In the days leading up to the debate, Donald Trump’s advisers urged the president to stay calmer than he was at the first presidential debate in Cleveland last month, when he was widely criticized for repeatedly and aggressively interrupting his Democratic presidential rival, Joe Biden.
The president, who trails his rival in national polls, accomplished that, though it was a low bar. He interrupted the former vice-president less and he didn’t feud with the moderator, the NBC journalist Kristen Welker, as much. He even followed the debate rules of letting Biden talk when it was Biden’s turn – for the most part.
Much of the credit for that control went to Welker herself. Trump, who has been attempting to appeal to female voters who have been turning away from his campaign, praised Welker’s moderation (saying “thank you” and “I appreciate that”) despite spending the days leading up to the debate disparaging her.
Trump also wanted to appeal to voters by applying his own experience contracting Covid-19 after the first debate, but with mixed results. He said he “learned a lot” about the disease when he contracted it, said – without evidence and contrary to the statements of public health experts – that a vaccine should be available in the coming weeks.
“I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here, it’s China’s fault,” Trump said. More than 220,000 people have died in the US during the pandemic, and more than 8 million people have been affected – far more than any other country in the world.
Foreign policy dominated the debate
When Welker announced the debate topics, both Biden and Trump wanted to weigh in on foreign policy. But that’s where the common ground ended. Trump wanted to highlight unverified reports that Biden’s son Hunter was using his father’s influence to benefit himself and the Biden family. Biden was eager to talk about a secret bank account the president has kept in China.
The attacks at moments mirrored each other.
“You were getting a lot of money from Russia. They were paying you a lot of money and they probably still are,” Trump said at one point, without evidence.
“What are you hiding? Why are you hiding?” Biden said at another point. “The foreign countries are paying you a lot.”
Biden also wanted to frame Trump as a crony of strongmen dictators such as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
For most of the 2020 presidential campaign Biden has portrayed himself as a defender of his former boss’s signature legislation – Obamacare. But during Thursday night’s debate that changed. Biden advocated Obamacare “with a public option” – offering an expansion of existing public programs. “Call it ‘Bidencare’,” he said.
Trump meanwhile refrained from offering what his own healthcare replacement plan would be, simply repeating that “Obamacare is no good”. Trump’s main argument on healthcare was to suggest – without evidence – that any alternative to gutting Obamacare, including anything Biden proposed, would “destroy” Medicare and social security, two wildly popular programs.
Biden accuses Trump of fueling racism
The most heated exchanges of the night came when Welker steered the discussion toward racism in the US, which has become a key voting issue following the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked mass protests over the summer.
Trump, as he often does, claimed that his record on race relations tops almost any other politician’s in American history, except for Abraham Lincoln. He ticked off his favorite points on how the Trump administration passed a criminal justice reform bill, increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and how African American unemployment had dipped under his leadership.
But he said all of that in response to a question from Welker on racism in America, without directly answering the question. He also conspicuously never used the phrase “institutional racism” or pulled back from his previous criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
He was eager to attack Biden on the former vice-president’s support for a crime bill from two decades ago.
Biden meanwhile went on the attack, mocking Trump by sarcastically calling him “Abraham Lincoln” before saying he’s “one of the most racist presidents in American history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
Trump was most defensive when Welker asked both candidates about recent reports on family separations of undocumented immigrants. Specifically, Welker asked the candidates about more than 500 children who had been separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s push to deter immigration along the southern border. The United States has been unable to reunite those children with their parents.
Trump didn’t offer a direct answer. Instead he claimed – wrongly – that many of the children were illegally brought into the country through cartels. He also said the Obama-Biden administration was to blame.
“They built cages. They used to say I built the cages,” Trump said. He went on to say “we’re trying very hard” to reunite the children with their parents.
Biden, on the other hand, called the practice “criminal” and said “they separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with”.
The former vice-president added: “It makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Moving the dial?
Trump’s response to the pandemic and its economic fallout has seen his poll numbers drop, and the president needed to reset his appeal with the coalition of supporters who propelled him to the White House in 2016. But, despite his slightly calmer demeanor, it’s unclear whether he achieved that.
Biden was perceived as the winner of the final debate, according to a quick CNN poll of debate viewers and a panel of undecided North Carolina voters.