WASHINGTON — President Trump clashed with former vice president Joe Biden in their second and final debate on Thursday night, swapping the constant interruptions he deployed in their first meeting for a barrage of criticisms about Biden’s family and political tenure as he struggled to defend his own handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has come to define the race.
Less than two weeks before the election, the incumbent sought to present himself as the insurgent outsider with a bone to pick ― the same pitch that lifted him to an upset victory in 2016 — while Biden accused him of lacking clear plans, a vision, or a willingness to lift a nation in the throes of a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a reckoning over race.
The more muted tone of this debate compared to the first allowed more room for the two men to unspool strikingly divergent views on the handling of the pandemic, immigration, and climate change, although Trump frequently sought to turn the debate back to personal attacks, betting the future of his presidency on unfounded claims and taunts instead of a robust and focused defense of his own record.
They spoke of the pandemic that has upended American life and killed more than 220,000 Americans in sharply different terms, with Trump offering a sunny prognosis for the progression of the disease as well as exaggerated promises about the availability of a vaccine that he later had to walk back.
“It will go away. And as I say we’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away,” Trump claimed, breezing over the fact that new cases of the disease are again on the rise.
Biden accused Trump of lacking a plan for dealing with the crisis and talked about his, calling for everyone to wear masks, more rapid and reliable testing, and national standards that could help schools and businesses reopen.
“220,000 Americans dead. If you hear nothing else, I say tonight, hear this,” Biden said. “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
The debate at Belmont University in Nashville came at a crucial moment for the president, who is lagging behind Biden in national polls and key battleground states, and even fighting for a lead in states like Ohio and Iowa that he won easily in 2016. At this point, his path to a second term is narrowing, and the debate was widely seen as his last opportunity to deliver a disciplined performance in front of a big television audience — one that likely contained the few remaining persuadable viewers.
The last time Trump was on the stage, he mounted an aggressive and pugilistic showing in which he failed to denounce white supremacists when given multiple opportunities to do so and attacked Biden’s family members. His poll numbers slipped even further, and the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates this week announced a new, loose set of guidelines that involved each candidate’s microphones being muted at certain points to prevent interruptions.
Trump moderated his tone this time, but he used false information and exaggerations to suggest the Biden family had enriched itself off the former vice president’s career, allegations drawn from a New York Post story of dubious provenance, while sidestepping pointed questions about his yearlong refusal to be transparent about his own finances and business interests.
“They were paying you a lot of money and they probably still are,” Trump said, without offering any evidence. Biden pushed back by saying he had never taken a “penny” from foreign interests and asking why the president has for years refused to release his tax returns and disclose more information about his foreign business ties.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey, there’s a reason,” Biden said at one point, deploying a favored term of his. “He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family, and your family’s hurting badly.”
Trump pounced on the line. “Just a typical political statement,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not a typical politician … that’s why I got elected."
Biden offered more detail about his ideas for the presidency and aggressively criticized Trump’s handling of the virus in particular. He stumbled over his words at times, but in one of his strongest moments he cast voters' choice as clear.
“You know who I am, you know who he is. You know his character, you know my character,” Biden said. “You know our reputation for honor and telling the truth.”
The two men had a sustained debate — a rarity, given the tone of this campaign — over the best way to weigh the economic damage of lockdowns against the ravages of an unchecked pandemic.
“We’re opening up our country — we’ve learned and studied and understand this disease,” Trump said. He claimed a vaccine was “ready,” but, under questioning from moderator Kristen Welker, admitted that was not a “guarantee.”
“He says we’re learning to live with it,” Biden said. “People are learning to die with it.”
Trump accused Biden of trying to hide from the pandemic by “living in a basement” and then seemed to hold himself accountable for the first time for his response to the virus — before walking that back, too.
“Excuse me, I take full responsibility,” Trump said — an admission that seemed to surprise Biden.
But then Trump continued, “It’s not my fault that it came here, it’s China’s fault!”
Trump frequently sought to put Biden on the defensive, trying everything from dubious information about his family to hitting his record on immigration while he was vice president. Trump sought to tie Biden to more liberal members of his party, like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even though Biden does not support plans they are closely identified with, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
“He’s a very confused guy, he thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden said. “He’s running against Joe Biden.”
At times, the president seemed well aware of the need to undo the damage he did at the last debate. He dialed down the interruptions, and spent more time speaking somberly, although he seemed to express more sympathy for the economic victims of the pandemic lockdowns than those who have been sickened or killed. At one point, he went out of his way to compliment Welker, whom he spent days berating.
“So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say,” Trump said.
Trump also tried to paint Biden as a staid, typical, and even corrupt politician, and reveled in the irreverence that has made his presidency an exercise in shattering norms.
“I ran because of you,” Trump said. “I ran because of Barack Obama, because you did a poor job.”
Although he has demonized immigrants and Muslims and dismissed the concerns of racial justice groups like Black Lives Matter, Trump described himself as “the least racist person in this room," saying “nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump” — with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.
Biden responded with a sweeping denouncement of Trump’s rhetoric on race.
“ ‘Abraham Lincoln’ here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve ever had in history,” Biden said, recalling how Trump kicked off his first presidential campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists. “This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a fog horn.”
The two clashed bitterly on immigration, an issue hotly discussed in swing states like Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. The issue was absent from the prior debates and had mostly fallen from the national discourse until the American Civil Liberties Union this week filed a court filing stating that more than 500 migrant children remain separated from their parents after immigration officials split apart thousands of families at the US-Mexico border two years ago .
Trump would not answer a question from Welker about how his administration plans to reunite the families, instead touting the construction of 400 miles of border wall and insisting the children were “brought over by coyotes and lots of bad people.”
“They are so well taken care of,” he said, before launching into criticism of Obama-era immigration policies.
“But just answer one question: Who built the cages?” Trump badgered Biden, referring to photos of children locked up at border facilities in the Obama years.
Few issues have been thornier for Biden than navigating the Obama administration’s approach to immigration, which sought to target terrorists and people with criminal records but led to record deportations, including the removal of some people who had no prior criminal charges.
On Thursday, as he often has on the campaign trail, Biden pledged to send to Congress a plan for a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million people living in the country without legal status, including “Dreamers,” or young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
“There’s no mistake . . . it took too long to get it right,” he said. “I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States.”
On climate change, Trump resorted to what has become one of his central attacks on Biden in energy-producing states like Texas and Pennsylvania, saying the former vice president would ban the extraction of gas through hydraulic fracturing, though Biden has said he would not.
On stage Thursday, Biden highlighted his plans to create green energy jobs, saying the country needed to transition to other industries to get to complete zero emissions by 2025, but that fracking would not be going away for some time, except for on federal land. Biden appeared to misspeak about his plan, which calls for achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050.
The exchange prompted the Trump campaign to charge Biden with wanting to eliminate fossil fuels. At the airport, Biden attempted to clarify his statement, telling reporters, “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”