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Trump’s Biggest Economic Legacy Isn’t About the Numbers

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — To understand how much President Trump has altered the conversation around the economy, just listen to Bruce Haines, who spent decades as an executive at U.S. Steel before becoming a managing partner of the elegant Historic Hotel Bethlehem.

The steel mills that still dominate Bethlehem’s skyline have long been empty. And now, so are the tables in the Tap Room, the hotel’s restaurant, a sign of the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s been very difficult,” Mr. Haines said.

The president’s management of the pandemic is a prime reason many voters cite for backing his opponent. But Mr. Haines, who lives in a swing county in a swing state, is struck most by a different aspect of Mr. Trump’s record.

“I spent 35 years in the steel business and I can tell you unfair trade deals were done by Republicans and Democrats,” Mr. Haines said. Both parties, he complained, had given up on manufacturing — once a wellspring of stable middle-class jobs. “Trump has been the savior of American industry. He got it. He’s the only one.”

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Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

In perhaps the greatest reversal of fortune of the Trump presidency, a microscopically tiny virus upended the outsize economic legacy that Mr. Trump had planned to run on for re-election. Instead of record-low unemployment rates, supercharged confidence levels and broad-based gains in personal income, Mr. Trump will end his term with rising poverty, wounded growth and a higher jobless rate than when he took office.

Still, despite one of the worst years in recent American history, the issue on which Mr. Trump gets his highest approval ratings remains the economy. It points to the resilience of his reputation as a savvy businessman and hard-nosed negotiator. And it is evidence that his most enduring economic legacy may not rest in any statistical almanac, but in how much he has shifted the conversation around the economy.

Long before Mr. Trump appeared on the political stage, powerful forces were reshaping the economy and inciting deep-rooted anxieties about secure middle-income jobs and America’s economic pre-eminence in the world. Mr. Trump recognized, stoked and channeled those currents in ways that are likely to persist whether he wins or loses the election.

By ignoring economic and political orthodoxies, he at times successfully married seemingly contradictory or inconsistent positions to win over both hard-core capitalists and the working class. There would be large tax breaks and deregulation for business owners and investors, and trade protection and aid for manufacturers, miners and farmers.

In the process, he scrambled party positions on key issues like immigration and globalization, and helped topple sacred verities about government debt. He took a Republican Party that preached free trade, low spending and debt reduction and transformed it into one that picked trade wars even with allies, ran up record-level peacetime deficits and shielded critical social programs from cuts.

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Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

“He completely moved the Republican Party away from reducing Social Security and Medicare spending,” said Michael R. Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

On immigration, Mr. Trump remade the political landscape in a different way. He has accused immigrants of stealing jobs or committing crimes and — as he did in Thursday night’s debate — continued to disparage their intelligence. In doing so, he rallied hard-line sentiments that could be found in each party and turned them into a mostly Republican cri de coeur.

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The Democrats changed in turn. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has positioned himself as the champion of immigrants, pledging to reverse Mr. Trump’s most restrictive policies, while rejecting more radical proposals like eliminating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

He has also been pushed to finesse his position on fracking and the oil industry, promising not to ban the controversial drilling method on private lands, and trying — with mixed success — to walk back comments he had made during the presidential debate about transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Shifts on trade were more momentous. Mr. Biden and other party leaders who had once promoted the benefits of globalization found themselves playing defense against a Republican who outflanked them on issues like industrial flight and foreign competition. They responded by embracing elements of protectionism that they had previously abandoned.

No matter who spends the next four years in the White House, economic policy is likely to pay more attention to American jobs and industries threatened by China and other foreign competition and less attention to worries about deficits caused by government efforts to stimulate the economy.

The reshuffling is clear to Charles Jefferson, the managing owner of Montage Mountain Ski Resort near Scranton, Pa.

“Those were not conversations we were having five years ago,” he said. “The exodus of manufacturing jobs, that was considered a fait accompli.”

Mr. Jefferson, 55, grew up in North Philadelphia in a blue-collar union family and remembers the hemorrhaging of jobs that many Democratic leaders said was unstoppable in a globalized world — even though such positions were deeply unpopular with many rank-and-file Democrats.

Manufacturing revived after bottoming out during the Great Recession but floundered during President Barack Obama’s second term. Mr. Jefferson, who said he voted for Mr. Obama, supported Mr. Trump in 2016. He plans to do so again.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The sector still represents a relatively small slice of the economy, accounting for 11 percent of the country’s total output and employing less than 9 percent of American workers. But Mr. Trump has been a relentless cheerleader. While he often took credit for manufacturing jobs at companies like General Motors and Foxconn that later disappeared or never materialized, the pace of hiring in the sector sped up considerably in 2018 before stalling out last year.

As a result, in this election, unlike the last, the significance of manufacturing and the need for a more skeptical approach to free trade are not contested.

Mr. Biden, after decades of supporting trade pacts, is now running on a “made in all of America” program that promises to “use full power of the federal government to bolster American industrial and technological strength.” He has also vowed to use the tax code to encourage businesses to keep or create jobs on American soil.

Even voters who don’t particularly like Mr. Trump credit him with re-energizing the U.S. economy.

Walter Dealtrey Jr., who runs a tire service, sales and retreading business in Bethlehem that his father started 65 years ago, said he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but he was never a big fan of the president.

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Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

“He talks too much,” said Mr. Dealtrey, who’s been around long enough to distinguish a new Goodyear or Michelin tire by its smell. “And his tone is terrible.” A year ago, he had considered the possibility of supporting a moderate Democrat like Mr. Biden or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

But with Election Day just over a week away, Mr. Dealtrey plans to once again support the president. Even after a few unnervingly slow months in the spring and some layoffs among the 960 people he employed at his company, Service Tire Truck Centers, he still trusts Mr. Trump on the economy.

Just how much responsibility Mr. Trump deserves for reframing some key economic issues is up for debate. Frustration about job losses in the United States has been brewing for decades; the parties were diverging on immigration; and antagonism toward China over trade practices, suspicions of technology theft and its authoritarian tactics extends beyond the United States.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“I don’t think he really has pushed the boundaries of any of those policy issues beyond where they already were,” said Mr. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute.

Similarly, Jason Furman, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, argues that Mr. Trump was pushed along by the same trends and forces that spurred his supporters. And on some issues, like immigration, he caused public opinion to move in the opposite direction.

In the end, it may turn out that the president’s most significant impact on economic policy is not one that he intended: overturning the conventional wisdom about the impact of government deficits.

By simultaneously pursuing steep tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, raising military spending and ruling out Medicare and Social Security reductions, Mr. Trump presided over unprecedented trillion-dollar deficits. Emergency pandemic relief added to the bill. Such sums were supposed to cause interest rates and inflation to spike and crowd out private investment. They didn’t.

“Trump has done a lot to legitimize deficit spending,” Mr. Furman said.

Mr. Furman is one of a growing circle of economists and bankers who have called for Washington to let go of its debt obsession. Investing in infrastructure, health care, education and job creation are worth borrowing for, they argue, particularly in an era of low interest rates.

That doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. Republicans will undoubtedly oppose deficits resulting from proposals put forward by a Democratic White House — and vice versa. But warnings about the calamitous consequences of federal borrowing are unlikely to have the same resonance as before the Trump presidency.

Back in his office, Mr. Dealtrey remembers how disturbed he once was about the size of the deficit. “I used to care about my kids and grandkids being stuck with it,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “But nobody cares anymore.”

“Maybe I don’t care anymore,” he said, momentarily surprised at his own words. “We’ve got bigger problems than that.”

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The Fed’s $4 Trillion Lifeline Never Materialized. Here’s Why.

WASHINGTON — As companies furloughed millions of workers and stock prices plunged through late March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a glimmer of hope: The government was about to step in with a $4 trillion bazooka.

The scope of that promise hinged on the Federal Reserve. The relief package winding through Congress at the time included a $454 billion pot of money earmarked for the Treasury to back Fed loan programs. Every one of those dollars could, in theory, be turned into as much as $10 in loans. Emergency powers would allow the central bank to create the money for lending; it just required that the Treasury insure against losses.

It was a shock-and-awe moment when lawmakers gave the package a thumbs up. Yet in the months since, the planned punch has not materialized.

The Treasury has allocated $195 billion to back Fed lending programs, less than half of the allotted sum. The programs supported by that insurance have made just $20 billion in loans, far less than the suggested trillions.

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The programs have partly fallen victim to their own success: Markets calmed as the Fed vowed to intervene, making the facilities less necessary as credit began to flow again. They have also been undercut by Mr. Mnuchin’s fear of taking credit losses, limiting the risk the government was willing to take and excluding some would-be borrowers. And they have been restrained by reticence at the central bank, which has extended its authorities into new markets, including some — like midsize business lending — that its powers are poorly designed to serve. The Fed has pushed the boundaries on its traditional role as a lender of last resort, but not far enough to hand out the sort of loans some in Congress had envisioned.

Lawmakers, President Trump and administration officials are now clamoring to repurpose the unused funds, an effort that has taken on more urgency as the economic recovery slows and the chances of another fiscal package remain unclear. The various programs are set to expire on Dec. 31 unless Mr. Mnuchin and Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, extend them.

Here’s how that $454 billion failed to turn into $4 trillion, and why the Fed and Treasury are under pressure to do more with the money.

The Fed can lend to private entities to keep markets functioning in times of stress, and in the early days of the crisis it rolled out a far-reaching set of programs meant to soothe panicked investors.

But the Fed’s vast power comes with strings attached. Treasury must approve of any lending programs it wants to set up. The programs must lend to solvent entities and be broad-based, rather than targeting one or two individual firms. If the borrowers are risky, the Fed requires insurance from either the private sector or the Treasury Department.

Early in the crisis, the Treasury used existing money to back market-focused stabilization programs. But that funding source was finite, and as Mr. Mnuchin negotiated with Congress, he pushed for money to back a broader spate of Fed lending efforts.

The central bank itself made a major announcement on March 23, as the package was being negotiated. It said it was making plans to funnel money into a wide array of desperate hands, not just into Wall Street’s plumbing. Officials would set up an effort to lend to small and medium-size businesses, the Fed said, and another that would keep corporate bonds flowing. It would go on to expand that program to include some recently downgraded bonds, so-called fallen angels, and to add a bond-buying program for state and local governments.

Congress allocated $454 billion in support of the programs as part of the economic relief package signed into law on March 27. When the Congressional Budget Office estimated the budget effects of that funding, it did not count the cost toward the federal deficit, since borrowers would repay on the Fed’s loans, and fees and earnings should offset losses.

Mr. Mnuchin and congressional leaders did not settle on that sum for a very precise economic reason, a senior Treasury official said, but they knew conditions were bad and wanted to go big.

Overdoing it would cost nothing, and the size of the pot allowed Mr. Mnuchin to say that the partners could pump “up to $4 trillion” into the economy.

It was like nuclear deterrence for financial markets: Promise that the government had enough liquidity-blasting superpower to conquer any threat, and people would stop running for safer places to put their money. Crisis averted, there would be no need to actually use the ammunition.

Still, the huge dollar figure stoked hopes among lawmakers and would-be loan recipients — ones that have been disappointed.

Key markets began to mend themselves as soon as the Fed promised to step in as a backstop. Companies and local governments have been able to raise funds by selling debt to private investors at low rates.

Corporate bond issuance had ground to a standstill before the Fed stepped in, but companies have raised $1.5 trillion since it did, Daleep Singh, an official at the New York Fed, said on Tuesday. That is double the pace last year. The companies raising money are major employers and producers, and if they lacked access to credit it would spell trouble for the economy.

While self-induced obsolescence partly explains why the programs have not been used, it’s not the whole story. The Main Street program, the one meant to make loans to midsize businesses, is expected to see muted use even if conditions deteriorate again. In the program that buys state and local debt, rates are high and payback periods are shorter than many had hoped.

Continued lobbying suggests that if the programs were shaped differently, more companies and governments might use them.

The relatively conservative design owes to risk aversion on Mr. Mnuchin’s part: He was initially hesitant to take any losses and has remained cautious. They also trace to the Fed’s identity as a lender of last resort.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century British journalist who wrote the closest thing the Fed has to a Bible, said central banks should lend freely at a penalty rate and against good collateral during times of crisis.

In short: Step in when you must, but don’t replace the private sector or gamble on lost causes.

That dictum is baked into the Fed’s legal authority. The law that allows it to make emergency loans instructs officials to ensure that borrowers are “unable to secure adequate credit accommodations from other banking institutions.” The Fed specified in its own regulation that loan facilities should charge more than the market does in normal conditions — it wants to be a last-ditch option, not one borrowers would tap first.

The Fed has stretched its “last resort” boundaries. The Main Street program works through banks to make loans, so it is more of a credit-providing partnership than a pure market backstop, for instance.

Yet Bagehot’s dictum still informs the Fed’s efforts, which is especially easy to see in the municipal program. State finance groups and some politicians have been pushing the central bank to offer better conditions than are available in the market — which now has very low rates — to help governments borrow money for next to nothing in times of need.

The Fed and Treasury have resisted, arguing that the program has achieved its goal by helping the market to work.

Congress is not uniformly on board with wanting a more aggressive Fed that might become a first option for credit. Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican on the committee that oversees the central bank, has repeatedly underlined that the Fed is a backstop.

And replacing private creditors during times of crisis would put central bankers — who are neither elected nor especially accountable — in the position of picking economic winners and losers, a role that worries the Fed.

Such choices are inherently political and polarizing. Already, many of the same people who criticize stringency in the state and local programs regularly argue that the programs intended to help companies should have come with more strings attached.

And it could become a slippery slope. If the Fed shoulders more responsibility for saving private and smaller public entities, Congress might punt problems toward the central bank before solving them democratically down the road.

“It’s opening Pandora’s box,” said David Beckworth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Being too careful could also carry an economic risk if it meant that the Fed failed to provide help where needed. The midsize business segment, which employs millions of people, has had few pandemic relief options. Struggling states and cities are also huge employers.

Yet those entities may be past the point of needing debt — all the Fed can offer — and require grants instead. And it is worth noting that just because the Fed and Treasury are not rewriting their programs to support broader use now does not mean the Fed would stand back if conditions were to worsen.

If that happens, “it’s going to stop pointing to the fact that it has a fire hose,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s going to take it out and turn it on.”

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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Donald Trump Is Losing His Touch. So Is the TV Producer Who Shaped His Image.

Did you catch Steve Harvey’s “Funderdome” on ABC? How about “The World’s Best” on CBS, “The Contender” on Epix, or “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge” on Amazon Prime? Or the Christian-themed dramas “A.D. The Bible Continues” on NBC and “Messiah” on Netflix?

No? Well, you’re hardly alone. And the man behind the string of flops is Mark Burnett, the legendary TV producer who shaped Donald Trump’s image from “The Apprentice” through his 2016 inauguration. Like his greatest creation, Mr. Trump — who sought and then lost an idiotic television ratings war on Thursday night with Joe Biden — Mr. Burnett seems to be struggling to keep his grip on the cultural moment.

Mr. Burnett’s story has been told often, and until 2016 he was eager to help tell it — how he reshaped American television with “Survivor” in 2000 and how, with the 2004 start of “The Apprentice,” he “resurrected Donald Trump as an icon of American success,” as The New Yorker put it. He’s been in Mr. Trump’s ear ever since: He held a planning meeting for the 2016 inauguration in his Ritz-Carlton apartment, the event’s planner, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, wrote. His associates produced the Republican National Convention this summer, Michael Grynbaum and Annie Karni reported for The New York Times. When President Trump took the presidential helicopter from the hospital to the White House this month, panicked Twitter commentators compared an official video of his triumphal return to the work of the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. But Mr. Burnett was the artiste whose influence really shined through on the video, though a spokeswoman said he did not consult on it.

“The level of production coming out of the White House is something we would have appreciated having,” Bill Pruitt, a producer on the “The Apprentice,” said of the video’s specific camera angles and its particular obsession with helicopters, a longtime favorite prop of Mr. Burnett’s dating back to “Survivor.” “As is customary for this, the reality TV version of a presidential campaign, it seems they’re not striving as much for ‘four more years’ as they are ‘Season 2.’”

But that style may have fallen out of fashion. Mr. Burnett, 60, the defining TV impresario, salesman and deal maker of the aughts, hasn’t put his stamp on a bona fide hit since the debut of “The Voice” in 2011. He shaped reality TV’s bombastic, gimmicky and sometimes cruel early years. But the genre has matured and shifted in the streaming age to what are sometimes sweeter and more positive productions, like Netflix’s “Floor Is Lava” and “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.”

And Mr. Burnett, until 2016 one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood, has gone dark. His Trumpian gift for telling his own story — about his triumphant reinvention of a once-great studio, MGM, and his plan to bring Jesus Christ to entertainment — has foundered on the reality of corporate infighting, creative struggles and a religious streaming network that never got off the ground.

“The impact that he was going to have on the film and Christian community has kind of gone bust,” said Peter Bart, who was a top executive at MGM before a long run as editor in chief of the trade newspaper Variety. “If that’s your main mission and your legacy is Trump and maybe the failure of the next MGM — that’s not a good chapter in his life.”

The current chapter of Mr. Burnett’s career began in earnest when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the once-great studio that had recently emerged from bankruptcy, bought out Mr. Burnett’s production company in 2015 for $120 million, consummating an earlier $400 million deal. That put him in charge of the studio’s television division. MGM got his stake in long-running shows like “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” and the promise of more of his magic. MGM’s chief executive, Gary Barber, blessed the acquisition in high corporate gobbledygook: “We believe this synergistic transaction will be very accretive,” he said in a statement.

But with Mr. Burnett inside, Mr. Barber now had a charismatic rival for the affection of the chairman of the company’s board, Kevin Ulrich. One source of tension between Mr. Burnett and his new boss, two former executives said, was the enthusiasm of Mr. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, for faith-based programing. The couple are outspoken Christians, and in 2013 they had produced “The Bible” for the History Channel, with Ms. Downey cast as the Virgin Mary. They then founded Lightworkers Media, which MGM now controls, and had hopes that MGM would turn it into a powerhouse.

But MGM never invested enough in Lightworkers to turn it into more than some scattered programming and a little-watched television channel, Light TV, showing family-friendly reruns. MGM’s biggest bet through Lightworkers, the $100 million 2016 film “Ben Hur,” lost money. Repeated promises of a high-powered streaming service never materialized.

Mr. Burnett’s relationship with Mr. Trump has also shadowed his run at MGM. He had long been part of a kind of media industry kitchen cabinet for the developer, along with CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, who had put “The Apprentice” on NBC, and the talent agent Ari Emmanuel. He and Ms. Downey had typically supported Democrats (Ms. Downey wrote a check to Marianne Williamson’s 2014 California congressional campaign), and he said in 2016 that he wasn’t actually supporting his friend’s White House bid.

But although Mr. Burnett promised associates that his friendship with the president would be great for business, he was also intensely sensitive to criticism of his old friend. He objected in particular, two people present at the time said, when an MGM board member, Jason Hirschhorn, began sharply criticizing Mr. Trump in his newsletter, REDEF in 2016. Katie Martin Kelley, MGM’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Hirschhorn’s “public statements at the time caused friction for many people at MGM,” and Mr. Hirschhorn, who left the board in 2017, declined to comment.

Since the 2016 election, Mr. Burnett has gone to great lengths to keep a public distance from Mr. Trump, batting away suggestions that he helped with the Republican National Convention. “They are not in communication and he had no involvement with any of the president’s public activities around his hospitalization for Covid-19,” Ms. Kelley said in an email.

Mr. Trump is just one thread in the internal tension at MGM involving Mr. Burnett. He’s always been a difficult boss, and even before the pandemic, he was a man-about-town deal maker — not an office-bound manager. He’s had so little input in the successes of the company’s scripted division, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Fargo,” that the division’s leader, Steve Stark, was recently forced to clarify to The Hollywood Reporter that he still reports to Mr. Burnett. He played a role in the messy 2018 ouster of Mr. Barber, which has left the company operating without a chief executive. Now, MGM is subject to perennial acquisition rumors and dependent on factors it can’t control: It is hoping theaters will be packed for the release of a new James Bond film next year and that the culture will be ready for the return of “Live PD,” a Burnett acquisition that was canceled this summer amid the wave of revolt at police violence.

After Mr. Barber’s ouster, Mr. Burnett announced that he and Ms. Downey would raise $100 million to start a Lightworkers subscription service. But those plans, Ms. Kelley said, have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, though “conversations have and are expected to continue.” For now, Lightworkers is just producing content for MGM, and recently completed production on a feature film called “Resurrection.” It also scaled back its digital presence in July, taking much of its content off the internet, including articles by Charlotte Pence Bond, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. (One had the headline, “Are You Narcissistic? Let’s Find Out.”)

Mr. Burnett didn’t respond to interview requests directly or through an MGM spokeswoman. After years in the headlines, he is keeping his profile low, and his name didn’t even appear in a recent, gloomy Wall Street Journal assessment of MGM’s finances. Some of his old partners, like Les Moonves at CBS and Paul Telegdy at NBC, have been forced out of their positions, and a new generation of network executives doesn’t jump quite so quickly at his calls. But if he’s not quite the producing star he once was, he’s still closing deals. In 2018, Amazon Prime resurrected a show called “Eco-Challenge,” which Mr. Burnett started producing in the 1990s, though Amazon has dropped plans for a second season, MGM confirmed. When I asked MGM’s chief communications officer, Ms. Kelley, about the perception that Mr. Burnett had lost his creative touch, she responded with a litany of his long-running shows.

“In his capacity as an executive producer, he has produced more than 70 seasons of shows for ABC (‘Shark Tank,’ 12 seasons), CBS (‘Survivor’ 40 seasons), Fox (‘Beat Shazam,’ 4 seasons), NBC (‘The Voice,’ 19 seasons), and the most recently launched ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge’ on Amazon Prime,” she said. “Combined, programs where he serves as an EP have generated 18 Emmy wins, and 150 nominations. Burnett’s TV division is consistently amongst the most profitable divisions of MGM.”

But the last great question for Mr. Burnett, of course, is Trump TV. Journalists often imagine that Mr. Trump will start a 24/7 news channel to the right of Fox News should he lose the presidency. But the best move of Mr. Trump’s career, tax returns obtained by The Times showed, was in reality, not news — his partnership with Mr. Burnett in “The Apprentice.” My colleague James Poniewozik wrote once that Mr. Trump’s problem is that “now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos.”

People who have worked with Mr. Burnett say they can’t help imagining that he’s working all the angles on the final, realest reality show of all, following a former president back into the real world.

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Biden Town Hall Leads Trump in Ratings Battle

Television ratings matter to President Trump. So these numbers may sting.

In a victory that few in the TV and political arenas predicted, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s town hall-style forum on ABC on Thursday night drew a larger audience than President Trump’s competing event on NBC, according to Nielsen.

Mr. Biden’s town-hall meeting, which aired on a single network, was seen by an average of 15.1 million viewers, compared with 13.5 million for Mr. Trump even though the president monopolized three networks — NBC, MSNBC and CNBC — simultaneously.

The town halls were vastly different television spectacles, befitting their respective protagonists. For an hour on NBC, Mr. Trump was darting and defiant as the “Today” host Savannah Guthrie pressed him to denounce QAnon and white supremacy (Mr. Trump hesitated on both) and clear up questions about his medical condition.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

On ABC, Mr. Biden and the moderator George Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober 90-minute policy discussion more akin to a PBS telecast. (Politico wrote that flipping back and forth between the two was like “going from Bob Ross to ‘WrestleMania’.”)

NBC had drawn scorn for scheduling its event with Mr. Trump at the same time as Mr. Biden’s previously announced ABC forum. Executives at NBC News said it was a matter of fairness, saying they wanted the same conditions offered to Mr. Biden at his NBC town hall on Oct. 5. Critics, including the MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, suggested that NBC had erred in allowing Mr. Trump to appear at the same time as Mr. Biden.

It appears that Mr. Biden did not need to worry. And the fact that the Democrat outdrew his voluble Republican rival is likely to inspire dozens of hot takes about whether, after four seasons, Americans are simply growing bored with The Trump Show.

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Viewership for Mr. Biden’s event, which began at 8 p.m., rose as the night continued, surging to an average audience of 16.7 million in the final 30 minutes after Mr. Trump and NBC’s forum had gone off the air, according to Nielsen. (Mr. Biden’s viewership bested Mr. Trump even without the assist from his extra half-hour).

The numbers were a bracing outcome for the president, whose aides had been promising a decisive ratings win over his Democratic rival. “We’re going to have a much bigger audience than Joe for next Thursday,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, told Fox News last week.

At a rally in Ocala, Fla., on Friday, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Biden was given “easy questions” by ABC and claimed, without basis, that Ms. Guthrie was “not too popular right now.”

“If you can’t handle Savannah, you can’t handle Putin and President Xi and Kim Jong-un,” the president said dismissively, referring to the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea. “That’s small potatoes, last night.”

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign took a victory lap. “Turns out more people last night were interested in watching a leader with a clear plan,” a Biden spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, wrote on Twitter, “regardless of how many channels” Mr. Trump was on.

The Nielsen figures released on Friday included viewers who watched the town halls on television or streamed the event to their TV screens.

His first debate with Mr. Biden, in Cleveland in late September, notched 73 million viewers. On Thursday, the overall viewership for both town halls was smaller than that by 60 percent.

Part of the reason Mr. Trump failed to match Mr. Biden’s ratings was a dropoff in viewers on MSNBC, whose prime time is beloved by liberals and Never Trumpers. Only 1.8 million people watched the Trump simulcast on MSNBC, below the channel’s usual average for that hour.

MSNBC’s audience is generally turned off by appearances by Mr. Trump, but its producers also did little to call attention to the event that would be pre-empting its usual 8 p.m. host, Chris Hayes.

Notably, MSNBC did not promote the event to viewers with an onscreen graphic, and when its 7 p.m. host, Joy Reid, signed off, she made no mention of the forum with Mr. Trump that was coming up next. When NBC held its Biden forum on Oct. 5, Ms. Reid’s lead-in show featured a promotional image of the former vice president in the corner of the screen.

It was a small but pointed sign of the tensions within NBC’s news division over its handling of the Trump event. Both Ms. Maddow and Mr. Hayes had suggested on the air Wednesday that they were not pleased with the scheduling decision.

After Mr. Trump’s forum ended on Thursday, MSNBC viewers were greeted by Ms. Maddow, the network’s top-rated personality, sitting at her anchor’s desk.

“Let me remind you what you just saw was a production of NBC News,” Ms. Maddow said, looking bemused. “We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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Twitter Changes Course After Republicans Claim ‘Election Interference’

SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump called Facebook and Twitter “terrible” and “a monster” and said he would go after them. Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn said they would subpoena the chief executives of the companies for their actions. And on Fox News, prominent conservative hosts blasted the social media platforms as “monopolies” and accused them of “censorship” and election interference.

On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

For a while, Twitter doubled down. It locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then prohibited the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

But late Thursday, under pressure, Twitter said it was changing the policy that it had used to block the New York Post article and would now allow similar content to be shared, along with a label to provide context about the source of the information. Twitter said it was concerned that the earlier policy was leading to unintended consequences.

Even so, the actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day. And Twitter’s bob-and-weave in particular underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

Facebook declined to comment on Thursday and pointed to its comments on Wednesday when it said the New York Post article, which made unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s business in Ukraine, was eligible for third-party fact-checking. Among the concerns was that the article cited purported emails from Hunter Biden that may have been obtained in a hack, though it is unclear how the paper obtained the messages and whether they were authentic.

Twitter had said it was blocking the New York Post article partly because it had a policy of not sharing what might be hacked material. But late Thursday, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, said the policy was too sweeping and could end up blocking content from journalists and whistle-blowers. As a result, she said, Twitter was changing course.

Ms. Gadde added that Twitter would continue blocking links to or images from the article if they contained email addresses and other private information, which violated the company’s privacy policy.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that “it is only the beginning” for the social media companies. He followed up on Thursday by saying he wanted to “strip them” of some of their liability protections.

For years, Mr. Trump and other Republicans have accused Facebook and Twitter, which have headquarters in liberal Silicon Valley, of anti-conservative bias. In 2018, Mr. Trump said the companies, along with Google, “have to be careful” and claimed, without evidence, that they were intentionally suppressing conservative news outlets supportive of his administration.

That issue has since come up repeatedly at Capitol Hill hearings, including in July when the chief executives of Facebook and Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, testified on antitrust issues.

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Tensions have also been running high for Twitter and Facebook as they aim to avoid a replay of the 2016 election, when Russians used their sites to spread inflammatory messages to divide Americans. In recent weeks, the companies have said they will clamp down on misinformation before and after Election Day, such as by banning content related to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon and slowing down the way information flows on their networks.

But with Mr. Trump trailing Mr. Biden in the polls, the companies’ handling of the New York Post article has ruptured any truce they had managed to strike with conservatives.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, asked the Federal Election Commission in a letter on Wednesday to investigate whether the companies’ actions could be considered an in-kind contribution to Mr. Biden’s campaign.

“I think it really is a new frontier,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “It will also lead to a new openness on the Republican side to think about what we are going to do about their monopoly power.”

Mr. Cruz, of Texas, and Ms. Blackburn, of Tennessee, said on Thursday that they would subpoena Mr. Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, for a hearing on what they deemed “election interference.”

“I’m looking forward to asking Jack and Mark about silencing media that go against their political beliefs,” Ms. Blackburn said in a tweet.

Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent Mr. Dorsey a letter excoriating Twitter for blocking the article and asking for a detailed summary of the process behind the decision.

Mr. Pichai, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey have already agreed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28 about the federal law that shields their platforms from lawsuits. Conservatives have called for changes to the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it impossible to sue web platforms over much of the content posted by their users or how they choose to moderate it.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Mr. Trump was even more pointed, saying in a tweet on Thursday that the companies needed to be deprived of their Section 230 protections “immediately.”

Others applauded the aggressiveness of the social media companies.

“The actions taken by Facebook, Twitter and Google show that these platform companies are indeed willing to enforce their existing policies, in particular around ‘hack and leak’ material,” said Shannon McGregor, senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike previous criticism of Facebook and Twitter for acting too slowly in taking down content, the uproar this time has centered on how they may have acted too hastily. (The exception was Google’s YouTube, which said after about 36 hours that it would allow a New York Post video about the article to remain up without restrictions.)

The speed with which Facebook moved was uncharacteristic, fueled by how quickly the article took off online and the sensitivity of the material, according to two Facebook employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Within three hours after The New York Post published its article on Wednesday, Facebook said it would reduce the distribution of the piece across the network so that it would appear less frequently in users’ individual News Feeds, one of the most highly viewed sections of the app.

The company billed it as part of its “standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. That process included spotting some “signals” that a piece of content might be false, according to Facebook’s guidelines for content moderation. The company has not clarified what those signals were.

Twitter then went further by blocking people from linking to the article altogether. That meant the article could not circulate at all on Twitter, even in private messages between users.

The backlash was instant. Republicans immediately tested the limits of Twitter’s rules, with some tweeting screenshots of the article. Francis Brennan, the director of strategic response for the Trump campaign, posted the entire article in a string of 44 tweets. The article was also copied and published on the webpage of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican minority.

Twitter scrambled to keep up. If tweets with the screenshots showed the emails, the company removed them. Mr. Brennan’s tweets were allowed to remain because they did not include the emails.

Late Wednesday, as the furor grew, Twitter tried to address it. “We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner,” a spokesman tweeted.

Twitter also said people whose accounts were locked could easily change that by simply deleting the offending tweet.

Also late Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey criticized his company’s communication about the decision, saying it was “unacceptable” to give “zero context” about the action.

Internally, Mr. Dorsey griped to employees that users weren’t given a sufficient explanation when prevented from sharing the New York Post article, a person with knowledge of the comments said.

Twitter’s hacked-material policy was written in 2018, with blocking links the main course of action. The company has since increasingly opted to label tweets, adding context or saying if they glorified violence.

But Twitter had not updated the hacked-material policy. So when the New York Post article appeared, and questions about the emails’ origin were raised, the only system it had was to block the content.

“We are no longer limited to tweet removal as an enforcement action,” Ms. Gadde said late Thursday.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Kate Conger from Oakland, Calif. Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting from Oakland, David McCabe from Washington, and Tiffany Hsu from Hoboken, N.J.

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NBC’s Savannah Guthrie Grills Trump Opposite ABC’s Sober Biden Talk

George Stephanopoulos of ABC had it easy, steering an old-school Washington veteran through policy plans against a patriotic backdrop, while Savannah Guthrie of NBC had to navigate the stormy waters of QAnon, white supremacy and whether the virus-stricken president had pneumonia. (Despite repeated inquiries, he would not say.)

Viewers of Thursday’s dueling network town halls with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — which aired simultaneously in prime time, much to civic-minded critics’ chagrin — were treated to a pair of telecasts as starkly different as the candidates they featured.

On a night when Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump had been scheduled to meet on a single debate stage, television instead cleaved in two. Mr. Biden’s ABC town hall had all the fireworks of a vintage episode of “This Week With David Brinkley.” Mr. Trump’s NBC forum had all the subtlety of a professional wrestling match.

The election may hinge on which type of programming Americans want to spend the next four years watching.

Ms. Guthrie, an anchor on “Today,” welcomed viewers with a friendly greeting — “We want to say, right off the top, this is not how things were supposed to go tonight” — that only hinted at the stakes for her and her network.

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There was no debate on Thursday because Mr. Trump withdrew, refusing to commit to a virtual matchup. Mr. Biden agreed to an ABC town hall, and NBC booked Mr. Trump for the same night — and the same time, prompting a furious backlash. NBC stars like Mandy Moore denounced the network, and the MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow chastised her bosses on the air.

But if Mr. Trump expected an easy night on NBC, former home to his show “The Apprentice,” he did not anticipate Ms. Guthrie, whose background as a former litigator quickly came in handy.

In an out-of-the-gate barrage, Ms. Guthrie pressed Mr. Trump repeatedly on his medical condition, if he had taken a coronavirus test before the first presidential debate, if he would denounce white supremacy and if he opposed QAnon — questions that Mr. Trump, who typically sits down with friendly interviewers, had avoided facing.

The president is a skilled dodger who has outmaneuvered his interlocutors for four years. But Ms. Guthrie repeatedly interrupted his filibuster attempts, throwing Mr. Trump off kilter.

“I just don’t know about QAnon,” the president protested at one point, declining to criticize the fringe conspiracy group. “You do know!” Ms. Guthrie shot back, respectful but relentless.

At another moment, when Mr. Trump brandished a sheaf of papers to rebut a point — “I have things right here that will show you exactly the opposite!” — Ms. Guthrie revealed her own set of documents. “Me, too!” she retorted.

The tone tensed up when Mr. Biden declined, as he has several times, to fully explain his view on expanding the Supreme Court. “Don’t voters have a right to know where you stand?” Mr. Stephanopoulos asked.

That did not keep the Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from complaining about what he deemed an overly easy night for Mr. Biden. “NBC is an interrogation,” he wrote on Twitter. “ABC is a picnic.” Sean Hannity, on Fox News, was more explicit in accusing Ms. Guthrie of bias, saying she interrupted Mr. Trump too often.

Critics of NBC are likely to argue that Mr. Trump, despite the grilling, still enjoyed a full hour of prime-time across NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, the networks that simulcast his town hall. And all after he refused to attend the scheduled debate with Mr. Biden.

Moments after the Trump event wrapped up, Ms. Maddow greeted her MSNBC viewers with brow firmly arched. “Well,” she declared, “that happened.”

Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.

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Riled Up: Misinformation Stokes Calls for Violence on Election Day

In a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, declared that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day.

For just over 11 minutes, Mr. Bongino talked about how bipartisan election experts who had met in June to plan for what might happen after people vote were actually holding exercises for such a coup. To support his baseless claim, he twisted the group’s words to fit his meaning.

“I want to warn you that this stuff is intense,” Mr. Bongino said, speaking into the camera to his 3.6 million Facebook followers. “Really intense, and you need to be ready to digest it all.”

His video, which has been viewed 2.9 million times, provoked strong reactions. One commenter wrote that people should be prepared for when Democrats “cross the line” so they could “show them what true freedom is.” Another posted a meme of a Rottweiler about to pounce, with the caption, “Veterans be like … Say when Americans.”

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The coup falsehood was just one piece of misinformation that has gone viral in right-wing circles ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. In another unsubstantiated rumor that is circulating on Facebook and Twitter, a secret network of elites was planning to destroy the ballots of those who voted for President Trump. And in yet another fabrication, supporters of Mr. Trump said that an elite cabal planned to block them from entering polling locations on Election Day.

All of the rumors appeared to be having the same effect: Of riling up Mr. Trump’s restive base, just as the president has publicly stoked the idea of election chaos. In comment after comment about the falsehoods, respondents said the only way to stop violence from the left was to respond in kind with force.

“Liberals and their propaganda,” one commenter wrote. “Bring that nonsense to country folks who literally sit in wait for days to pull a trigger.”

The misinformation, which has been amplified by right-wing media such as the Fox News host Mark Levin and outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Wire, adds contentiousness to an already powder-keg campaign season. Mr. Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and has urged his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.”

The falsehoods on social media are building support for the idea of disrupting the election. Election officials have said they fear voter harassment and intimidation on Election Day.

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“This is extremely concerning,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in Elon, N.C., who tracks extremists online. Combined with Mr. Trump’s comments, the false rumors are “giving violent vigilantes an excuse” that acting out in real life would be “in defense of democracy,” she said.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Mr. Trump would “accept the results of an election that is free, fair and without fraud” and added that the question of violence was “better put to Democrats.”

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In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a Democratic coup was “not a rumor” and that he was busy “exposing LIBERAL violence.”

Distorted information about the election is also flowing in left-wing circles online, though to a lesser degree, according to a New York Times analysis. Such misinformation includes a viral falsehood that mailboxes were being blocked by unknown actors to effectively discourage people from voting.

Other popular leftist sites, like Liberal Blogger and The Other 98%, have also twisted facts to push a critical narrative about Republicans, according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website. In one inflammatory claim last week, for instance, the left-wing Facebook page Occupy Democrats asserted that President Trump had directly inspired a plot by a right-wing group to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

Social media companies appear increasingly alarmed by how their platforms may be manipulated to stoke election chaos. Facebook and Twitter took steps last week to clamp down on false information before and after the vote. Facebook banned groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and said it would suspend political advertising postelection. Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flows on its network.

On Friday, Twitter executives urged people “to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November.”

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, said the idea that the group was preparing a left-wing coup was “crazy.” He said the group had explored many election scenarios, including a victory by Mr. Trump.

Michael Anton, a former national security adviser to President Trump, also published an essay on Sept. 4 in the conservative publication The American Mind, claiming, “Democrats are laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes.”

His article was the tipping point for the coup claim. It was posted more than 500 times on Facebook and reached 4.9 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Right-wing news sites such as The Federalist and DJHJ Media ramped up coverage of the idea, as did Mr. Bongino.

Mr. Anton did not respond to a call for comment.

The lie also began metastasizing. In one version, right-wing commentators claimed, without proof, that Mr. Biden would not concede if he lost the election. They also said his supporters would riot.

“If a defeated Biden does not concede and his party’s rioters take to the streets in a coup attempt against President Trump, will the military be needed to stop them?” tweeted Mr. Levin, the Fox News host, on Sept. 18. His message was shared nearly 16,000 times.

After The Times contacted him, Mr. Levin published a note on Facebook saying his tweet had been a “sarcastic response to the Democrats.”

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Mr. Biden would accept how the people voted. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the ones who refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

On YouTube, dozens of videos pushing the false coup narrative have collectively gathered more than 1.2 million views since Sept. 7, according to a tally by The Times. One video was titled, “RED ALERT: Are the President’s Enemies Preparing a COUP?”

The risk of misinformation translating to real-world action is growing, said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University Vancouver.

“What we’ve seen over the past four years is an increasing capability” from believers to turn these conspiracy narratives “into direct physical actions,” he said.

Ben Decker contributed research.

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Twitter Will Turn Off Some Features to Fight Election Misinformation

OAKLAND, Calif. — Twitter, risking the ire of its best-known user, President Trump, said on Friday that it would turn off several of its routine features in an attempt to control the spread of misinformation in the final weeks before the presidential election.

The first notable change, Twitter said, will essentially give users a timeout before they can hit the button to retweet a post from another account. A prompt will nudge them to add their own comment or context before sharing the original post.

Twitter will also disable the system that suggests posts on the basis of someone’s interests and the activity of accounts they follow. In their timelines, users will see only content from accounts they follow and ads.

And if users try to share content that Twitter has flagged as false, a notice will warn them that they are about to share inaccurate information.

Most of changes will happen on Oct. 20 and will be temporary, Twitter said. Labels warning users against sharing false information will begin to appear next week. The company plans to wait until the result of the presidential election is clear before turning the features back on.

“Twitter has a critical role to play in protecting the integrity of the election conversation, and we encourage candidates, campaigns, news outlets and voters to use Twitter respectfully and to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November,” the Twitter executives Vijaya Gadde and Kayvon Beykpour said in a statement.

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Credit…Twitter

They said the “extra friction” on retweets was designed to “encourage everyone to not only consider why they are amplifying a tweet, but also increase the likelihood that people add their own thoughts, reactions and perspectives to the conversation.”

If users decide they don’t have anything to add, they will be able to retweet after the prompt.

The change is likely to have a direct impact on Mr. Trump’s online activity. Since returning to the White House on Monday after a hospital stay to treat the coronavirus, he has been on a Twitter tear. On Tuesday evening, for example, he tweeted or retweeted posts from other accounts about 40 times.

Twitter stopped short of shutting down its Trending Topics feature, a change that many critics say would do the most to fight misinformation because people can game the feature to promote false or misleading information. Instead, Twitter will expand its effort to fact-check and provide context to items that trend in the United States.

Social media companies have moved in recent months to fight the spread of misinformation around the presidential election. Facebook and Google have committed to banning political ads for an undetermined period after polls close on Nov. 3. Facebook also said a banner at the top of its news feed would caution users that no winner had been declared until news outlets called the presidential race.

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People who go to retweet will be brought to the quote tweet composer where they’ll be encouraged to comment before sending their tweet.

The companies are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, when Russian operatives used them to spread falsehoods and hyperpartisan content in an attempt to destabilize the American electorate.

Over the last year, Twitter has slowly been stripping away parts of its service that have been used to spread false and misleading information. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive, announced last year that the company would no longer allow political advertising. Twitter has more aggressively fact-checked misinformation on the service — including misleading tweets from Mr. Trump.

That has led to a backlash from the Trump administration. Mr. Trump, who has 87 million followers on Twitter, has called for a repeal of legal protections Twitter and other social media companies rely on.

But Twitter’s fact-checking has continued. It recently began adding context to its trending topics, giving viewers more information about why a topic has become a subject of widespread conversation on Twitter. This month, Twitter plans to add context to all trending topics presented on the For You page for users in the United States.

“This will help people more quickly gain an informed understanding of the high-volume public conversation in the U.S. and also help reduce the potential for misleading information to spread,” Ms. Gadde and Mr. Beykpour said.

Twitter’s trends illustrate which topics are most popular on the service by highlighting content that is widely discussed. The trends often serve as an on-ramp for new users who are discovering how to find information on Twitter, but internet trolls and bots have often exploited the system to spread false, hateful or misleading information.

As recently as July, trending topics have been hijacked by white nationalists who pushed the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege and by QAnon, a conspiracy group that made the furniture company Wayfair trend on Twitter with false claims that the company engaged in child trafficking. The embarrassing episodes led critics to call on Twitter to shut down trends altogether.

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U.S. Unemployment Claims Remained Elevated Last Week

Applications for jobless benefits remained high last week, even as the collapse of stimulus talks in Washington raised fears of a new wave of layoffs.

Unemployment filings have fallen swiftly from their peak of more than six million last spring. But that progress has recently stalled at a level far higher than the worst weeks of past recessions. That pattern continued last week, the Labor Department said Thursday: More than 800,000 Americans filed new applications for state benefits, before adjusting for seasonal variations, roughly in line with where the total has been since early August.

“The level of claims is still staggeringly high,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the career site Glassdoor. “We’re seeing evidence that the recovery is slowing down, whether it’s in slowing payroll gains or in the sluggish improvement in jobless claims.”

That slowdown comes as trillions of dollars in government aid to households and businesses has dried up. Prospects for a new stimulus package, already dubious in a divided Washington, appeared to fall apart this week when President Trump said he was pulling out of negotiations. Economists across the ideological spectrum warn that the loss of federal help will lead to more layoffs and business failures, and more pain for families.

The continued high level of jobless claims, combined with large monthly job gains, highlights the remarkable level of churn still roiling the U.S. labor market. Companies are continuing to rehire workers as they reopen, even as other companies cut jobs in response to still-depressed demand for goods and services. The result is a job market that is being pulled in two directions at once — and economic data that can appear to tell contradictory stories.

Adding to the challenge for analysts and forecasters, the pandemic has thrown the data itself into disarray. For the second week in a row, the jobless claims data carried a Golden-State-size asterisk: California last month announced that it would temporarily stop accepting new unemployment applications while it addressed a huge processing backlog and installed procedures to weed out fraud.

In the absence of up-to-date data, the Labor Department is assuming California’s claim number was unchanged from its pre-shutdown figure of more than 225,000 applications, or more than a quarter of the national total. The state began accepting new filings this week, and is expected to resume reporting data in time for next week’s report.

While the lack of data from California makes week-to-week comparisons difficult, the bigger picture is clear: The economic recovery is losing momentum, even as millions of Americans remain out of work.

Monthly jobs data released last week showed that job growth slowed sharply in September, and that last spring’s temporary furloughs are increasingly turning into permanent job losses. Major corporations like Disney and Allstate have announced thousands of new job cuts. And with winter approaching, restaurants and other businesses that were able to shift operations outdoors during warmer weather could be forced to pull back anew.

Separate data from the Census Bureau on Wednesday showed that 8.3 million Americans reported being behind on rent in mid-September, and 3.8 million reported that they were likely to be evicted in the next two months. Both figures have changed little since August.

“It seems increasingly unlikely that we’ll have a deal before the election, and bills are due now,” Mr. Zhao said. “Every week that passes puts extra pressure on workers’ households and small businesses, so any delay in the stimulus is going to have a meaningful impact on Americans.”

The situation is particularly dire for people who lost their jobs early in the pandemic, many of whom are now nearing the end of their unemployment benefits.

Last week was the 29th week since mass layoffs began in March. In most states, regular unemployment benefits last just 26 weeks, meaning that many people have already exhausted their benefits.

In March, Congress created a program funded by the federal government for people whose state benefits have expired. The number of recipients under that program, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, swelled to nearly two million in mid-September, up from 1.4 million a month earlier.

The program adds only 13 weeks of additional benefits, however, so people who lost their jobs in March will receive those benefits only until mid-December. And the entire program will expire at the end of the year if Congress doesn’t extend it.

A separate program, which existed before the pandemic, offers an additional 13 to 20 weeks of benefits, depending on the state. But the benefits are based on state economic conditions, and the rapid decline in the unemployment rate means that workers in several states, including Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, would no longer qualify for it. Missouri will join their ranks next week.

Another emergency program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, also expires at the end of the year. That program covers freelancers, self-employed workers, part-timers and others who don’t qualify for benefits under the regular unemployment system. More than 460,000 people filed new applications under the program last week, and millions are receiving benefits in total.

The net result is that potentially millions of workers could see their benefits expire this winter. Epidemiologists warn that cases of the coronavirus are likely to rise as temperatures drop, and winter weather could reduce job opportunities.

“People are going to have their backs against the wall, and it’s pretty much the worst time of the year for the program to end,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the employment site Indeed.

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Campaigns Spar Over Debate Plan After Trump Rejects Virtual Face-Off

Next week’s presidential debate was on the verge of cancellation after President Trump said on Thursday that he would refuse to participate in a virtual matchup and Joseph R. Biden Jr. pledged to hold a televised town-hall gathering with voters on the same night.

Mr. Trump rejected plans by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which cited concerns about the coronavirus, to have the candidates square off from separate locations next Thursday rather than onstage in Miami.

In response, aides to Mr. Biden said the Democratic presidential nominee would “find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly” that evening — and the campaign did not hesitate to follow through. A quick series of conversations between ABC News and the Biden campaign led to the network’s announcement of a town hall in Philadelphia with Mr. Biden next Thursday, to be moderated by the anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Late Thursday, however, Mr. Trump’s team abruptly reversed course. According to Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, the president wanted to debate, after all.

Citing a claim from the president’s doctor that Mr. Trump would soon be cleared to appear in public, Mr. Stepien said in a statement that there was “no medical reason why the Commission on Presidential Debates should shift the debate to a virtual setting, postpone it, or otherwise alter it in any way.” He went on: “The commission must stop protecting Joe Biden from this in-person debate and allow the event to proceed as it was agreed to months ago.”

In fact, it was Mr. Trump who, on Thursday morning, had declared “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate” and dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.” The White House has also repeatedly declined to give details about Mr. Trump’s current health status, and the president has not yet tested negative for the virus.

The debate commission had not consulted with the Biden and Trump campaigns before announcing the new virtual format for the Miami debate, which was to follow a town-hall-style format with questions from Florida voters.

Their decision came after members of the commission’s production team objected to the safety risks of staging another in-person event at an indoor venue, according to a person familiar with its deliberations. There was also concern about Mr. Trump himself, who recently contracted the coronavirus.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, conceded on CNN that he did not know if the debate in Miami next week would move forward. But he said that the commission hoped to go ahead with a debate scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, and that the event could be held in person “depending on the medical advice we receive.”

But the Trump campaign had not yet committed to the event, Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

The contretemps may pose the most significant test to the debate commission’s legitimacy since the group, a nonpartisan body, was founded in 1987.

No law requires presidential candidates to take part in debates. Traditions and norms govern the practice, and like many political institutions in recent years, the commission’s board now faces its own Trumpian stress test.

Newton N. Minow, 94, a member of the commission who has been involved in every general-election debate since 1960, said on Thursday that the day’s developments amounted to “a big loss to the democratic process.”

“American voters are the losers — deprived of the opportunity to see, hear and evaluate presidential candidates through today’s technology,” Mr. Minow, who was appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, wrote in an email.

Directors of the debate commission include former senators, business luminaries and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

The commission was already under pressure to change its safety protocols after last week’s debate in Cleveland, where Mr. Trump’s family and aides declined to wear masks in the debate hall, flouting regulations set by the organizers. Mr. Biden’s aides had expressed concern about their candidate’s potential exposure to a president who could still be infectious.

Mr. Trump, in a Fox Business interview on Thursday shortly after he learned of the change to a virtual format, sought repeatedly to undermine the integrity of the debate commission. With no evidence, he accused the scheduled moderator of the next debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, of being a “never Trumper.” He said the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News, “was a disaster” who favored Mr. Biden. And he said the commission’s plan for a remote matchup was about “trying to protect Biden.”

In fact, a presidential debate with candidates in different locations is not unprecedented.

In 1960, the third debate between Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was held remotely. Kennedy debated from a television studio in New York; Nixon appeared from Los Angeles, with the men filmed on a pair of identical sets. The moderator of that debate, Bill Shadel of ABC News, conducted the proceedings from a third studio in Chicago.

How to safely stage a pair of indoor, in-person debates between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and spent three days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been the subject of intense conversations at the debate commission in recent days.

The situation only got muddier after the commission announced on Thursday morning that the next debate would be virtual.

The Biden campaign initially said it would welcome a remote debate. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Mr. Stepien, attacked the commission as “swamp monsters” and described the move to a virtual debate as “pathetic.”

Then Mr. Stepien, perhaps sensing some political disadvantage to skipping the remaining debates, said the president would agree to another matchup if it were delayed a week and held in person on Oct. 22 — a move that could give Mr. Trump more time to recover from the coronavirus. Mr. Stepien also proposed an additional debate on a new date, Oct. 29.

Kate Bedingfield, a Biden deputy campaign manager, rejected that proposal. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the debate commission does,” she said in a statement. “Trump chose today to pull out of the Oct. 15 debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing.”

Aides to Mr. Trump had privately discussed the notion of debates held outdoors, but people familiar with the commission’s deliberations said the Trump campaign had never formally proposed that idea.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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