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News Brief: Trump And Biden's Competing Town Halls, COVID-19 Vaccine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two presidential candidates in simultaneous town hall meetings offered starkly different approaches to governing.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump spoke supportively of the conspiracy group QAnon. He talked about his hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, and he said he's not to blame for the U.S. death toll in the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're at 210,000 people. One person is too much. It should have never happened. Because of China - it happened because of China. And you have to get that and understand that.

JOE BIDEN: There's a presidential responsibility to lead, and he didn't do that. He didn't talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market.

MARTIN: That second voice, of course, is former Vice President Joe Biden. In his town hall, he said he'd bring the country together even if he didn't answer some questions about what he'd do.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is traveling with the president. She's in Doral, Fla.

Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined by NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid, who's covering the Biden campaign. She's in Wilmington, Del.

Good morning to you.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Tamara, NBC faced a lot of criticism for inviting on the president for this town hall event, directly opposite Joe Biden. How'd the event go?

KEITH: The moderator, Savannah Guthrie, started out by asking the president a lot of pointed questions. That went on for 20 minutes and got pretty intense at times. And then it finally got to the voter questions part of this town hall-style event. And President Trump never really took the opportunity to try to relate to the voters who were asking him questions. It was a classic Trumpian event - very high energy, constantly churning, you know, answers that he didn't get to directly and then he would change course in the middle of the sentence. It was full-on Trump.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess you didn't get a chance to watch the Biden event because it was at the same time. So...

KEITH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Asma was watching for us. How different was that, Asma?

KHALID: Oh, so, so different, Steve. I mean, there was none of the combativeness, Tam, that you were describing. It was a slow, calm and frankly, some would even say, boring night in comparison. But look; I've talked to a lot of voters this cycle who tell me that's what they want. They want no drama.

And Joe Biden gave these lengthy, sort of filibustering answers. At point, it felt like he was trying to cram in as much policy as possible into a single voter question, which could be at times, you know, frankly, hard to follow. But he did keep coming back to the questioner. There was this intimacy of the town hall. He would say, you know, I hope I've answered your question. And I was struck by how different this format was for him than a debate might have been. You know, he was not interrupted. He could speak at length however long he wanted to.

INSKEEP: And Trump was not able to speak over his rival. Instead, he faced Savannah Guthrie, Tamara Keith. And she at one point asked the president why he shared lies on Twitter and even said that he was sharing things like a crazy uncle.

KEITH: (Laughter) In fact, that was one of many times where the president - you know, he refused at one point to condemn QAnon, which is a bizarre conspiracy theory that paints him as a savior. He said that people - and this is the part that she was asking about - people would have to judge for themselves whether bin Laden was really dead after he retweeted a very weird conspiracy theory recently this week. And then speaking about the coronavirus response, he kept saying that, you know, the science is out on whether masks really work. But that flies in the face of science and recommendations from the government. One thing he did do was condemn white supremacy. He was super defensive about it but did it a couple of times.

INSKEEP: I feel like there were also some moments when the president was unintentionally revealing.

KEITH: In fact - yeah. Savannah Guthrie asked the president a question that we've been asking - all of us have been asking the White House and his doctors for a while now, which is, when was the last time he tested negative for the coronavirus? And here was the exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: So you say you don't know if you got a test on the day of the debate?

TRUMP: I have no problem. Again, the doctors do it. I don't ask them. I test all the time. And they...

GUTHRIE: Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?

TRUMP: You know, if you ask the doctor, they'll give you a perfect answer. But...

GUTHRIE: Yeah.

TRUMP: ...They take a test. And I leave, and I go about my business.

GUTHRIE: So you - did you take a test on the day of the debate? - I guess is the bottom line.

TRUMP: I probably did. And I took a test the day before and the day before, and I was always in great shape.

INSKEEP: Mmm, 'kay.

KEITH: But also, earlier in that exchange, he said he didn't know. This is a question that everyone has been asking. He has to know. And it was in the debate rules that he needed to have a negative test that day. Another thing that came up and where he seemed to reveal something was that he admitted that he owes $400 million in loans, as had been reported by The New York Times in one of his stories about his tax returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: When you look at that, the amount of money - $400 million is a peanut. It's extremely under-levered (ph). And it's levered (ph) with normal banks - not a big deal.

KEITH: Normal banks - so when this story first came out, Trump and the White House denied that it was true. But here he was appearing to admit that a very key component of this story, that he owes $400 million, was, in fact, true. So there you go.

INSKEEP: And it's not clear who he owes the money to.

KEITH: Right.

INSKEEP: Asma, did the Biden event reveal much about how he would govern if he's elected?

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, it was none of the sort of controversies that Tam is describing. These were really just lengthy policy discussions, whether we're talking about Biden's tax plan or whether or not he would support a possible coronavirus vaccine. But really, two items stood out to me. You know, he has been asked repeatedly by Republicans and reporters since Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and President Trump decided to rush through a nomination before the election, whether or not he would be open to the idea of adding justices to the Supreme Court and pack the court if he became president. And he's previously said he's not a fan of the idea but also that he didn't want to get into this because it's a distraction before the election. He was pressed on the issue again last night by the moderator, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Don't voters have a right to know where you stand?

BIDEN: They do have a right to know where I stand. And they'll have a right to know where I stand before they vote.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you'll come out with a clear position before Election Day?

BIDEN: Yes, depending on how they handle this.

KHALID: To me, Steve, that was rather newsworthy because he has not been very explicit on that particular question. The other thing, to me, that was really fascinating was he was asked this kind of insightful question near the end about what it would mean about the country - what does it say about the country if he were to lose the election?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Vice President, if you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?

BIDEN: Well, it could say that I'm a lousy candidate and I didn't do a good job. But I think - I hope that it doesn't say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be.

KHALID: Steve, this is a theme that Joe Biden has been expressing ever since he announced his candidacy, this idea of decency and the need to restore the soul of the nation. These are themes that, you know, some voters have questioned whether the public wants. But it's a consistent theme. It's something he returned to last night.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid and NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks for staying up late and getting up early, guys.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We tend to focus on the question of when we will see a vaccine developed for the coronavirus. What we don't ask quite so often is how. How will we get everyone vaccinated?

MARTIN: Today states have to submit their COVID vaccine distribution plans to the Centers for Disease Control. The deadline was set less than a month ago even though it's still not clear when a vaccine is going to be available. It's all happening as coronavirus cases surge across the country. Yesterday, the U.S. approached the 8 million mark in the total number of known COVID cases.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pien Huang covers the pandemic, and she's on the line.

Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Are states ready to turn in their vaccine distribution plans as required today?

HUANG: Yeah, in a sense. My co-reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin and I, we've heard from health departments from California to Texas, Michigan, Virginia, Florida. They're all on track to submit their first COVID vaccine distribution plan to the CDC today. These plans were assigned just 30 days ago. And Claire Hannan, director of the Association of Immunization Managers, says it's been a lot of work.

CLAIRE HANNAN: You know, it's really cramming three to six months' worth of strategic discussions with the task force, with stakeholders into 30 days.

HUANG: And to be clear, no one is submitting a final plan today. They are drafts that show that states have been thinking through different scenarios for how vaccines could be distributed given the uncertainties.

INSKEEP: I guess it's good that people are looking ahead. But there is a more immediate concern right now, which is a surge of new cases in many parts of the country. Where is the pandemic moving?

HUANG: Yeah, new case counts are climbing across the country. We're now seeing more than 50,000 cases a day. The top hot spots include North and South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin. Case numbers per capita are really soaring in these places, and hospitals are filling up. The CDC reportedly told governors this week that one of the reasons for the surge is small household gatherings where groups of people are coming together in their homes without masks.

INSKEEP: OK. So that is the situation now, and people are trying to build out to the future and build out to a better place. How do you make a plan when so much is unknown?

HUANG: Absolutely. Well, Kris Ehresmann says that you can think of it like building a house. She's the director of infectious disease for Minnesota's Department of Health.

KRIS EHRESMANN: So it's just the framework initially. And we'll have multiple iterations. So we're going to keep adding to it, obviously, as we get more and more information. But right now, we've kind of just built a frame.

HUANG: And that framework is still really important. For instance, states have been using this time to figure out roles like who's in charge of ordering supplies or signing up vaccine providers or running trainings and outreach campaigns. And on top of all that, everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with the ultracold storage requirements that some of these vaccines might need. And different places serve different groups. The health department in Houston told me that since the city has a few big medical centers and many front-line health workers, they're expecting a huge surge in demand as soon as the vaccine is OK'd.

INSKEEP: What happens once states turn in their plans?

HUANG: Yeah. So states are going to keep working on them. They're going to have to keep updating them as the situation changes. And the other big missing piece of this is money. The CDC director, Robert Redfield, has said that states need $6 billion to distribute vaccines, and that money has not yet been appropriated by Congress.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll keep following that debate. Pien, thanks very much.

HUANG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.