Election 2020

Trump, Biden Fight to Bitter Draw in Final Debate

Faced with accusations that his family is corrupt, the Democratic challenger gives as good as he gets from Trump.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump, shown in a reflection, participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump, shown in a reflection, participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With his back against an electoral wall only 12 days out from Nov. 3, President Donald Trump sought to undermine the integrity of his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, in their final debate Thursday, with personal attacks that Trump hoped could somehow reverse his grim poll numbers and swing the election his way.

But for the most part, the beleaguered president—though notably more controlled than in the first debate—failed to deliver the knockout blow most of his advisors believed that he needed. 

Trump still trails Biden badly in polling averages, including in several key swing states, but the former vice president’s big national advantage has slightly narrowed. As of Thursday morning, the NBC News national polling average had Biden up more than 8 percentage points over Trump, 51 percent to 42.7 percent, down nearly 1 point since last week. Even so, Biden is ahead of where Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016, both in national polls and critical battleground states. FiveThirtyEight’s national polling tracker now gives Biden an 87 percent chance of winning the election.

Nor was Thursday’s debate, which most pundits considered largely a stalemate, expected to change many minds. Only a sliver of voters are left undecided, and 48 million people, nearly a third of the electorate, have already voted.

Despite the bitter back-and-forth between the candidates over their personal ties overseas, the debate was notably more restrained than their first contest late last month, a chaotic event that was considered little more than a shout-fest. A replay of that ugly debate was avoided Thursday in large part because of new rules that muted the microphone of each candidate at the outset of each question put by the NBC News anchor Kristen Welker, the youngest presidential debate moderator of this election cycle, who gave a strong, controlled performance in the 90-minute debate.

Much of the early part of the debate focused on Trump’s much-criticized response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump, himself recently recovered from the virus, contended that although he takes “responsibility,” the main blame goes to China and “more and more people are getting better. … This is a worldwide problem, but I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do.” (In fact, Trump has been widely criticized around the world for his response, which has led to the United States, with just 4 percent of the global population, to suffer 20 percent of the deaths.)

Trump also accused Biden of trying to destroy the U.S. economy and undermine American morale by seeking to shut down normal activities in towns, cities, and states. “We’re rounding the turn,” Trump said, promising a vaccine soon. “It will go away.” He added: “We can’t keep this country closed. … People are losing their jobs. They’re committing suicide.”

Biden responded that he had no intention of keeping the economy and schools shut down, except in isolated, badly affected places, and Trump “thus far still has no comprehensive plan” for dealing with the pandemic in his second term. Biden said another 200,000 Americans could join the more than 220,000 already dead from the pandemic by the end of the year, with the nation facing a “dark winter.” 

Overall, Biden put in a fairly strong performance, appearing to stand up to Trump through the evening without any major gaffes—a pitfall for him in past campaigns. Still Biden may have left himself vulnerable to right-wing attacks by saying he would “transition” away from the oil industry, a remark that could hurt him in close battleground states dependent on petroleum like Texas and Pennsylvania.

Trump continued his attacks on Biden’s integrity, despite advice from his advisors that he needed to focus mainly on the issues—polls show he’s virtually tied with Biden on handling the economy. When Welker noted new reports that Russia and Iran are working to influence the election, Biden responded: “I made it clear, and I asked everyone else to take the pledge. I made it clear that any country, no matter who it is, that interferes in American elections will pay a price.”

Trump pounced, saying that there has been “nobody tougher than me on Russia. … I’ve got the NATO countries to put up an extra $130 billion.” He contended that Biden had received $3.5 million from Russians and was “very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow. … They were paying you a lot of money.” He continued: “The horrible emails, the kind of money you were raking in, you and your family. … I think you owe an explanation to the American people.” Trump kept returning to the same theme, calling Biden a “corrupt politician” at one point.

Biden responded: “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever.” He then drew on a recent New York Times report that Trump had a Chinese bank account. (The president said he closed it before he ran for office.) He also raised Trump’s as-yet-undisclosed tax returns, saying, “I have released all of my tax returns. 22 years, go look at them, 22 years of my tax return. You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. … The foreign countries are paying you a lot. China’s paying you a lot. Russia’s paying you a lot.”

In one of his best moments, Biden then turned to the camera and declared: “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family. And your family is hurting.”

Other than the heated repartee over their personal ties abroad, foreign policy played only a small part in the debate, mostly over whether Trump had handled the North Korean nuclear threat better than the Obama-Biden administration. When Trump said he had avoided a war because of his “good relationship” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and that the previous administration had left him a “mess,” Biden responded: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded Europe.”

Hoping for some foreign-policy victories to soften the blow of COVID-19 and the economy, the administration has made a slew of concessions to foreign powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is said to desire Trump’s reelection, appeared to give him a hand this week by proposing a yearlong freeze on the number of nuclear warheads on each side and an extension of the Obama-era accord known as New START for one year. Trump is also seeking to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 4,500 before next month and to between 2,500 and 2,800 by early 2021. But other efforts have encountered roadblocks: His bid to broker normalization talks between Sudan and Israel ran aground after the transitional government in Khartoum demanded key concessions, including Washington’s removal of Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list. On Monday, Trump conceded he would do that. 

In his personal attacks on Biden, Trump appeared to be trying to build on unsubstantiated claims that the Biden family is a “criminal enterprise,” as he said at a rally in Macon, Georgia, last week. “Lock up the Bidens. Lock up Hillary,” he said.

The exchanges were prompted by the return of Biden’s son Hunter to the news in recent days following a widely questioned article in the pro-Trump New York Post last week about unverified emails on a laptop that appeared to come from a fringe internet source of online disinformation, 4chan. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was reportedly the original source of the emails, but he has been accused of consorting with Russian intelligence to gain access to the information (though John Ratcliffe, Trump’s largely loyal director of national intelligence, told Fox Business Network that he believes the “laptop is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign”). The Post story suggested that emails found on the drive indicate that while Biden was vice president, his son used his connections to get Biden to meet with an executive from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company whose board Hunter served on. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have said in the past that no proof exists for such claims. 

Biden responded: “Every single solitary person, when he was going through his impeachment, testifying under oath, who work for him, said I did my job impeccably.” In September, even two Republican-led Senate committees concluded that while Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board was “problematic” during his father’s vice presidency, there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing. The report concluded that the extent to which Hunter Biden’s role “affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.”

In a further attempt to besmirch Biden, Trump also brought Tony Bobulinski, a former associate of Hunter Biden, as his guest at the debate Thursday night. Bobulinski, a retired lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and the CEO of Sinohawk Holdings, said the company “was a partnership between the Chinese operating through CEFC/Chairman Ye and the Biden family.” Bobulinski, in a statement to Fox News, said he does not believe Joe Biden’s past claim that he did not discuss his son Hunter’s business affairs with him.

But even as he attacked Biden over his son’s dealings abroad, Trump remained dogged by new revelations that his enormous indebtedness leaves him open to foreign influence—which he has already been accused of in the case of Putin, whom he has never criticized directly. New revelations from the New York Times’s investigation into Trump’s tax records showed he has pursued expansive business projects in China and maintained a Chinese bank account. The report also revealed allegations of criminality, impropriety, and corruption. Trump has made accusations against Biden and his family’s ties to China that have not held up well to scrutiny, but he himself was said to have taken in at least $73 million from foreign sources during his first two years in office, according to the New York Times.

In the polls, Trump appears to be suffering from his inability to focus on the issues that matter to most Americans and which have body-slammed his bid for reelection: the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the still staggering economy. Though the economy has recovered somewhat, with the unemployment rate falling to 7.9 percent last month from a high of 14 percent-plus last spring, it is certainly not “roaring back,” as Trump claims in his forthcoming interview with 60 Minutes this week. 

New jobless claims unexpectedly dipped below 800,000 last week but still remained historically high as hundreds of thousands of more Americans were put out of work during the ongoing pandemic. And according to an analysis by Axios’s Felix Salmon, much of the declining rate includes people who are working part time or for partial wages. For anyone looking for a full-time job that pays a living wage, “the true unemployment rate in the U.S. is a stunning 26.1%. … The official unemployment rate is artificially depressed by excluding people who might be earning only a few dollars a week. It also excludes anybody who has stopped looking for work or is discouraged by a lack of jobs or by the demands of child care during the coronavirus crisis.”

Experts argue that more fiscal stimulus is desperately needed, but Trump has provided scant leadership here, at one point calling off talks and then tweeting that he wants a big package right away. But the prospects of passing another aid package before Election Day are slim at best, with the Trump administration resisting funds for Democrat-led state and local governments.

Trump again tried to attack Biden for adopting “socialist” solutions on health care, but the Republican Party appears somewhat out of step on this issue, with more and more Americans desiring universal health care backed by the government. The economists Alex Rees-Jones, John D’Attoma, Amedeo Piolatto, and Luca Salvadori conducted a survey of over 2,500 Americans that concluded, no matter their party affiliation, “real or perceived exposure to COVID-19’s consequences has influenced support for expansions to the U.S. safety-net system.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh