In Miami Thursday night, President Donald Trump put to bed a controversy over his reluctance to disavow white supremacists during the September presidential debate — and then quickly refused to condemn a conspiratorial online cult that believes the country’s institutions are run by a shadowy cabal of pedophiles.
Trump, participating in an NBC town hall at the Pérez Art Museum Miami instead of a canceled debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, declined to disown QAnon, a once-fringe, online movement that has slowly become a greater part of the mainstream Republican Party.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” Trump told moderator Savannah Guthrie, though he has repeatedly been asked about it and spoken fondly of a Republican congressional candidate in Georgia who espouses the group’s theories. “What I do hear about it, they are very strongly against pedophilia.”
Trump, whose positive COVID-19 diagnosis early this month led to the cancellation of a debate with Biden that otherwise would have been held Thursday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, participated in the Miami town hall instead. He fielded questions from Miami voters, but spent much of the evening wrangling with Guthrie over his reluctance to wear a mask, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and his hesitation to condemn hate groups during a first presidential debate in Cleveland.
“I believe we’re rounding the corner,” Trump said of the pandemic, which has killed 217,000 people in the United States, including 15,000 in Florida.
His appearance in Miami was one of a number of South Florida events Thursday by his campaign. Vice President Mike Pence spent the day courting Miami Latinos at Memorial Cubano in Tamiami Park and Jewish voters in Doral. The president’s son Eric Trump traveled to Broward County for an evangelicals event in Southwest Ranches. And Trump held a fundraiser at his namesake golf resort in Doral.
Trump’s town hall came in the final stretch of the campaign, with more than 2 million mail ballots already cast in Florida and early voting centers set to open up Monday. Trump continued to push false claims that states that send mail ballots to all voters regardless of whether they want them are encouraging massive fraud.
After the town hall, Trump returned to Doral to spend the night before a trip Friday to the southwest coast of Florida and an afternoon airport rally in Ocala.
Trump — who was supposed to have been tested before the first debate in Ohio, held two nights before he tested positive — said he didn’t know if he’d been tested that day, or when he last tested positive before confirming he had contracted COVID-19. He also repeated an inaccurate claim that 85% of people who wear masks catch the novel coronavirus.
“The interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tweeted Thursday.
Voters in the audience — some who supported him, others who supported Biden — posed a series of questions to Trump, as did Guthrie. At one point, he was asked about a New York Times report that he owes $421 million in taxes. He did not dispute the article, but characterized the debt as a “tiny percentage of my net worth.”
“Some of it I did as favors to institutions that wanted to loan me money,” Trump said.
But Trump’s hesitation to condemn QAnon — a group that promoted the child sex-trafficking conspiracy that led to a shooting at a pizza restaurant in Washington four years ago — came early in the evening. The group, started on fringe websites, promotes a theory that Trump is a noble fighter attempting to destroy a pedophilic society of elites deeply embedded in the U.S. government. Facebook and YouTube have taken down accounts associated with the group.
Guthrie pressed Trump about his decision on Tuesday to retweet a conspiracy pushed by the group that Biden “may have” had the Navy Seal team that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden killed. Trump said the tweet had nothing to do with his views, and then questioned why Biden — who received a number of softball questions during his own NBC town hall in Miami 10 days earlier — wasn’t pressed harder.
“Why aren’t you asking me about antifa? Why aren’t you asking me about the radical left?” he said after repeatedly condemning white supremacy groups.
Trump had come under fierce criticism after the Ohio debate for not clearly denouncing the hate group The Proud Boys, led by a chairman who lives in Miami.
“You always do this. You always do this. I denounce white supremacy. I denounce white supremacy for years but you always do it,” he said to Guthrie. “Are you listening? I denounce white supremacy. What’s your next question?”
Trump’s town hall event, officially announced by NBC on Wednesday, drew criticism on all sides for its timing and format.
Biden quickly agreed to a 90-minute town hall on ABC after Trump pulled out of the debate last week, and NBC’s last-minute programming choice forced voters to choose between watching one candidate over the other. In Philadelphia, Biden largely avoided targeting Trump, delivering a string of answers to voters meant to convey his inclination for consensus.
Biden, who made stops in Pembroke Pines and Miramar on Tuesday, mostly delivered long-winded, senatorial answers, allowing himself considerable wiggle room for maneuvering if he’s elected. He again danced around the question of whether he would add more justices to the Supreme Court in order to counter its current conservative tilt.
But he did say he would reveal his position on the polarizing issue before Election Day, now less than three weeks away.
“It depends on how this turns out . . . how it’s handled,” he said of the current hearings for Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett. “It depends on how much they rush this … I’m open to considering what happens from that point on.”
Trump, at a rally in North Carolina Thursday before flying to Miami, predicted a far tougher town hall than Biden faced when he participated in an NBC event at the same venue in Miami on Oct. 5.
“I’m being set up tonight,” Trump told the audience. “They asked me if I would do it and I figured what the hell, we get a free hour of television.”
The original moderator of Thursday’s canceled debate, C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully, was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after he admitted to lying about his Twitter feed being hacked. Scully was criticized by Republicans last week for appearing to exchange messages with former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who is now a Trump critic, about the debate and falsely claimed his account was hacked.
Trump’s campaign said Scully’s tweet was part of a larger effort by the Commission on Presidential Debates to undermine Trump.
“Having a debate moderator lie to try to explain away a tweet that revealed his anti-Trump slant is bad, but it is far from the biggest problem with the biased Commission on Presidential Debates,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. “There was no medical reason the candidates could not be on stage together tonight in Miami for the second debate, but instead they will be holding separate town halls. Everything the commission has done has been to benefit Joe Biden.”
McClatchy DC reporter David Catanese contributed to this report.