On Thursday night, the US president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden held duelling televised “town hall” events after their second planned debate was cancelled.
In his, Trump, who has lent support to the dangerous and cultish movement throughout his presidency, said he knew “nothing about QAnon” when host Savannah Guthrie asked him if he would denounce the movement once and for all.
The only definitive remark he made about backers of the far-right, convoluted theory was complimentary: “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against paedophilia, and I agree with that”, adding they “fight it very hard.”
The core belief of those who follow the mysterious QAnon is that high-ranking Democrats, media figures and entertainment personalities are secretly members of a satanic paedophile ring that Trump is covertly working to stop. The movement has had some dangerousand violent consequences beyond the spread of its misinformation, including a shooting at a Washington pizza parlour.
Trump also repeated his false claims about fraud being widespread with the use of advance voting and said he “probably” owes money to foreign banks amid The New York Times’ extensive reporting on his tax returns.
In August, Trump said of QAnon followers that he’d “heard these are people that love our country” and said he appreciated that they “like me very much”.
Guthrie didn’t let Trump’s response slide. “You do know” about QAnon, she said as the president repeated he didn’t and tried to pivot the conversation to anti-fascist activists known collectively as “Antifa”.
The prime-time split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of how deeply unusual this year’s campaign has been amid a coronavirus pandemic that has infected nearly 8 million Americans, including the president himself. Millions have already voted early ahead of election day on November 3.
Biden, speaking to voters in Philadelphia on ABC, sought to put Trump’s handling of the pandemic front and centre, blaming the Republican president for downplaying the virus that has killed more than 216,000 people in the United States.
“He said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic,” Biden said. “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.”
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 practiced 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,” Trump said on NBC in front of an outdoor audience of voters in Miami, implicitly criticising Biden for spending months off the campaign trail as the pandemic raged.
Trump, who aggressively interrupted Biden during a chaotic debate two weeks ago, showed little interest in altering his belligerent tone.
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.
The second presidential debate had originally been scheduled for Thursday, but 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 October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Trump, who spent three days in a military hospital but has since returned to the campaign trail, is trying to alter the dynamics of the race. Reuters/Ipsos polls show Biden has a significant national lead, although his advantage in battleground states is less pronounced.