The dueling town halls were held in lieu of the second presidential debate, which was scrapped last week after Trump rejected the Commission on Presidential Debates’s plan to hold the event virtually following the president’s coronavirus diagnosis.
Biden’s town hall, hosted by ABC News in Philadelphia, was a calm affair, in which he was asked and answered questions on everything from criminal justice reform to climate change and foreign policy.
In one of the most notable exchanges of the evening, the former vice president left the door open to adding justices to the Supreme Court. He noted that he was “not a fan” of such a move, but expressed openness to the issue if he believed Senate Republicans were moving too quickly to confirm Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Asked whether voters had a right to know his position on the matter, Biden said that he would make his stance clear before Election Day.
“They do have a right to know where I stand, and they’ll have a right to know where I stand before they vote,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
As recently as last year, Biden expressed opposition to the idea of “court packing,” despite calls from some within his party to expand the size of the Supreme Court. But the issue has received new traction in recent weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Republicans’ subsequent insistence that the Senate should move quickly to confirm a replacement.
At another moment in the town hall, Biden acknowledged that his past support for a decades-old crime bill that included mandatory minimums for drug offenses was a “mistake.” He defended other aspects of criminal justice legislation that he supported during his time in the Senate, however, and said certain elements weren’t executed properly by the states.
“The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” Biden said. “What we did federally – you remember George, it was all about the same time for the same crime.”
At times, the former vice president found himself walking a fine line between his own platform and the politics of the voters he needs to win over if he hopes to capture the White House in November.
Asked at one point about whether he would move to ban fracking, an important issue in Pennsylvania, he reiterated that he would not. But he also said that he would “stop giving tax breaks and subsidizing oil,” and planned to invest heavily in renewable energy.
“What I would do is I would stop giving tax breaks and subsidizing oil,” he said. “We don’t need to subsidize oil any longer. We should stop that and save billions of dollars over time.”
For both Biden and Trump, the dueling town halls on Thursday were among the final opportunities to pitch their candidacies before a prime-time television audience. There are only 19 days left before Election Day and nearly 16 million Americans have already cast their ballots, leaving the two candidates with few more chances to bring undecided voters into their respective corners.
But Biden has found himself facing less pressure in the final stretch of the race than his rival. Recent polls, both nationally and in many critical battleground states, show the former vice president in the lead, and more Democratic voters than Republican voters have cast their ballots so far.
Trump offered little new information to voters during his town hall, seizing on the same talking points and tactics that have defined his political brand for years. He defended his handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying that his administration had “done a great job.” He also grew testy when he was pushed on his opinion of white supremacy and declined to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory.
“I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it,” Trump said.
Biden, by contrast, sought to cast himself as an even-keeled alternative to Trump. Responding to a question about the president’s foreign policy accomplishments – particularly his role in facilitating negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors – Biden said that Trump deserved “a little but not a whole lot” of credit.
“We find ourselves less secure than we’ve been,” Biden said. “I do compliment the president on the deal with Israel recently, but if you take a look we’re not very well trusted around the world.”