They didn’t make it easy for us lowly reporters tonight. After a lot of back and forth and presidential toys being thrown out of presidential prams, the second “debate” between Joe Biden and Donald Trump became two separate events, aired on two separate channels at exactly the same time. On NBC, Donald Trump perched on a metal stool and attempted to steamroller over Savannah Guthrie, with little success. On ABC News, Joe Biden sat back in a white armchair and answered every question from George Stephanopoulos and the surrounding audience with a monologue.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the person who came out of tonight looking the most qualified to lead the country was Savannah Guthrie. As searches for “Who is Savannah Guthrie?” and “Is Savannah Guthrie a Democrat?” exploded to the top of debate-related Googling across America, Guthrie held Trump to account in the way most of us have waited to see for four years.
“You don’t know if you took a test the day of the debate?” she asked incredulously when the president equivocated about whether or not he knew he was Covid-positive when he faced off against Joe Biden two weeks ago. “Are you saying grieving military families infected you?” she said with a wide-eyed, calm amazement when Trump attempted to imply that his propensity for hugging “the relatives of fallen heroes” was what led to his Covid-19 infection, rather than a largely unmasked SCOTUS event for Amy Coney Barrett.
Trump’s signature move — to put outrageous claims out there then immediately retract them with a shrug and a “I don’t know, but maybe it’s true, I heard from some people” — stopped working pretty early on under such scrutiny. He managed to say that he does condemn white supremacy, but in a classic case of “one step forward and two steps backwards”, then refused to say that the QAnon conspiracy theory is untrue. “I don’t know about it,” he said, “except I know they care about pedophilia. That’s a good thing.” “You do know about it,” said Guthrie, frankly cutting through the bluster.
Though he tried his hardest to dominate the conversation, Trump was left on the back foot for most of his time with Guthrie. His aside that she was “so cute” was left unchallenged and hung in the air like a remark from an embarrassing relative past his prime. And the town hall format worked particularly badly for him: a woman asking why her Black son should live in fear of the police was treated to rambling about why the Democrats wouldn’t pass a bill he liked and the old adage that Trump has “done more than any other president except Abraham Lincoln for Black people”. Another questioner concerned about DACA was given a soundbite on the southern border wall rounded off with a senseless platitude (one which Guthrie immediately shot down, pointing out that he’d already contradicted himself through policy.)
Over on ABC News, the energy between Biden and George Stephanpoulos couldn’t have been more different. It had the feel of a particularly sedate talk show. Even the most combative moments — when an audience member who voted for Trump in 2016 asked Biden how he felt about writing the notorious Crime Bill responsible for the incarceration of disproportionate numbers of people of color — were remarkably considered, even a little (whisper it) boring. Biden was heavy on specifics, numbers and policies. He told a young Black man who asked him a question that he should feel free to meet him at the end to continue their conversation. He engaged with the mother of a transgender child and attempted to talk about the issue of trans rights with a jumble of teeth-gritting, well-meaning, slightly politically incorrect words (“a man who became a woman” worked for his son Beau, for instance.)
“It’s called common sense and intelligence and having lawyers!” Trump was yelling on NBC as Guthrie asked him why he didn’t release his tax returns, while Biden quietly gestured to Stephanpoulos and said he just believes in “decency”. It was a tale of two presidencies indeed. When Savannah Guthrie asked Trump to do 30 seconds to undecided voters at the end, he came out with hundred-mile-per-hour hyperbole, as we’ve come to expect. The ABC News talk between George Stephanopoulos and Joe Biden merely puttered to a close once audience questions had been answered.
Did we actually learn anything new? Biden dodged the question on packing the courts once again, saying that he’d let people know his decision after Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination had been decided. That was the first time he’s implied he might “play dirty if Trump plays dirty”. And Trump, who usually keeps his cards close to his chest, was revealing on the same issue: “The whole ball game changed when I saw how they treated Justice Kavanaugh,” he said, when asked why he now supported appointing a new Supreme Court justice in an election year having opposed Obama’s effort in 2016. And on Roe v Wade, he claimed that he wouldn’t want to reveal his personal views for fear of influencing Barrett — moments after saying that he envisioned abortion being “sent back down to the states” to decide upon. It turns out he has thought pretty hard about it after all.
It was clear who was running scared tonight. Trump took up vital time attacking the Democrats — even attacking Hillary Clinton, in a bizarre redo of 2016 —and name-checking Nancy Pelosi. He barely made mention of his actual opponent, but he certainly showed the Democratic Party was living rent-free in his head. Biden, meanwhile, dug into personal issues with voters and hardly mentioned Trump at all, bar a couple of barbed asides delivered with a genteel smile.
The president was on the defensive; the former veep was in conversation. And Savannah Guthrie — prepared for anything, gloriously unafraid to tell Trump he sounded like a “crazy uncle” on Twitter — now surely has to run in 2024.