Debate Updates: Trump and Biden Prepare for a Clash

The revelations about President Trump’s taxes are expected to be a topic of discussion in Tuesday’s debate.
Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

The disclosure that President Trump paid little or no federal income taxes for years, including while in the White House, convulsed the presidential campaign on Monday with only five weeks to go and immediately scrambled the equation and stakes of the first debate to be held on Tuesday night.

While Mr. Trump tried to deflect the news about his taxes, and his Republican allies generally kept their silence, Democrats pounced and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the party’s presidential candidate, posted a video noting that the president had paid less in income taxes than everyday Americans like teachers, firefighters and nurses.

How the revelations may change the presidential campaign was an open question. The race has remained remarkably steady and without major shifts through all sorts of seismic developments. But with five weeks until the election on Nov. 3, every day that the president does not transform the dynamics of a campaign that polls show he is currently trailing in is a missed opportunity.

“We know the vast majority of Americans long ago made up their minds about President Trump, either for or against him, so the tax revelations are not likely to shift the election in any fundamental way,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “That said, they could play a role in giving Joe Biden some ammunition for the debate and at the margins for some people who feel that $750 is not enough to pay in taxes regardless of the circumstances.”

But there was quiet concern within the campaign, where aides took note of daily tracking numbers from Rasmussen Reports, a typically rosy assessment of how the president is faring, that showed support falling after the tax report. Among Mr. Trump’s circle, there was finger-pointing about how the issue was handled and a hesitancy to discuss with him an issue they know he is sensitive about.

Many of the president’s advisers argued that such stories have never harmed his standing with core supporters in the past and that this would be no exception. They recognized, however, that Mr. Trump would have to have an effective response prepared for the debate, the first encounter between the two candidates, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Some aides suggested he try to finesse an answer similar to what he has said previously, that taking advantage of the tax code is simply “smart” for a business person, while also painting himself as a jobs creator.

Chris Wallace will center tonight’s debate around six topics: the Supreme Court, the coronavirus outbreak, the integrity of the election, the economy, “race and violence in our cities” and the two candidates’ political records.

Here’s a look at what polling tells us about where the public stands on some of those issues — and how President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. might be able to score points with undecided voters.

The Supreme Court vacancy and Roe v. Wade

Just before Mr. Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, polls showed that most voters preferred that the winner of the November election choose the next justice. But now that she has been chosen, the public’s attention turns to the high-stakes confirmation fight.

If Judge Barrett were to help overturn Roe v. Wade, as Mr. Trump said on Sunday she “certainly” could, that would go against the will of most Americans, who support keeping abortion legal. In a recent Times/Siena poll, voters said by more than two to one that they would be less likely to back Trump if he appointed a justice who would overturn Roe.

The coronavirus pandemic

Since May, the pandemic has been a political weak point for Mr. Trump — in part because most Americans have consistently disagreed with his focus on a speedy reopening. By a 15-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll said they disapproved of how he had handled the virus.

At the debates, look for Mr. Biden to return to the virus often, hammering the president on what he sees as his greatest vulnerability.

The economy

If there is one area in which Mr. Trump retains some advantage, it is the economy. By a 12-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll gave him positive marks on that front.

But where the economy intersects with the virus, things grow dicier for the president. Fifty-five percent of likely voters said he was at least partly responsible for the economic downturn, according to the Times/Siena poll

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, middle, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, arrived on Capital Hill on Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence, left.
Credit…Pool Photo by Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Judge Amy Coney Barrett began meeting Tuesday privately with top Republican senators as Republicans embark on an extraordinarily swift process to try to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the Nov. 3 election.

Three days after President Trump announced Judge Barrett as his choice to sit on the nation’s highest court, she arrived on Capitol Hill with Vice President Mike Pence to privately meet with a dozen Republican senators ahead of public hearings next month.

Judge Barrett, a Notre Dame law professor and an appeals court judge in Chicago, is expected to remain in the stately Mansfield room for most of Tuesday as senators, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, shuffle in to quiz her privately.

“We truly do believe that Judge Barrett represents the best of America personally, in terms of her great intellect, her great background, and we have every confidence that as the American people learn more about Judge Amy Coney Barrett, they will be as inspired as President Trump was when he made her nomination,” Mr. Pence said, ahead of a meeting with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and a champion of Judge Barrett.

Judge Barrett, in a dark blue dress and a single strand of pearls, stood solemnly next to Mr. McConnell, who did not answer a question about whether the judge, if confirmed to the nation’s highest court, should recuse herself from any cases related to the election.

Mr. Pence urged Democratic senators to meet with Judge Barrett, though some have already declined the opportunity. Judge Barrett’s confirmation would give conservatives a 6-3 majority on the court, and Democrats have criticized Republicans for moving at an unprecedented clip in an effort to confirm Judge Barrett before the election — especially after Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s efforts to fill an election-year vacancy on the court four years ago.

Multiple polls show that a majority of voters believe whoever wins the general election should have the ability to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18.

The White House is expected to formally nominate Judge Barrett on Tuesday, and aides and lawmakers in both parties have already begun combing through Judge Barrett’s background, legal decisions and scholarly work. “It’s the start of a very long process, but went well,” said Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, who was there for the meeting.

Credit…Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News, via Associated Press

President Trump’s aggressive drive to add a conservative justice to the Supreme Court before Election Day has not helped him in Pennsylvania, a state crucial to his re-election, where more voters prefer Joseph R. Biden Jr. to fill the vacant seat, according to a poll by The New York Times and Siena College released on Monday.

Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump, 49 percent to 40 percent, among likely Pennsylvania voters in the poll, which was conducted Friday through Sunday. On Saturday, Mr. Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the court seat and immediately flew to Pennsylvania to whip up support.

New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania





Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 711 likely voters from Sept. 25-27, 2020.

But that prospect — which the Trump campaign is counting on to shift the election dynamic away from the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — has not reset the race in the passionately divided battleground state. On the contrary, 51 percent of voters in Pennsylvania said they trusted Mr. Biden more to pick the next justice, whereas 44 percent said that about Mr. Trump.

“I think the citizens of the United States should be picking out who will be the judge, but I would trust Joe Biden,” said Margarita Motta, 56, of Reading, Pa.

Mr. Biden has not trailed in a public poll of Pennsylvania since June. But his lead narrowed over the summer as the state trended back toward tossup status, evoking memories of Mr. Trump’s slim victory there in 2016. The president has virtually no path to a second term without Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.

The new poll, of 711 likely voters with a margin of sampling error of 4.3 percentage points, shows Mr. Biden nearly repeating his 10-point lead in a Times/Siena survey of Pennsylvania in June.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll of Pennsylvania found Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump by 54 percent to 45 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Five weeks ahead of Election Day, New York City has been inundated with widespread reports of invalid absentee ballots being sent to voters, with incorrect names and addresses placed across an untold number of mail-back envelopes.

So far, the ballot errors appear to be concentrated in Brooklyn, a borough of 2.6 million people whose elections board has a history of mismanaging elections.

Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, blamed the problem on the board’s vendor, Phoenix Graphics, a commercial printing company based in Rochester, N.Y., which was hired to mail out ballots in Brooklyn and Queens.

“We are determining how many voters have been affected but we can assure that the vendor will address this problem in future mailings, and make sure people who received erroneous envelopes receive new ones,” Mr. Ryan said in a statement on Tuesday.

The mislabeled ballots may further undermine confidence in the New York City Board of Elections, which mishandled the state’s primary election in June, and could buttress President Trump’s assertions that absentee voting is plagued with troubles.

On Monday, the president retweeted several articles about the problems in the city, including a New York Post report that some voters had received mail-in ballots marked for military use despite never having served in the armed forces.

City Board of Elections officials are encouraging voters to call a hotline to receive a new ballot. But phone lines already appear to be jammed: Two voters who called on Monday reported being 65th, and “80-something” in line.

Sal DeBiase, the president and chief executive at Phoenix Graphics, did not reply to multiple requests for comment. The company, which was also hired to print and send ballots in June’s primary elections, has worked with the city’s Board of Elections for years.

Election officials in New York City have already processed nearly 500,000 absentee ballot applications and began mailing ballots to voters last week. While it remains unclear how many voters have been affected, the printing errors appear to be widespread.

Republicans eager to retain their Senate majority are counting on Senator Joni Ernst to beat her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, in Iowa.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and the only female member of Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership team, faced off Monday evening against her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, in the first debate of a hotly contested campaign that could help determine which party controls the levers of power in Washington.

During the hourlong debate, in which the two women were separated by a clear protective shield, Ms. Ernst and Ms. Greenfield clashed over health care, abortion and policing, but found agreement on calling on President Trump to release his tax returns and opposing an any expansion of the Supreme Court.

“Many years ago, I also echoed the call for the president to release his tax returns,” Ms. Ernst said, adding that she hadn’t had time to “scrutinize” a report in The New York Times that detailed years of tax avoidance by the president.

Ms. Greenfield, 56, a businesswoman, has led slightly in recent polls, in what is essentially a dead-even race within the margin of error. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the contest as a tossup.

With Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate and several of her colleagues caught in similarly tough races, the ability of Ms. Ernst, 50, to hold off Ms. Greenfield is seen as vital to her party’s hopes of retaining its majority in the Senate.

During the debate, each candidate repeatedly tried to cast herself as the moderate in the race, as both worked to appeal to the state’s centrist voters who may still be undecided only days before mail-in voting and early voting starts on Oct. 5.

Ms. Greenfield called health care “the No. 1 issue on the ballot,” but said she supported strengthening Obamacare, not a Medicare-for-all system favored by Senator Bernie Sanders.

While Ms. Ernst said she was “proudly pro-life,” she said she did not believe a Supreme Court with Mr. Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, would overturn abortion rights.

“I think the likelihood of Roe v. Wade being overturned is very minimal,” Ms. Ernst said. “I don’t see that happening.”

After Ms. Ernst charged that Ms. Greenfield has called police officers “racist,” the Democrat accused the senator of lying and said she was offended. “That is a lie. That is what Iowans don’t like about you,” Ms. Greenfield said. “We have systemic racism in all of our systems and have for generations, including our policing system. But that is not saying our police officers are racist.”

Sara Gideon, the Maine House Speaker, has sought to portray Senator Susan Collins as a rubber stamp for Republican judicial nominees.
Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican facing the toughest re-election campaign of her career, on Monday sparred with her Democratic opponent Sara Gideon in the second debate of their tight race, exchanging barbs over the future of the Supreme Court and the support provided to the state during the pandemic.

The makeup of the Supreme Court and the longstanding Republican effort to reshape the federal judiciary have been consistent issues overshadowing the race between Ms. Collins, who is seeking a fifth term in the Senate, and Ms. Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

The Republicans’ race to confirm President Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the Nov. 3 election could reshape the battle for control of the Senate. In recent surveys, a majority of voters said that they believe the next president should choose the successor to Justice Ginsburg, a view Ms. Collins has said she shares.

“What we need to do is to make the confirmation process less political, more respectful and more insightful,” Ms. Collins said during Monday’s debate, arguing against expanding the Supreme Court to include more justices or imposing term limits on the justices as jeopardizing the independence of the nation’s highest court.

Ms. Gideon, pressed on what reforms she would support to reduce the partisan nature of the judiciary, said she did not see any proposals coming forward for achieving an independent judiciary, but did not elaborate further.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the Maine Senate race a tossup, but an array of polls — including a New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month — have found Ms. Collins, the only New England Republican in Congress, trailing Ms. Gideon by a narrow margin.

The race has become the toughest of Ms. Collins’s career in part because she supported the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, enraging Democrats and prompting outside political groups to flood the race with millions of dollars in support of Ms. Gideon.

The two women also clashed over their response to the toll of the pandemic on the state. Ms. Collins, who has sought to portray herself as a moderate willing to buck her party, criticized Ms. Gideon for adjourning the state Legislature in March and argued that she had played a key role in Congress’s approving nearly $3 trillion in stimulus relief. Ms. Gideon criticized the ongoing impasse over another relief package, charging that Ms. Collins’s seniority and influence had failed to move discussions forward.

Both Ms. Collins and Ms. Gideon paid little direct attention to Lisa Savage and Max Linn, the two independent candidates also seeking the Senate seat. Mr. Linn derided the two women for having the support of the establishment parties, at one point using a mild expletive and later telling Ms. Gideon “to woman up” and address him directly. Ms. Gideon responded by asking that those present avoid using profanity.

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