President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in their second and final presidential debate Thursday evening, less than two weeks before Election Day. The 90-minute debate took place at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kirsten Welker. Overall, while the debate may not have much of a lasting impact on the final outcome of the race, President Trump was the clear winner on points.
This debate, while spirited, was considerably more civil than the first debate. President Trump kept his cool and even complimented the moderator at one point. Some had worried that Welker would be biased against President Trump, based on her past conduct helping Hillary Clinton with a heads-up on a question she would ask in a post-debate interview during the 2016 election cycle and because of hostile questions she had previously hurled at President Trump. Welker did interrupt President Trump more than she interrupted Biden and the themes she chose for the debate were more favorable to Biden, but she was otherwise relatively even-handed in her specific questioning.
President Trump turned in a strong performance, staying mostly on offense throughout the debate. Biden was shaky at times in his delivery but did have some strong moments of his own. Biden did not commit any game-changing bloopers as he seeks to run out the clock while sitting on a lead in the polls.
Each candidate had two uninterrupted minutes, enforced by a technician’s mute button, to respond to questions on each of the six debate topics selected by Welker. Each segment consisted of approximately 15 minutes. The candidates were free to go at each other during the remaining time in each segment after their opening remarks.
The six debate topics that Welker chose were “Fighting COVID-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security” and “Leadership.” Welker chose to plow over ground already covered during the first presidential debate, such as the coronavirus pandemic that Biden has exploited in his campaign. She decided not to focus on new themes of interest to voters, such as foreign policy, the Supreme Court, and taxes where there are stark differences between Trump and Biden.
Among the president’s strongest moments during the debate was when he characterized Joe Biden as a typical Washington politician who has been all talk and no action. He also confronted Biden on the recent allegations of Biden family corruption involving China, Russia and Ukraine, which blunted Biden’s attempt to portray himself as the candidate with good character who would unify the country.
Shortly before the debate commenced, Hunter Biden’s ex-business partner Tony Bobulinski confirmed in a statement to the media that he had met with Joe Biden in May 2017 regarding his son’s business dealings with a Chinese energy firm. According to Bobulinski, who claimed to have substantial evidence to back up his allegations, Joe Biden lied when he denied having any involvement with his son Hunter’s business dealings. To her credit, Welker asked Joe Biden about the corruption allegations, which Trump picked up on very effectively. “They were paying you a lot of money and they probably still are,” Trump said. The president also wondered at loud whether Biden was the “big guy” referred to in one of the emails revealed from Hunter’s laptop that outlined a proposed business deal and equity allocation that was being discussed between Hunter Biden and the Chinese energy firm.
Biden fought back against Trump’s accusations of Biden family corruption with calls for Trump to release his tax returns and accusations of his own based on reports that Trump had a secret bank account in China. Trump said that he had opened an account in China where he was hoping to do business before he ran for president and then he closed it. He said that he would be willing to release his tax returns once the ongoing audits were completed and added that he had pre-paid millions of dollars in taxes.
Biden claimed that he had “not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life.” He added that nothing his son Hunter had done in his foreign business dealings was unethical, which was entirely unconvincing given the loads of money Hunter was making by trading on his father’s influence. Biden desperately resorted to characterizing the substantial materials supporting the Biden family corruption allegations as Russian disinformation, which Trump mocked. Finally, Biden reprised his line from the first debate that “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.” Trump was ready for this diversionary tactic, remarking that Biden was using the typical politician’s trick of trying to change the subject.
Welker posed her first question regarding the coronavirus to President Trump. She asked the president how he would lead the country during the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump recited the firm actions he took to deal with the crisis, including his restrictions on travel from China where the virus originated, which Biden had originally opposed. Trump said he believed that a vaccine will be coming within a matter of weeks, although he could not guarantee it, and that widespread distribution would take place as soon as a vaccine is ready. Trump emphasized that we cannot lock ourselves up in a basement like Biden has done. “I want to open the schools,” he said. “We have to open our country.” Trump responded to a question about his criticisms of Dr. Fauci by pointing out some of the early mistakes that Fauci had made while we were still in the early stages of learning about the virus. Trump was careful, however, to compliment Fauci as well. While President Trump said that “I take full responsibility” for the impact of the coronavirus, he was quick to correctly point out that “It’s not my fault that it came here — it’s China’s fault.”
Joe Biden repeated his claim that President Trump had badly mismanaged the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Biden falsely asserted that Trump had no plan to deal with the crisis, declaring that “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.” Biden added, “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan” to deal with what he called the “dark winter” ahead. But when it came to specifics, the coronavirus plan that Biden described sounded very similar to President Trump’s. Biden claimed that his calling Trump xenophobic and racist was not a reaction to Trump’s closing off travel from China, even though that was precisely the context in which Biden leveled those charges. Biden said he would not shut down the country today but hedged on what he might do in the future.
On national security, Biden played the soft-on-Russia card against Trump. Trump effectively countered this canard by giving examples of how much tougher he has been with Russia in terms of sanctions and the sale of tank busters to Ukraine than the Obama administration had ever been.
President Trump properly took credit for reducing tensions with North Korea, which he said Barack Obama had warned him was on the verge of war with the United States. Biden provided a lame defense of the Obama administration’s policies towards the North Korean regime. Iran was barely mentioned, and only in the context of recent reports of its attempts to interfere in this year’s elections. Nothing came up about President Trump’s success in the Middle East building a coalition against the Iranian regime, ending the ISIS territorial caliphate, killing of the world’s most dangerous terrorist leaders, and achieving peace agreements between Israel and two Arab countries.
Regarding healthcare, President Trump said he had gotten rid of the unpopular Obamacare individual mandate and wanted to replace Obamacare with a healthcare plan that would provide more affordable choices. He promised that he would always protect people with pre-existing conditions. Trump said that Biden’s plan, which would add a public option to Obamacare, is tantamount to socialized medicine that more radical Democrats like Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris and Senator Bernie Sanders want.
Biden defended the public option as providing competition with insurance companies. He denied that he wants to terminate private insurance policies and rejected the idea that the public option is a step towards socialized medicine. Biden’s claim that nobody with private insurance lost their insurance under Obamacare is untrue.
On immigration, President Trump was asked about his administration’s policies that had resulted in the separation of illegal immigrant families. Trump gave a strong response, pointing out that cages that were photographed with detained children were built during the Obama administration. “Who built the cages”? Trump asked Biden, who avoided the question but defended the notorious “catch and release” policy. Biden said that during his first 100 days as president he would introduce legislation to give 11 million “undocumented” aliens a pathway to citizenship.
Biden said that there was still systematic racism in America and accused President Trump of being a racist. At one point, after Trump remarked that he had done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Biden said that “Abraham Lincoln is the most racist president,” obviously meaning to refer to Trump who Biden accused of using a dog whistle as large as a “fog horn.”
Trump countered by referring to Biden’s support of the notorious 1994 crime bill, which resulted in the mass incarceration of thousands of black males, and Biden’s use of the phrase “super predators” in that context. By contrast, Trump said, he was able to get passed in Congress major criminal justice reform legislation, established business opportunity zones that benefited blacks and Hispanics, and secured stable, long term funding for black colleges and universities. “You were there and you did nothing,” Trump said to Biden.
When asked about climate change, President Trump boasted of America’s cleanest air, cleanest water, and lowest carbon emissions in decades. He correctly pointed out that the Paris Agreement on climate change, from which he withdrew but Biden wants to rejoin, let China off the hook until 2030 while restrictions on the U.S. would have kicked in immediately. Trump declared that he would not sacrifice American jobs, which would have been lost as a result of staying in the Paris Agreement, and that the Democrats wanted to spend trillions of dollars on a “crazy” clean energy plan that will destroy the country.
Joe Biden tried to have it both ways. To appease the Green New Deal crowd, Biden said he favored a “transition from the oil industry,” adding that “the oil industry pollutes significantly.” President Trump seized on this remark as “a big statement” and added, “Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?” Biden then lied when he denied that he ever had said he would end fracking, which he is now claiming in states like Pennsylvania that rely on fracking he would not ban. Trump offered to furnish the tape of Biden saying that he would indeed end fracking.
Finally, on the question of leadership for the future, President Trump said that we must make our country totally successful again. Success is going to bring everyone together, Trump declared. Joe Biden tried to position himself favorably in comparison to President Trump on the basis of character, “reputations for honor and telling the truth” – a heavy lift for Biden in view of the mounting corruption scandal engulfing his family and himself.