By Jonathan Lemire, Darlene Superville, Will Weissert and Michelle L. Price / Associated Press
NASHVILLE — President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden fought over how to tame the raging coronavirus in Thursday’s final 2020 debate, largely shelving the rancor that overshadowed their previous face-off in favor of a more substantive exchange that highlighted their vastly different approaches to the major domestic and foreign challenges facing the nation.
With less than two weeks until the election, Trump sought to portray himself as the same outsider he first pitched to voters four years ago, repeatedly saying he wasn’t a politician. Biden, meanwhile, argued that Trump was an incompetent leader of a country facing multiple crises and tried to connect what he saw as the president’s failures to the everyday lives of Americans
The night in Nashville was centered on a battle over the president’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs. Trump declared that the virus will go away while Biden warned that the nation was heading toward “a dark winter.” Polling suggests it is the campaign’s defining issue for voters, and Biden declared, “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America.”
Trump defended his management of the nation’s most deadly health crisis in a century, dismissing Biden’s warning that the nation had a dire stretch ahead due to spikes in infections. And he promised that a vaccine would be ready in weeks.
“It will go away,” said Trump, staying with his optimistic assessment of the pandemic. “We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
The president said the worst problems are in states with Democratic governors, a contention that is no longer broadly true as it once was.
Biden vowed that his administration would defer to scientists on battling the pandemic and said that Trump’s divisive approach on suffering states hindered the nation’s response.
“I don’t look at this in the way he does—blue states and red states,” Biden said. “They’re all the United States. And look at all the states that are having a spike in he coronavirus—they’re the red states.”
With Trump trailing and needing to change the campaign’s trajectory, the debate could prove pivotal though more than 47 million votes already have been cast and there are fewer undecided voters than at this point in previous election years. Their first debate was defined by angry interruptions but Thursday night featured a mostly milder tone until near the end when Trump resumed his tactic of loudly butting in.
In a campaign defined by ugly personal attacks, the night featured a surprising amount of substantive policy debate as the two broke sharply on the environment, foreign policy, immigration and racial justice.
When Trump repeatedly asked Biden if he would “close down the oil industry,” the Democratic standardbearer said he “would transition from the oil industry, yes,” and that he would replace it by renewable energy “over time.” Trump, making a direct appeal to voters in energy producing states like Texas and the vital battleground of Pennsylvania, seized upon the remark as “a big statement.”
As the debate swept to climate change, Trump explained his decision to move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord negotiated in 2015, declaring it was an “unfair” pact that would have cost the country trillions of dollars and hurt businesses.
Trump repeatedly claimed Biden’s plan to tackle climate change and invest in green industries was developed by “AOC plus three,” referring to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden chuckled during much of Trump’s answer and said, “I don’t know where he comes from.”
“I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds,” Trump said to Biden, who laughed at the response.
On race, Biden called out Trump’s previous refusals to condemn white supremacists and his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement, declaring that the president “pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
“You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character,” Biden said. The rivals’ reputations for “honor and for telling to truth” are clear, he said.
Trump countered by pointing out his efforts on criminal justice reform, blasting Biden’s support of a 1990s Crime Bill that many feel disproportionately incarcerated Black men. Staring into the crowd, he declared himself “the least racist person in this room.”
Turning to foreign policy, Biden accused Trump of dealing with a “thug” while holding summits with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. And closer to home, the former vice president laced into the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents trying to illegally cross the southern border.
Biden said that America has learned from a New York Times report that Trump only paid $750 a year in federal taxes while holding “a secret bank account” in China. The former vice president then noted he’s released all of his tax returns going back 22 years and challenged the president to release his returns, saying, “What are you hiding?”
Trump said he closed his former account in China and claimed his accountants told him he “prepaid tens of millions of dollars” in taxes. However, as he has for the past four years, after promising to release his taxes, he declined to say when he might do so.
Trump said that when it comes to health care, he would like “to terminate” the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, even amid a pandemic, and come up “with a brand new beautiful health care,” that protects coverage for preexisting conditions. Biden said the president has been talking about making such a move for a long time but “he’s never come up with a plan.”
He also denounced Trump’s claim that Biden wanted to socialize medicine, creating daylight between himself and the more liberal members of his party whom he defeated in the Democratic primaries.
“He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” the former vice president said. “He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.”
In a visual reminder of the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of American society and fundamentally changed the campaign, sheets of plexiglass had been installed onstage Wednesday between the two men. But in the hours before the debate, they were removed.
The debate, moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker, was a final chance for each man to make his case to a television audience of tens of millions of voters. And questions swirled beforehand as to how Trump, whose hectoring performance at the first debate was viewed by aides as a mistake that turned off viewers, would perform amid a stretch of the campaign in which he has taken angry aim at the news media and unleashed deeply personal attacks on Biden and his adult son.
When he feels cornered, Trump has often lashed out, going as negative as possible. In one stunning moment during the 2016 campaign, in an effort to deflect from the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he is heard boasting about groping women, Trump held a press conference just before a debate with Hillary Clinton during which he appeared with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. He then invited them to watch as audience members.
In a similar move, Trump’s campaign held another surprise pre-debate news conference, this time featuring Tony Bobulinski, a man who said he was Hunter Biden’s former business partner and made unproven allegations that the vice president’s son consulted with his father on China-related business dealings.
Trump made similar, if vague, accusations from the debate stage and exchanges about Hunter Biden did not dominate the night as aides on both campaigns thought might happen. Biden declared the discussion about family entanglements “malarkey” and accused Trump of not wanting to talk about the substantive issues.
Turning to the camera and the millions watching at home, he said, “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly.”
Lemire reported from Washington, Price from Las Vegas. Additional reporting from Steve Peoples in Nashville, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Alexandra Jaffe, Stephen Braun and Zeke Miller in Washington and Aamer Madhani in Chicago.