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story.lead_photo.caption President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in substantive exchanges on a range of topics helped by a mute button keeping order. More photos at arkansasonline.com/1023nashville/. (The New York Times/Amr Alfiky)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred over how to tame the raging coronavirus during Thursday's final 2020 presidential debate, largely shelving the rancor that overshadowed their previous face-off in favor of a more substantive exchange that highlighted their different approaches to solving the nation's domestic and foreign policy challenges.

The men debated for just over 90 minutes at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

The debate gave viewers one last opportunity to compare the candidates side-by-side, even as more than 46 million votes already have been cast and there are fewer undecided voters than at this point in previous election years. In a contrast to the candidates' first debate, the two contenders spoke for more than 15 minutes before interrupting each other.

Helped by a rule that switched off the microphone for the candidate who was not talking, the two traded barbs and critiques, but kept their voices lowered.

With two weeks until the election, the night began with sparring over the president's handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Biden warned that the nation is heading toward "a dark winter," adding that "anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America."

Trump defended his management of the nation's most deadly health crisis in a century and promised that a vaccine will be ready in weeks.

"It will go away," Trump said of the pandemic. "We're rounding the turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away."

Trump insisted that his administration has done a good job with the pandemic, citing progress in treatment, testing and efforts toward a vaccine. He said the country needs to open back up and "learn to live with it."

Biden shot back: "People are learning to die with it."

"We can't keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy," Trump said. "There's depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody's ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself."

But Biden vowed that his administration would defer to the scientists and said Trump's divisive approach hinders the nation's response.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to view » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPiofmZGb8o]

"I don't look at this in the way he does -- blue states and red states," Biden said. "They're all the United States. And look at all the states that are having a spike in the coronavirus -- they're the red states."

The two blamed each other and each other's political parties for the failure to provide a new round of coronavirus economic aid relief.

Trump blamed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suggesting Pelosi doesn't want to do anything that would help him.

Biden asked Trump why he isn't talking to his "Republican friends" about a deal.

TAXES, BANK ACCOUNTS

Responding to allegations from Trump that he's received funds from Russian sources, Biden noted that he's released 22 years of taxes, which he says show "I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life."

Pointing his finger at Trump, Biden asked: "What are you hiding?" He told Trump to "release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption."

Gallery: Final presidential debate of 2020

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/1023nashville/]

Trump responded that he would like to release his returns "as soon as we can" but reiterated that he's under audit, something he also said in the 2016 presidential race.

Trump also responded to news reports that he paid just $750 in taxes in 2017, saying that he was told he "prepaid tens of millions of dollars" and that the $750 he paid was a "filing fee."

Biden again called on Trump to release proof. "Show us," Biden said. "Stop playing around."

Biden brought up the subject of his son, Hunter, saying his son did nothing inappropriate while working for a company in Ukraine and noted that Trump was the one who was impeached for dealings with that country.

Trump noted that Hunter Biden drew a large salary from a Ukrainian firm. Biden responded that the accusation had been investigated repeatedly and did not link his son to any wrongdoing.

He then attempted to turn the question into an attack on Trump, focusing on a recent report in The New York Times that Trump has a bank account in China.

Trump responded, "I have many bank accounts and they're all listed and they're all over the place." He said the Chinese account in question was opened in 2013 and closed in 2015, "I believe."

Trump made no direct mention, but alluded to a pre-debate news conference featuring Tony Bobulinski, a man who said he was Hunter Biden's former business partner, making allegations that the vice president's son consulted with his father on China-related business dealings.

Biden declared the discussion about family entanglements "malarkey" and accused Trump of not wanting to talk about the substantive issues.

FOREIGN MEDDLING

On election interference, Biden said any country that interferes in American elections will pay a price if he's elected, saying, "they are interfering with American sovereignty."

U.S. officials have reported that Russian hackers have targeted the networks of dozens of state and local governments in the United States in recent days, stealing data from at least two servers.

Officials are also accusing Iran of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for Trump, and trying to cast a bad light on the Trump campaign.

Trump said nobody has been tougher on Russia through sanctions and pushing for increased military spending by NATO.

On foreign policy, Trump said the Obama administration left him a "mess" to deal with in terms of tempering relations between the United States and North Korea.

Trump said he had warded off a war that could have threatened millions of lives, saying former President Barack Obama had told him he viewed potential danger from Kim Jong Un as among the country's greatest national security threats.

Biden said Trump had "legitimized" a "thug" by meeting with and forging a relationship with Kim.

Trump countered that Kim "didn't like Obama" and insisted, "having a good relationship with other countries is a good thing."

Biden countered by noting that the United States "had a good relationship with Hitler" before the invasions that led the country into World War II.

On the economy, Biden said he would push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage and rejected the idea that it would hurt small businesses. "There is no evidence that when you raise the minimum wage, businesses go out of business."

Trump argued that the minimum wage should be left as an issue for the states to determine. He said "how are you helping your small businesses when you're forcing wages? What's going to happen, and what's been proven to happen, is when you do that, these small businesses fire many of their employees."

RACE RELATIONS

Biden and Trump also clashed on race relations, as the former vice president calls the current president "one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history."

Biden said Trump "pours fuel on every racist fire" and noted that in their last debate the president wouldn't condemn white supremacy and told an extremist group to "stand down and stand by."

Trump portrayed himself as a champion of Black people. He said no president has done more for Black Americans than anyone other than Abraham Lincoln, and he accused Biden and Obama of ignoring issues of racial justice.

Trump told Biden: "You've done nothing but the crime bill, which put tens of thousands of Black men in jail."

Biden said he's been trying to change drug sentencing laws that disproportionately harm Black Americans and that the public knows his record.

Trump, touting criminal justice changes and opportunity zone bills that he has signed, said: "I am the least racist person in this room." He pressed Biden to answer why he didn't pass criminal justice changes when he was vice president.

DEBATE SETTING

In a visual reminder of the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of American society and fundamentally changed the presidential campaign, sheets of plastic glass was installed Wednesday that would separate the two men onstage. But in the hours before the debate, they were removed.

The debate, moderated by NBC's Kristen Welker, afforded each candidate the opportunity to make his case to a television audience of tens of millions of voters.

Trump offered praise to Welker, saying: "So far I respect very much the way you are handling this, I have to say."

Only around 200 people were inside the large college arena in Nashville.

One of those 200 was controlling the mute button for each candidate.

A representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates -- not the moderator -- was to ensure that each candidate had a two full minutes of uninterrupted time to deliver opening answers on six major topics.

A member of each of the Trump and Biden campaigns was to monitor the person who controlled the mute button backstage, debate commission chairman Frank Fahrenkopf told The Associated Press, noting that the button was not be used beyond the first four minutes of each topic.

The mute button was among a handful of changes implemented by the nonpartisan debate commission to help ensure a more orderly debate after the widely-criticized first debate 23 days ago.

And it seemed to work. While Trump and Biden each shook his head disapprovingly during each other's answer about the pandemic, there was minimal interruption. And neither man tried to speak while he was muted during the opening question.

TESTING NEGATIVE

On Thursday, Trump was given a covid-19 test aboard Air Force One en route to Nashville and tested negative, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said. Biden's campaign reported that Biden also tested negative.

Organizers initially planned to separate the candidates with the plastic glass barriers, but a Trump campaign official said the decision was made to remove them after Meadows called Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, during a walk-through of the venue site. Meadows put Fauci on speakerphone, and Fauci told those in the room that all the barriers would do was provide a false sense of security, a source said.

Additionally, any audience member who refused to wear a mask was removed, organizers said. Last month, several members of the Trump family removed their masks once seated in the debate hall and were allowed to stay. This time, Melania Trump, who was appearing in public for the first time since her own diagnosis with covid-19, was seen in her seat wearing a mask.

Before the debate began, Fahrenkopf repeated the instruction to the small audience.

"If you won't leave, you'll be escorted," he said.

To close out Thursday night's presidential debate, Trump and Biden offered divergent versions of what they'd tell Americans who didn't support them on a hypothetical Inauguration Day.

Trump said that if he's reelected, during his inaugural address, he would tell voters who didn't back him in the election that "success is going to bring us together, we are on the road to success." He touted the country's economic growth "prior to the plague coming in from China" that sparked the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden said he would tell his detractors that "I represent all of you, whether you voted for or against me," and "I'm going to make sure that you're represented." He went on to reiterate some of his major campaign themes, pledging to grow the economy, address systemic racism, move the nation toward clean energy and make sure every American has "an even chance."

Information for this article was contributed by Will Weissert, Michelle L. Price, Jill Colvin, Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Steve Peoples, Bill Barrow, Alexandra Jaffe, Stephen Braun and Zeke Miller and Aamer Madhani of The Associated Press.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday night that President Donald Trump’s divisive approach hindered the nation’s response to the pandemic. “I don’t look at this in the way he does — blue states and red states,” Biden said.
(AP/Julio Cortez)
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday night that President Donald Trump’s divisive approach hindered the nation’s response to the pandemic. “I don’t look at this in the way he does — blue states and red states,” Biden said. (AP/Julio Cortez)
“We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy,” President Donald Trump said in defending his handling of the pandemic. “There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
(AP/Julio Cortez)
“We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy,” President Donald Trump said in defending his handling of the pandemic. “There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” (AP/Julio Cortez)
Kristen Welker of NBC News moderates the presidential debate Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Trump offered praise to Welker, saying: “So far I respect very much the way you are handling this, I have to say.”
(The New York Times/Erin Schaff)
Kristen Welker of NBC News moderates the presidential debate Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Trump offered praise to Welker, saying: “So far I respect very much the way you are handling this, I have to say.” (The New York Times/Erin Schaff)
President Donald Trump answers a question during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
President Donald Trump answers a question during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
President Donald Trump answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden takes notes during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
President Donald Trump answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden takes notes during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden holds up a mask during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden holds up a mask during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
Tony Bobulinski, who says he is a former associate of Hunter Biden, talks with reporters before the presidential debate, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Tony Bobulinski, who says he is a former associate of Hunter Biden, talks with reporters before the presidential debate, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Nashville International Airport ahead of the presidential debate, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Nashville International Airport ahead of the presidential debate, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gestures while speaking during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gestures while speaking during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
James Shea watches demonstrators as he stands across the street from Belmont University Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled to be held at Belmont later in the evening. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
James Shea watches demonstrators as he stands across the street from Belmont University Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, is scheduled to be held at Belmont later in the evening. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
This image provided by NBC News shows NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. On Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, Welker is scheduled to moderate the second and last Presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. (NBC News via AP)
This image provided by NBC News shows NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. On Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, Welker is scheduled to moderate the second and last Presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. (NBC News via AP)
Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding his campaign plane at New Castle Airport in New Castle, Del., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, en route to Nashville, Tenn., for the final presidential debate against Republican candidate President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding his campaign plane at New Castle Airport in New Castle, Del., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, en route to Nashville, Tenn., for the final presidential debate against Republican candidate President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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