October 23, 2020
People watch a broadcast of the final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at The Abbey, with socially distanced outdoor seating, on October 22, 2020 in West Hollywood, California. The Presidential debate is being held in Nashville and is the final debate before the November 3 election. MARIO TAMA / GETTY IMAGES
By Edward Keenan, Washington Bureau Chief | The Star
WASHINGTON – “His buddy Rudy Giuliani is being used as a Russian pawn,” Joe Biden said about half an hour into Thursday night’s debate with Donald Trump at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Trump recoiled in apparent shock.
He probably wasn’t the only one. If you had a bet on Biden being the first to bring up the Hunter Biden controversy that Trump and Giuliani have been pushing, you probably made plenty.
But given the opportunity to discuss it, Trump didn’t manage to make the convoluted theory understandable to most viewers not already steeped in it.
“With what came out today, it’s even worse. All of the emails, the emails, the horrible emails, of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family,” Trump said. “Somebody just had a news conference a little while ago, who was essentially supposed to work with you and your family. What he said was damning. And regardless of me, I think you have to clean it up and talk to the American people. Maybe you can do it right now,” Trump said, referring to a story that appeared in today’s New York Post and a press conference Trump himself had arranged by a man at the centre of that story. To his most loyal followers, it may have sounded scorching. To those not steeped in right-wing media, it was almost incomprehensible.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life. Not a single penny,” Biden said, before turning the accusation about foreign business entanglements on Trump. Biden said 22 years of his tax returns were available for those who want to scrutinize his finances. “Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption,” he told the president.
In advance of the debate, many Republican allies and advisers of the president were saying he needed to appear calm and presidential (after his recent “crazy uncle” appearances at the first debate and his Town Hall), and zoom in like a laser on economic issues that persuadable voters outside his base care about. “None of his advisers expressed any great confidence he would do that,” deadpanned an Axios writer summarizing the insider talk.
Trump did seem to have taken the advice to avoid interruptions, and appeared mostly calmer — scowling and sometimes taking an annoyed tone but never flying off the handle. Biden smiled more while the moderator spoke, but did get worked up at points — peppering his remarks with his trademark “c’mon!” like he was seasoning a soup.
President Trump clearly wanted to bring the complicated allegations about Biden’s son Hunter that he and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have been pushing for more than a year to the forefront of the race. The allegations have been revived by reporting by the New York Post (based on the allegedly stolen contents of an alleged computer allegedly owned by Hunter Biden) in recent days that other media outlets have found questionable, but Trump and his campaign suggest it’s a smoking gun that should have Biden put in jail.
On a campaign media call before the debate, one of Trump’s advisers refused to discuss any topic other than Hunter Biden with reporters. Trump brought to the debate as his guest Tony Bobulinski, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s who has endorsed the validity of some emails at the heart of the New York Post reporting, and who was at the press conference Trump referenced. Trump has been crying wolf about Hunter Biden for more than a year — he wants the townsfolk finally come running in the week before the election.
The two men bickered back and forth about it — accusing each other of corruption, with references to Trump’s own foreign businesses and his hotels where foreign governments book stays while lobbying the government — but not a lot of clarity was brought to the question, other than Biden’s firm denials.
Biden obviously wanted to keep the focus on COVID, an area where a strong majority of Americans think Trump’s mismanagement has been significant.
“220,000 dead,” Biden said in his first words of the debate. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this … anybody who’s responsible for that many American deaths should not remain president.”
Trump said that in the face of a “worldwide problem,” he had done well. “It will go away, and as I say, we’re rounding the turn.” 1,208 Americans died of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and more than 64,000 new cases were diagnosed. Trump said a vaccine would be available in “weeks,” but said he could not guarantee it when questioned by moderator NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker. “We have to recover. We can’t close up our nation or we’re not going to have a nation,” Trump said in what might be one of the most straightforward phrasings of his position he has put forward.
Biden was asked about the possibility of more shutdowns, and Americans who fear the effect on the economy. “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden said.
A producer at the debate had a mute button to employ against the candidates if they attempted to interrupt each other, but it appeared to have gone unused in a 90-minute session that, if nothing else, was far more civil and comprehensible than the the candidates’ previous meeting.
The election is less than two weeks away, and more than 47 million people have already voted — more than a third of the total number who voted in total in 2016. Even in the best circumstances, it’s not clear that many minds are changed by debates, and in 2020s odd and crisis-plagued campaign, only a tiny percentage of voters tell pollsters they remain undecided. But for Trump, who trails in polls, it remained his last obvious chance to call voters over to his side.
Trump said Biden would introduce socialized medicine because of the influence of his party and his running mate Kamala Harris.
“He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them,” Biden said, countering that he wanted only a public option for those without insurance. “The idea that Donald Trump is lecturing me on social security and medicare? C’mon,” Biden said.
Trump repeatedly said that Biden’s economic policies would lead to a disastrous recession. “ If he’s elected, the stock market will crash. Okay. Very quickly,” Trump said.
“The idea that the stock market is booming is the only measure for him of what’s happeing,” Biden responded. “Where I come from, the people of Scranton don’t live on the stock market.”
Trump may have scored points in their exchange on clean energy. While the president scoffed at the cost of environmental controls and dismissed energy sources such as windmills, he accused Biden of being against the oil industy and planning to ban fracking. When Biden flatly denied a plan to ban fracking, Trump had another question. “Would you close down the oil industry?”
“I’d transition from the oil indsutry, yes,” Biden said.
“Oh, transition from the oil industry. That’s a big statement,” Trump said excitedly, clearly picturing clipping the response for ads in states where the oil industry employs a lot of people.
Perhaps the most stark exchange came over the recent news that more than 500 children who were separated from their parents at the border in 2017 by the Trump administration remain orphaned because their deported parents cannot be found by government lawyers. Trump first tried to discuss the “cages” that had existed under Obama, and other prior administration immigration policies. When pushed on the question, Trump tried to suggest some of the children may have been brought in by “coyote” smugglers.
“They didn’t come with coyotes, they came with their parents. They were ripped from their parent’s arms,” Biden said. “It’s a violation of everything we stand for as a country.”
Trump talked of visiting the children in custody. “They are so well taken care of, the facilities are so clean,” he said.