The Morning Dispatch: Town Hall Split-Screen

Plus: Ballot box shenanigans in California and some more on Rudy Giuliani's Hunter Biden story.

Happy Friday! We hope you’re as excited for our post-election event as we are. In the meantime, on to the news!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 65,600 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 6.5 percent of the 1,011,416 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,020 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 217,754.

  • The number of Americans living in poverty has grown by 6 to 8 million since May, according to two new reports. The CARES Act—passed in March—temporarily lifted millions out of poverty, but most of its benefits expired months ago.

  • The Trump administration rejected California’s request for a disaster declaration in response to six wildfires raging across the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom had requested financial assistance from the federal government in a letter on September 28.

  • Just under 900,000 Americans filed initial unemployment claims last week, up from 845,000 the week prior. More than 25 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment aid during the week ending September 26.

  • Sen. Ben Sasse was highly critical of President Trump in a telephone town hall with Nebraska voters, saying Trump has “flirted with white supremacists,” “kisses dictators’ butts,” “sells out our allies,” “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” ignores the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and mistreats women. Sasse won his Republican primary in May soundly.  

  • In a crackdown targeted at the QAnon conspiracy theory, YouTube expanded its hate and harassment policies to “prohibit content that targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.”

  • Sen. Kamala Harris is pausing her in-person campaign schedule through Sunday after one of her staffers and a campaign flight crew member tested positive for COVID-19. Harris has tested negative twice since her last interaction with the positive cases.

  • A day after the Biden campaign announced a $383 million September fundraising haul and $432 million cash on hand, the Trump campaign disclosed it raised $247.8 million last month and has $251.4 million in the bank.

  • President Trump bragged about the extrajudicial killing by federal officers of a murder suspect with ties to antifa at a campaign rally Thursday. “We sent in the U.S. Marshals … They knew who he was,” Trump said. “They didn’t want to arrest him, and in 15 minutes that ended.” 

Dueling Banjos—Er, Town Halls 

The Commission on Presidential Debates made the unilateral decision last week to hold the second presidential debate virtually after President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. But while the Biden campaign agreed to the new terms, Trump said he was “not going to waste my time on a virtual debate.” So the Biden campaign scheduled a town hall in Philadelphia with ABC News instead. A few days later, the Trump campaign scheduled one in Miami with NBC News. Both were at 8:00PM ET last night.

Fortunately, there’s enough Morning Dispatchers these days to divide and conquer. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from each.

Biden Town Hall with George Stephanopoulos

Biden’s conversation with ABC’s George Stephanopolous was generally friendly and policy-focused. With questions from the audience, they covered a wide range of subjects.

Coronavirus and Vaccines

When asked by a voter about Kamala Harris’ comment doubting the efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine approved by the Trump administration, Biden said that if scientists broadly agreed on a vaccine, he “absolutely” would urge Americans to take it. He also criticized what he saw as the White House’s lack of a plan to distribute not only a vaccine, but treatments like Regeneron’s monoclonal antibodies.

Would he make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory?

“It depends on the state of the nature of the vaccine when it comes out and how it’s being distributed,” he said. “Depending on the continuation of the spread of the virus, we should be thinking about making it mandatory.” 

Stephanopoulos pressed Biden on how he could enforce that. “Well, you couldn’t, that’s the problem,” the former vice president replied. “You can’t say, everyone has to do this ... just like you can’t mandate a mask. But you can go to every governor and get them all in a room, all 50 of them, as president, and say, ‘ask people to wear the mask.’”

Would he lock down the country again? How would he balance public health concerns with economic ones? “I don’t think there’s a need to lock down,” Biden said. “You can open businesses and schools if in fact you provide them the guidance that they need as well as the money to be able to do it.”

Race and Policing

Cedric, a young black voter, said he was between voting for Biden and not voting at all. “Besides ‘you ain’t black,’” he asked, referring to Biden’s gaffe from earlier this year, “what do you have to say to young black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?”

The former vice president outlined a number of government-backed plans for helping black Americans accumulate wealth, from guaranteed down payments for first time home buyers to greater federal subsidies for public schools in poor areas. 

Biden also gave answers on policing that likely displeased many members of his party’s more progressive wing. “We shouldn’t be defunding cops,” Biden said. He stood by his previous statements that “more cops mean less crime,”—as long as “they’re involved in community policing, not jump squads.” Biden said it was a mistake to support the 1994 crime bill, because “of what the states did locally.”

Supreme Court 

Addressing questions by one voter about proposals to reform the Supreme Court, Biden largely eschewed specifics. He unsurprisingly said he opposed confirming Amy Coney Barrett before the election, citing concerns for Obamacare and the LGBT community.

Pressed more directly by Stephanopolous on whether he favored court packing, he reiterated that he’s “not been a fan of court packing,” but left the door open. “It depends on how this turns out,” he said. “How it’s handled.”

“They will have a right to know where I stand before they vote,” Biden added, saying he will come out with a clear position before Election Day. “Depending on how they handle this.” (It’s worth noting that this position holds less water this year than most; nearly 20 million Americans have already voted, and that number grows every day.)

Trump Town Hall with Savannah Guthrie

President Trump’s town hall was a little more contentious, and got off to a rocky start when he failed to provide a clear answer about his COVID-19 testing timeline leading up to his Oct. 1 diagnosis.The president said he did not recall whether he received a test the day of the first presidential debate against Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio.

Trump appeared caught off guard by NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie’s rapid-fire questioning strategy throughout the evening. “Did you take a test, though, on the day of the debate?” she asked. When Trump didn’t give a direct answer, she kept peppering him with follow-ups. “Do you take a test every single day?” “You don’t know if you took a test the day of the debate?”

“Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t,” Trump eventually relented. “But I was in great shape for the debate. And sometime after the debate, I tested positive, then that’s when they decided to, let’s go.”

The president expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of mask-wearing in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. “I’m president,” Trump said. “I have to see people. I can’t be in a basement.” Guthrie asked the president why he can’t see people with a mask. “I can, but people with masks are catching it all the time.” 

QAnon’s Dreams Come True

The president denounced white supremacy again when asked, but this time struggled to condemn QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that claims there is a cabal of Satan worshipping Democratic elites who traffic and sexually abuse children. Trump conceded Sen. Ben Sasse “may be right” to say that QAnon is “nuts.” But the president proceeded to add that he “knows nothing about it,” before revealing he does know something about it. “What I do hear about it is that they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that.”

Guthrie also asked the president why he decided to retweet a video on Tuesday suggesting that Joe Biden had secretly planned to have members of the Navy SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up the allegedly fake death of Osama bin Laden. “Why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” Guthrie asked the president. “That was a retweet,” Trump responded. “I’ll put it out there.” “I don’t get that,” Guthrie replied. “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.” (See Tom Joscelyn’s Vital Interests newsletter from yesterday afternoon for an excellent analysis of why it matter when Trump amplifies these conspiracies.)

Trump’s Tax Returns Take the Spotlight

The president all but confirmed the New York Times’ bombshell story on his tax returns which alleges he is more than $421 million in debt. “What I’m saying is it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth,” the president said after Guthrie asked him to confirm whether he does, in fact, “owe some $400 million” to undisclosed individuals. “That sounds like yes,” Guthrie said. 

“When you look at vast properties like I have, and they’re big and their beautiful and they’re well-located, when you look at that, the amount of money, $400 million, is a peanut, it’s extremely underleveraged,” Trump said. “And it’s leveraged with normal banks. Not a big deal.”

When asked whether any of that money is owed to foreign entities or banks, the president did not provide a clear answer: “Not that I know of, but, I will, probably.” He claimed that he is “treated very badly by the IRS” and that the $750 he allegedly paid in 2016 is simply a “filing number.” He cited “common sense and intelligence” as justification for not making his tax returns public.

All Things ACB

One town hall participant asked Trump about the GOP’s decision to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat just weeks before an election, when the Republican Party refused to consider Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. “If you look at it, and you put the shoe on the other foot, if they had this, they would do it, 100 percent,” Trump said of senate Democrats. He then pivoted to the senate Democrats’ treatment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 following sexual assault allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. “The whole ballgame changed when I saw the way they treated Justice Kavanaugh,” he said. “I have never seen a human being treated so badly with false accusations and everything else.”

Trump took pains to portray nominee Amy Coney Barrett as an independent, nonpartisan figure. “It would be totally up to her,” Trump said when Guthrie asked whether he thought Barrett would rule in his favor should a disputed presidential election reach the Supreme Court. 

“I think she would be able to rule either for me or against me,” he added. “I don’t see any conflict whatsoever.” The president said he never discussed a potential election dispute with Judge Barrett prior to her Senate confirmation hearings.

With 30 seconds on the clock, Trump offered his final pitch to undecided voters: “We had the strongest economy in the world, we closed it up, we are coming around the corner.” The president also mentioned COVID-19 vaccine development, current construction on the southern border, and his success rebuilding the military as reasons to vote for him on November 3. “We’ve given you the greatest tax cut in the history of our country, greatest regulation cut—equally as important—and we created new levels of jobs that nobody thought was possible, and next year is going to be better than ever before.”

Ballot Box Shenanigans in California

Over the past several months, criticism of voting by mail has been dominated primarily by Republicans—particularly in California, where mail-in voting is widely practiced and “ballot harvesting,” the collection of ballots by a third party, is legal. On Monday, however, the California GOP found itself under legal threat for doing exactly that.

Last weekend, reports emerged of metal boxes—at least some of which were labeled as “official ballot drop boxes”—being placed in sites around Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange counties. None were located in the official ballot drop-off sites listed by the state government. The boxes, it turned out, had been placed there by the state Republican party.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, sent cease-and-desist orders to the California’s state and county-level Republican parties Monday, demanding the boxes be taken down by October 15. Padilla argued that in addition to violating regulations concerning the security of ballot drop-off boxes, the boxes were not in compliance with a law requiring ballots collected by a third party to be signed by the voter and the person collecting it. 

In a call with reporters Wednesday, California GOP general counsel Tom Hiltachk said “there is nothing illegal about the collection of ballots provided by voters, on a certainly volunteer basis, and entrusted to the persons who are operating that local election, or local party office, from transmitting those ballots.” He admitted that certain boxes being labeled as “official” were isolated mistakes made by an “overzealous” volunteer, but countered Padilla by arguing state law prevents a ballot from being disqualified because the person returning it fails to provide their name, signature, or relationship to the voter on the envelope.

California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas told The Orange County Register Wednesday that the distribution of ballot boxes was wider than originally thought. He said boxes were placed in “far more” counties than Fresno, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, as was originally reported. He also told San Diego’s KUSI News that Republicans were merely adapting to changes Democrats had initiated, saying “we looked at the chessboard that Democrats laid out, and now we’re playing with the pieces they provided for us.” Democrats’ 2018 victories in traditionally Republican areas of the state were boosted by organized ballot harvesting operations, which critics say create potential for fraud by having partisan groups collect and deliver large numbers of ballots.

Jessica Levinson—a Loyola Law School professor specializing in election law—says the legal case against the state GOP here is muddled. “In terms of putting out a dropbox and saying it’s official,” she said, the Republican Party clearly violated the law. She also noted that the law “doesn’t say we suggest, the law says that we require” voters sign their ballots and indicate their relationship with the person collecting them. But she concluded major penalties or prosecution would be unlikely, since it would be difficult to prove California Republicans willfully and knowingly violated the law.

The state GOP said Wednesday it has no plans to stop using the boxes for ballot collection, and that it is prepared to go to court over the issue. President Trump expressed his support as well: “You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this?” he tweeted. “But haven’t the Dems been doing this for years? See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!”

Rudy Steps in It

We wrote yesterday about the Hunter Biden/Burisma story that popped up in The New York Post, cautioning you to take it with a grain or two of salt given its bizarre sourcing and suspect timing. Well, 24 hours later, we’ve got a few more details to share. And they only strengthen our initial suspicions.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rudy Giuliani—President Trump’s lawyer and the person who provided the information in question to the New York Post—got cagey when asked about how he obtained it. “Could it be hacked? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said. “If it was hacked, it’s for real. If it was hacked. I didn’t hack it. I have every right to use it.”

On the SiriusXM David Webb Show yesterday, Giuliani also appeared to change the story that was given to the New York Post. The Post originally reported on Wednesday that the partially-blind computer repairman was unable to “positively identify the customer [that dropped off the laptop] as Hunter Biden,” only putting the pieces together after seeing a “Beau Biden Foundation” sticker on the computer. Thursday, Giuliani said, “the process was that the laptop was left by Hunter Biden, in an inebriated … heavily inebriated state with the merchant.”

The Washington Post reported last night that “U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence.” National security adviser Robert O’Brien reportedly warned Trump that “any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia.” As we wrote yesterday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach—whom Giuliani has worked with in the past—for his role meddling in U.S. elections, noting that Derkach has worked as an agent of the Russian government.

Oh, and the whole thing about Twitter blocking any posting or sharing of the Post link? The company reversed course yesterday, saying it will “no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” opting to “label Tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter.”

Worth Your Time

  • ProPublica took a deep dive into “perhaps the darkest chapter” of our nation’s public health institutions in its recent investigative piece: “Inside the Fall of the CDC.” The federal agency’s declining legitimacy, and wavering effectiveness, derives from a confluence of several factors at an inopportune moment. As internal disagreements regarding the coronavirus pandemic present mixed signals to the American people, the organization also faces external pressure to cater its messaging to the Trump administration. “As a historically lethal pandemic raged, the White House turned the CDC into a political bludgeon to advance Trump’s agenda, alternately blocking the agency’s leaders from using their quarantine powers or forcing them to assert those powers over the objections of CDC scientists,” the authors write.

  • Bari Weiss made her return to the journalism world with a piece in Tablet Magazine warning that American liberalism is under siege. The new ideology rising to take its place sends a “clear signal about who belongs in the new progressive coalition and who does not.” Left out of what is interchangeably referred to as “postcolonialism, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality and the therapeutic mentality” is an acceptance and embrace of Judaism. “It does not matter how progressive you are, how vegan or how gay, how much you want universal health care and pre-K and to end the drug war,” she writes. “To believe in the justness of the existence of the Jewish state—to believe in Jewish particularism at all—is to make yourself an enemy of this movement.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Over at the site today, David has a fascinating interview with two fascinating people: J.D. Vance, the author of the blockbuster 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, and Ron Howard, the director of its new film adaptation. You won’t want to miss it.

  • As noted above, earlier this week, President Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory that claims President Obama staged the killing of Osama bin Laden for political purposes, and subsequently had members of Navy SEAL Team Six assassinated to cover up the plot. Anyways, in-house national security expert Thomas Joscelyn reminds us in his latest Vital Interests newsletter (🔒) that “this is, in a word, nonsense.”

  • Sarah and David share their thoughts on marriage, the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story, and voter turnout in the latest installment of Advisory Opinions. “There’s two different schools of thought here,” Sarah says on the latter point. “One is that we’re on pace to have record turnout and one is that we’re simply banking Election Day votes early this time.”

Let Us Know

During last night’s town hall, ABC News returned from every commercial break with a graphic showing different sections of the Constitution (it was held at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia). Do you make time to reread our nation’s founding documents? If so, what are your favorite passages from them?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.