Letters From an American

Heather Cox Richardson: A Big Win for Savannah Guthrie

Heather Cox Richardson: A Big Win for Savannah Guthrie

On September 29, 2020 US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden squared off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (Photos by JIM WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

October 15, 2020

Last night was supposed to be the night of a televised town hall meeting featuring both President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But, after Trump tested positive for coronavirus, the organizers of the event turned it into a virtual meeting. Trump refused to participate. So Biden arranged an event of an hour and a half on ABC. Then Trump arranged his own, separate hour-long town hall on NBC.

NBC faced deep criticism for giving Trump a platform when he had ditched the official plan. But the network made up for that criticism by giving the position of moderator to journalist Savannah Guthrie, who has a J.D. from Georgetown Law School and worked as a litigator. Although the setting of the NBC event was oddly partisan—the backdrop consisted of masked women nodding along with the president’s answers—Guthrie repeatedly pressed Trump on his evasive answers to questioners, and his frustration was palpable.

Before the event, Trump had denigrated it. “They asked me if I’d do it, I figured, ‘What the hell? We get a free hour on television,’” he said.

But the questioning did him no favors. He refused to distance himself from QAnon supporters, who believe in the conspiracy theory that Trump is secretly orchestrating an assault on a ring of pedophiles and cannibals made up of the country’s elites. He admitted he owes $400 million to someone, but insists that he doesn’t owe it to Russia or any “sinister people” and that it is a “very, very small percentage” compared to his assets. He refused to say whether he had tested negative for coronavirus on September 29, the day of his first debate with Biden, and said he could not release his tax returns because they were under audit (when Guthrie noted that there was no rule stopping him from releasing them anyway, he got visibly angry). He maintained that he has a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but could not describe what that is. As usual, he insisted he is treated terribly.

Meanwhile, over at his own town hall, Biden put to rest Trump’s accusations that he is senile or “sleepy.” Biden answered questions from voters ranging from what he would do about racial inequality to our standing in foreign affairs. He showed deep knowledge of the issues, citing history and statistics, as well as providing detailed plans for what he would do to address the nation’s problems. He was empathetic and human—the word people keep using is “decent”—and seemed energetic and eager to get underway with his plans for getting America back on track.

In one of the more striking moments of the evening, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Biden “If you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?” Rather than giving the obvious answer for a presidential candidate– “I won’t lose”—Biden demonstrated that he is willing to accept responsibility for his actions, something that has been perilously thin on the ground for the past four years, and demonstrated his confidence in his fellow Americans. “It could say that I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job,” he told Stephanopoulos. “But… 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…. Because we have the greatest opportunity than any country in the world to own the 21st century and we can’t do it divided.” [sic]

After the events, fact-checkers provided the grounding for the obvious: Trump made it up as he went along, hitting some of his favorite debunked talking points, while Biden misspoke on some of the details he outlined (he got troop levels in Afghanistan wrong, for example) but stayed close to the facts.

More than anything, though, Biden reminded us of what a president is supposed to sound like. It was an extraordinary relief to hear someone actually talk about the issues the country faces, rather than make everything about himself. And then, after the televised part of his town hall ended, Biden continued to answer questions, talking to voters because, well, that’s what real politicians do.

Trump’s willingness to grab free airtime tonight reflects his campaign’s financial straits. In these last days of the campaign, as his funds dwindle, Trump has been using the resources of the federal government—also known as our tax dollars—to support his bid for reelection. He has poured more than $32 billion into direct aid for farmers, put letters in government-distributed boxes of food claiming personal credit for the program, and promised billions to seniors to help cover the cost of prescription drugs. He has planned a $300 million advertising campaign to help us “defeat despair” over the coronavirus, and has used the White House for both the Republican National Convention and a recent political rally.

All that money is supposed to move voters into Trump’s column, but tonight did nothing to aid that effort.

Still, he doesn’t much seem to care. His administration seems to have turned into a revenge operation. Today, Trump appeared to celebrate last month’s killing of murder suspect Michael Reinoehl by law enforcement officers who had been deputized as U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was a suspect in the killing of a right-wing agitator in Portland, Oregon, when the officers shot him. “They knew who he was; they didn’t want to arrest him, and in 15 minutes that ended,” Trump told an audience at a campaign rally in North Carolina, seeming to gloat over an extrajudicial killing. Trump also continued to attack Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, just a week after the FBI arrested 8 men for plotting to kidnap her.

We also learned today that intelligence officers had warned White House officials, including the president, that Russians were using Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to feed disinformation to Trump. A former intelligence official told Washington Post reporters: “The message was, “Do what you want to do, but your friend Rudy has been worked by Russian assets in Ukraine.” This makes the willingness of Republicans to push yesterday’s “revelation” of an incriminating laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden even more astonishing. NBC News reports that intelligence officers are investigating that story to see if it is a foreign intelligence operation.

On Twitter tonight, conservative columnist Bill Kristol wrote, “A friend who has served at very high levels of government, a true public servant and a serious conservative, emailed me earlier: ‘The Republican Party has become the party of facilitating Russian agitprop and voter suppression. Not what I signed up for.’”

Today the administration rejected a request from California Governor Gavin Newsom for a disaster declaration to free up money to help the state after six wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres across the state. California is a reliably Democratic state that will likely give its electoral votes to Biden.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a coronavirus relief bill, poverty is growing. Depending on the scale they use, researchers say 6 to 8 million Americans have slipped below the poverty line. Republican strategists appear to be willing to deepen the recession if it means crippling an incoming Biden administration. According to a report in Bloomberg, Republicans are setting the stage to kill future federal spending. If Biden is elected but the Republicans hold the Senate, they will refuse any aid to address the coronavirus crisis, thus hoping to cripple a Democratic presidency from Day One.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

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