Donald Trump attacked Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities on Thursday night during an event in the former-vice president’s hometown that could set the tone for an ugly general election.
Appearing at a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Trump – who has faced repeated scrutiny over his own mental acuity – said there was “something going on” with Biden, in what may prove a rehearsal for Republican attacks during the presidential election.
Thursday marked Trump’s first public event since Biden’s surprisingly strong performance on Super Tuesday, when he won 10 out of 14 states available to propel him into the lead in the Democratic primary. Trump said he had been “all set” to face Biden’s rival Bernie Sanders, whom he called a “communist”, until the recent vote.
“Then we have this crazy thing that happened on Tuesday, which [Biden] thought was Thursday, but he also said 150 million people were killed with guns and that he was running for the United States Senate. There’s something going on there,” Trump said.
Biden – who did say those things – has a track record of gaffes and has turned in bumbling debate performances, but Trump’s line of attack raised the unedifying spectacle of an election focused on two men in their 70s attacking each other’s alleged cognitive decline.
Biden did not immediately respond to Trump, who was speaking at the Scranton Cultural Center, on the same street where Biden grew up, a mile and a half north-east. The town hall was hosted by the Trump-friendly Fox News but had a more sedate vibe than Trump’s rallies, with many of the crowd wearing button-up shirts and not a single Make American Great Again hat to be seen.
Trump, who brushed off questions about his handling of the coronavirus epidemic – suggesting the economy could benefit because Americans may choose not to travel abroad – has had his own faculties questioned during his presidency.
In December, 350 psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals sent a letter to Congress warning that Trump’s mental health was deteriorating. The anonymous government official who penned an op-ed in the New York Times warning about Trump – and subsequently wrote the book A Warning – claimed people in Trump’s administration were concerned about him.
“Normal people who spend any time with Donald Trump are uncomfortable by what they witness. He stumbles, slurs, gets confused, is easily irritated, and has trouble synthesizing information, not occasionally but with regularity,” the anonymous author wrote.
As Trump spoke, Maryland announced three residents had contracted the coronavirus, the first cases in the state. In the US 12 people have now died, and the government has been criticized for its slow response to the coronavirus, but on Thursday Trump instead suggested he had been given “tremendous marks” for his response.
“We’ve done a great job. We’ve got the highest poll numbers of anybody for this kind of thing,” Trump said.
“Mike Pence is working 20 hours a day or more on this and really doing a fantastic job.”
In fact a Public Policy Polling survey found that 51% of Americans disapprove of the Trump administration’s handing of the epidemic, and 53% of people disagree with Trump’s claim that he has done “a great job” in handling the coronavirus.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 3.6% on Thursday as the US stock market continued to decline amid fears over the epidemic, but Trump claimed the economic damage could be offset by Americans not traveling abroad.
“I have to say, people are now staying in the United States, spending their money in the US – and I like that,” Trump said.
Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016, by 48.2% to Hillary Clinton’s 47.5%, and the state is a key part of his potential path to victory in November. He has held seven rallies in the state since he was elected, including two in the past year, although the nomination of Biden could provide a fillip to Democrats’ chances in Pennsylvania.
The exit from the Democratic race over the last week of Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – all of whom subsequently endorsed Biden – has left the Scranton native in a formidable position in the race to take on Trump.
If Biden succeeds, then Thursday provided a rather unsavory glimpse into how that battle could unfold.