Biden blasts Trump’s ‘criminal’ coronavirus response during drive-in town hall event

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has repeatedly attacked the US President at a town hall event over his handling of COVID-19, calling Donald Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic “criminal” and his administration “totally irresponsible.”

“You’ve got to level with the American people — shoot from the shoulder. There’s not been a time they’ve not been able to step up. The President should step down,” Mr Biden said to applause from the drive-in crowd in Moosic, outside his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Speaking about Mr Trump’s admission that he publicly played down the impact of the virus while aware of its severity, Mr Biden declared: “He knew it and did nothing. It’s close to criminal.”

Later, Mr Biden decried Americans’ loss of basic “freedoms” during the pandemic, like the ability to go to a ballgame or walk around their neighbourhoods.

Early in the town hall, Mr Biden faced a half-dozen questions about the coronavirus and a potential vaccine from moderator Anderson Cooper and audience members.

The pandemic was not just the main topic of the night — it was the cause of the unusual format of the event: a drive-in of 35 cars parked outside minor league baseball stadium.

The cars were parked around the stage, each with small groups of people standing outside them or leaning or sitting on the hoods to watch Cooper and Mr Biden on the stage in front of them.

Joe Biden in a suit in front of a CNN logo on stage looks out at the audience with his mouth open.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to fact check Mr Trump on stage during their upcoming debates.(AP: Carolyn Kaster)

The network erected blue and red spotlights over the dirt and gravel parking lot to make it easier to see, and each parking space was marked off with white chalk in large rectangles to ensure that each group of spectators stayed more than 1.8 meters apart.

The town hall event marked the first time that Mr Biden had faced live, unscripted questions from voters since winning the nomination.

Mr Trump participated in an ABC town hall on Tuesday in an auditorium in Philadelphia.

people sit on chairs outside their cars as Joe Biden is shown on stage and on screen at a CNN town hall
The drive-in town hall was set at a minor league baseball stadium outside Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.(AP: Carolyn Kaster)

The appearances have been seen as tune-ups before the three presidential debates; the first is September 29, and the stakes for the match-up will be high.

Mr Biden’s uneven debate performances during the Democratic primary contributed to his initial struggles in polls and the early primary vote and Mr Trump has pushed unfounded conspiracy theories about Mr Biden taking performance-enhancing drugs and has raised questions about the former vice-president’s mental acuity.

Mr Biden, meanwhile, has promised to be a “fact-checker on the stage” with Mr Trump but has said he doesn’t want to get drawn into a “brawl” with the Republican.

At the town hall event, Mr Biden said he was indeed beginning to prepare for the upcoming debate, by reviewing Mr Trump’s remarks and preparing his own.

The format of Mr Biden’s event was a stark reminder of the issue that’s been a central focus of Mr Biden’s campaign — that the pandemic rages on, affecting Americans’ lives in ways large and small, and that stronger leadership in White House could have eased the crisis.

More than 195,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus, by far the highest death toll in the world.

Mr Trump and Mr Biden have spent the week accusing each other of undermining public trust in a potential coronavirus vaccine.

As Mr Trump prepared for an evening rally in Wisconsin, Mr Biden seized on the President openly contradicting the nation’s top health officials to claim a vaccine would be ready as early as next month, just before the November 3 election.

“Mark my words — if I’m president, I’ll always level with the American people, and I’ll always tell the truth,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

Mr Biden’s comments came as a former White House official Olivia Troye, a former Homeland Security aide to Vice-President Mike Pence, endorsed Mr Biden, citing Mr Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Mr Biden’s campaign team has come under scrutiny in recent days over its outreach efforts, particularly for what some see as short shrift with Latino voters.

At the same time, Democrats have mixed views over the party’s get-out-the-vote effort that largely bypasses traditional doorknocking to avoid health risks during the pandemic, instead relying on virtual outreach.

AP

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