President Donald Trump was evasive on Thursday night when pressed if he took a Covid-19 test before his first debate with Democrat Joe Biden as the two men squared off again, in a way, after their scuttled second showdown was replaced by dueling televised town halls several channels apart.
Mr Biden, appearing nearly 1,200 miles away, denounced the White House’s handling of the virus that has claimed more than 215,000 American lives, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration. Mr Trump, meanwhile, was defensive and insisted that the nation was turning the corner on the virus, even as his own battle with the disease took centre stage.
Mr Trump, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with Covid-19, dodged directly answering whether he took a test the day of the Sept. 29 debate, only saying “possibly I did, possibly I didn’t”. Debate rules required that each candidate, using the honour system, had tested negative prior to the Cleveland event, but Mr Trump spoke in circles when asked when he last tested negative.
It was his positive test two days later that created Thursday’s odd spectacle, which deprived most viewers of a simultaneous look at the candidates just 19 days before Election Day. The moment seemed fitting for a race unlike any other, as yet another campaign ritual was changed by the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of society.
The presidential rivals took questions in different cities on different networks: Mr Trump on NBC from Miami, Mr Biden on ABC from Philadelphia. Mr Trump backed out of plans for the presidential faceoff originally scheduled for the evening after debate organisers said it would be held virtually following Mr Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.