NBC faced sharp criticism this week for scheduling a Thursday night town hall with President Donald Trump, with even network employees chiding their employer for giving him an hour of airtime – “a free hour of television,” he said, sounding pleased, at a rally earlier that day. Even worse, critics said, it was matched up against ABC’s town hall with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, making voters choose.
But, despite fears that the event would amount to a free promotion for Trump’s campaign, it ended up being one of the toughest grillings he has faced as president, with questions about white supremacy, covid-19 deaths and his taxes.
While the event was nominally a town hall, featuring questions from Florida voters, it included a lot of direct pressing by the moderator, “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie, who repeatedly challenged the president’s evasions.
At one point, after pushing Trump on his retweet of a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory, Guthrie said, “I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
When Trump said he wasn’t familiar with QAnon, Guthrie said “you do know,” to which he replied: “No, I don’t know. You tell me all about it. Let’s waste the whole show. Let’s go. Keep asking me these questions.”
After questioning him about his frequent claims of election fraud, Guthrie told him, “There is no evidence of widespread fraud, and you are sowing doubt in our democracy.”
When Trump said he couldn’t release his taxes because he’s “under audit,” Guthrie repeatedly countered by saying, “you aren’t.”
For his part, Trump protested Guthrie’s questioning, saying, “I knew you’d be doing this. . . . You always do this.” He complained that Biden got much easier questions from moderator Lester Holt when he participated in a similar event held by the network on Oct. 5. “He was asking questions like Biden was a child,” Trump said.
The objections to the NBC town hall centered on the fact that it essentially replaced a debate with Biden that was supposed to air in this particular time slot – until Trump rejected the debate commission’s decision to hold a remote debate, with each participant in separate locations for health reasons, barely two weeks after the president tested positive for coronavirus. After Trump pulled out, Biden accepted an invitation from ABC News to do a town hall at that time instead. So when NBC offered Trump the same slot for a solo appearance, critics complained the network was rewarding him for rejecting the debate while robbing viewers of the chance to see both candidates.
The event was held in compliance with local covid-19 guidelines, with Guthrie seated far apart from Trump, who recently recovered from the deadly virus.
Guthrie faced both praise and opprobrium on social media, where conservative critics lobbed insults at her and many Democrats praised her.
“Savannah Guthrie is showing herself to be a partisan hack tonight,” Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe wrote on Twitter. “Has any media person ever challenged Biden like Savannah Guthrie is with Trump?” asked Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s campaign, said that “Savannah Guthrie is attacking the President like she openly hates him.”
On the other side, “Pod Save America” co-host Jon Favreau wrote: “I would like to propose a Trump town hall moderated by @SavannahGuthrie every night between now and election day.”
Biden’s town hall on ABC, which was moderated by George Stephanopoulos, featured far less animosity.
“This Biden town hall is, and I genuinely mean this, delightfully boring,” Vox.com senior correspondent German Lopez wrote.
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