NEW YORK – Instead of the expected debate between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, television viewers were left Thursday with what ABC's David Muir called “split-screen America.”
Biden participated in a 90-minute town hall from Philadelphia on ABC, while NBC News went ahead with its hourlong Trump session in Miami — despite protests from Hollywood stars and others who criticized the network for forcing viewers to choose because the two events were held at the same time.
Trump faced a crackling round of questioning from Savannah Guthrie of the “Today” show, who pressed him on his personal experience with COVID-19, his finances and his support of conspiracy theories.
In addition to her own sharp questioning, Guthrie would often follow up queries made by audience members to nail down a point.
She challenged Trump about some of the specific beliefs of the QAnon group, Trump supporters who believe he's the man to save the country from “deep state” pedophiles. Trump said he didn't know anything about them.
“I just told you,” Guthrie replied.
She also wondered why Trump would retweet a false theory by someone on the Internet that the United States didn't really kill Osama bin Laden.
“You're the president,” she said. “You're not like somebody's crazy uncle who can just retweet anything.”
That exchange led Mary Trump, the president's niece who wrote a best-selling book this summer criticizing him, to tweet, “Actually ...”
Guthrie's performance sharply divided social media users between those who thought she was effective in confronting Trump and those who found her too combative.
“Has any media person ever challenged Biden like Savannah Guthrie is with Trump?" tweeted Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham.
NBC News chief executive Cesar Conde said Thursday that NBC scheduled Trump out of fairness after Biden did a town hall at the same time last Thursday. That decision opened the network to sharp criticism — including a protest letter sent Thursday by more than 100 Hollywood creators and celebrities like Amy Schumer, Seth Rogen, Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Silverman.
NBC also said it reached out to ABC to ask that network to reschedule its Biden town hall so the two candidates wouldn't compete for time, and ABC refused.
There were apparently still hard feelings, given that Muir twice mentioned a nameless “another network” holding a Trump town hall. The Biden session on ABC with George Stephanopoulos of “Good Morning America” was a more sedate affair.
“Has there ever been two more different presidential candidates than Trump or Biden?” asked The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler in a tweet.
At a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, Trump called NBC “the worst" and said he was being set up with the town hall. He has also made some preemptive strikes criticizing NBC News' Kristen Welker, who is scheduled to moderate the second and last debate between Biden and Trump next week.
Thursday's scheduled debate was canceled after Trump, while he was being treated for COVID-19, said he would not agree to an event where he and Biden appeared remotely.
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.