attendant who lost her mother to the virus. 

The first question of the night came from Paul Tubiana, who voted for Trump in 2016: “I thought you were doing a good job with the pandemic response until about May 1st. Then you took your foot off the gas pedal. Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?”

Trump answered, “If you looked at what we’ve done with ventilators, and now, frankly, with vaccines –we’re very close to having the vaccine. If you want to know the truth, the previous administration would have taken perhaps years to have a vaccine because of the FDA and all the approvals, and we’re within weeks of getting it. You know, could be three weeks, four weeks, but we think we have it.”

Trump continued, “We really — we’re starting to get very good marks. If you look at what we’ve done compared to other countries, with the excess mortality rate, we’ve done very, very well.”

After telling his audience that the country is very close to having a COVID-19 vaccine, Trump also claimed that the virus would “go away” without a vaccine.

“It would go away without the vaccine, George, but it’s going to go away a lot faster with it… With time it goes away… and you’ll develop  — you’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality. It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen. But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.”

A week prior, president Trump’s interviews with Bob Woodward went public, and his comments led to questions at both town halls. In March, he told Woodward that he has always wanted to downplay the virus so as to not panic the country. On Tuesday, he reversed that position.

“Well, I didn’t downplay it. I actually — in many ways I up-played it in terms of action. My action was very strong.”

Biden claimed that the president’s choice to downplay the virus is “close to criminal.”

On the subject of masks, Biden criticized the president for not recommending them sooner: “He continues to think that masks don’t matter very much. He always says it and then he has these large gatherings with everybody around with no masks on, and it’s extremely dangerous.”

Meanwhile, at his town hall, President Trump blamed Biden and the Democratic party for not implementing a nationwide mask mandate: “They said at the Democrat convention they’re going to do a national mandate. They never did it… [Biden] didn’t do it. I mean, he never did it.”

In response to these comments, Biden tweeted on Tuesday: “To be clear: I am not currently president. But if you chip in now, we can change that in November.”

Biden reminded the audience that a president only has authority to regulate mask-wearing on federal land. He continued to criticize the president’s response to COVID and claimed that he would take greater action, if elected in November.

Biden said, “As president of the United States, I’d lay out the broad strokes of what has to be done to make people safe in their workplace and safe in school.”

Both events also focused on the growing racial tension in the country. At Trump’s town hall, Pastor Carl Day questioned the president about his famous slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

Day asked, “When has America been great for African Americans in the ghetto of America? Are you aware of how tone deaf that comes off [to] the African American community?”

Trump responded, “Well, I can say this, we have tremendous African American support. You’ve probably seen it in the polls. We’re doing extremely well with African-American, Hispanic-American at levels that you’ve rarely seen a Republican have.”

On the subject of systemic racial injustice and discrimination, Day continued, “We have not been seeing a change, quite frankly under your administration, under the Obama administration, under the Bush, under the Clinton, the very same thing happening, the very same system, the cycles continue to ensue. You have yet to address and acknowledge that there’s been a race problem in America.”

Trump responded, “I hope there’s not a race problem. I can tell you, there’s none with me, because I have great respect for all races, for everybody. This country is great because of it.”

The president blamed his lack of African American support on the pandemic, saying that “the African-American, the Black community was doing better than it had ever done by far both in terms of unemployment, homeownership. So many different statistics, even in terms of crime.”

When reminded by Stephanopoulos that a gap still exists between black and white families, Trump responded, “Well, I mean, there was a gap but we were doing a good job. It was getting better, and then it was artificially shut down by this disease that came onto our land.”

In response to a question about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and recently Jacob Blake, Trump said, “Well, I think they were tragic events, and I do feel that we have to also take into consideration that, if you look at our police, they do a phenomenal job. You’ll have people choke, make mistakes, and they happen… it happens, where they have to make a fast decision and some bad things happen.”

He continued: “And you also have bad apples. But you have 99 percent great people. I know the police forces very well. I think almost everyone of them, if you look, I’ve been endorsed by so many of them. And these are great people.”

At his town hall, Biden also showed support for the police: “The vast majority of police are decent, honorable people. One of the things I’ve found is the only people [who] don’t like bad cops, more than we don’t like them, are police officers.”

Undecided voter Mavis Ball followed up by asking Biden, “Black parents across America need to know how much different will the top be with our sons and daughters, about police interaction under your administration.”

He answered, “You’ll be fundamentally different… what we have to do is have a much more transparent means by which we provide for accountability within police departments. As president of the United States, what I will do, I will nationally bring together police chiefs, police officers, the union people, the African-American leadership, the communities, brown communities, the civil rights leaderships sit at the table and agree on basic fundamental things that have to be done.”

When asked what he would do in response to the disproportionate number of black victims of police brutality, Trump said, “I can only say this, that the police in this country have done generally a great job. There are crimes, there are problems, and there are chokers…. I mean, they have one quarter of a second to make a decision, and sometimes they make a wrong decision, and that’s a terrible thing.”

On the subject of white privilege, Biden said, “Sure, I’ve benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my black brothers and sisters have had to go through.” 

The question arose in response to another recorded conversation between the president and Bob Woodward; when asked if he benefited from white privilege, Trump said, “No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”

Next week, on Tuesday, September 29, the two presidential candidates will face off for the first presidential debate.

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