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Trump, Biden squabble over virus response in split-screen town halls


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MIAMI/PHILADELPHIA • Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday criticised what he called President Donald Trump’s “panicked” response to the coronavirus pandemic, while Mr Trump defended his handling of a crisis that has killed over 220,000 Americans.

The rivals spoke in simultaneous town halls broadcast on separate television networks after a debate originally scheduled for Thursday was called off following Mr Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

The split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of the many ways the campaign season has been changed by a pandemic that has prompted more than 18 million people to cast ballots more than two weeks before the Nov 3 election.

Mr Biden, speaking to voters in Philadelphia on ABC, blamed the Republican President for concealing the deadliness of the virus. “He said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic,” Mr Biden said. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.”

Mr Trump defended both his response to the pandemic as well as his own personal conduct, including staging a Rose Garden event at the White House where few wore masks or practised social distancing, which resulted in numerous attendees contracting the disease.

“Hey, I’m President – I have to see people, I can’t be in a basement,” Mr Trump said on NBC in front of an outdoor audience of voters in Miami, implicitly criticising Mr Biden for spending months off the campaign trail as the pandemic raged.

He did not answer questions about the last time he tested negative before contracting the virus, saying he did not recall precisely.

Mr Trump, who aggressively interrupted Mr Biden during a chaotic debate two weeks ago, showed little interest in altering his belligerent tone, sparring frequently with moderator Savannah Guthrie.

He said he “heard different stories” about the efficacy of masks, even though his own administration’s public health experts have said wearing them is key to stopping the spread of the virus.

Mr Trump also declined to denounce QAnon, the false conspiracy theory that Democrats are part of a global paedophile ring, first praising its adherents for opposing paedophilia before saying he knew nothing about the movement.

He also dodged questions about a New York Times investigation of two decades of his tax returns, which he has refused to release publicly despite decades of precedent for presidential candidates.

He appeared to confirm the paper’s report that he has some US$400 million (S$543 million) in personally guaranteed loans, arguing that the amount was a “peanut” compared with his worth.

He also did not deny the Times’ report that he paid only US$750 in federal income tax during his first year in the White House, although he said at one point the paper’s numbers were “wrong”.

The second presidential debate had originally been scheduled for Thursday, but Mr Trump pulled out of the event after organisers decided to turn it into a virtual affair following his diagnosis two weeks ago.

A final debate is still scheduled for Oct 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

North Carolina, a highly competitive state, saw huge lines as it began more than two weeks of in-person early voting on Thursday, following record turnouts in Georgia and Texas earlier in the week.

Some 18.3 million Americans have voted either in person or by mail so far, representing 12.9 per cent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election, according to the US Elections Project at the University of Florida.

The two presidential candidates were set to return to the campaign trail yesterday with Mr Trump travelling to Florida and Georgia, two states that are seen as crucial to his chances of victory, and Mr Biden visiting two cities in Michigan, another battleground state.