Trump and Biden Meet One Last Time for 'Robust' — and Less Chaotic — Final Debate
The nominees disagreed over how to handle the novel coronavirus, as well as issues of race, national security and climate change as Trump, who repeatedly heckled Biden in the first debate, toned down his style
The final debate of the 2020 election came and went Thursday without many new revelations — and without as much chaos between the nominees as viewers saw the last time they faced off.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden painted a drastically different picture of America and disagreed throughout the debate, though the two men largely avoided a repeat of their first meeting last month, when Trump repeatedly interrupted and heckled Biden, who responded then by calling him a "clown" and telling him to "shut up."
Thursday's debate moderator, NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker, thanked Trump and Biden for a “robust” discussion afterwards, before reminding Americans to vote in the election by Nov. 3.
"The goal is for you to hear each other and for the American people to hear every word of what you have to say," Welker, 44, said at the start.
Organizers did use a newly implemented “mute” button a few times throughout the night, as Trump and Biden argued over how to handle the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as other issues like race, national security, the economy and climate change.
Despite their more respectful approach, the two still came to a head at various points — especially when Trump attacked Biden with unfounded accusations of corruption and mocked the former vice president.
Biden repeatedly laughed off the president’s behavior.
“What is on the ballot here is decency,” he told viewers in his final remarks, while Trump promised he would make the U.S. “totally successful” if elected to a second term.
Here’s what happened.
Trump & Biden Spar Over COVID-19
Trump has complained recently that he thinks people are “tired” of hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global crisis was the opening topic Thursday night.
“It will go away,” Trump said. “We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It will go away.”
The president then claimed a vaccine would be announced in “a couple of weeks” but then backpedaled when Welker asked him if that’s a guarantee.
“No, it’s not a guarantee,” Trump responded.
Biden then drew a direct line between the death toll and the president’s criticized leadership during the pandemic, bringing up Trump’s previous statements that, "no," he does not take responsibility for the virus. (Trump did say he now does, though he added “it’s not my fault it came here” and repeated his long-running argument that China is to blame.)
“220,000 Americans are dead,” Biden said on stage. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as the president of the United States of America.”
Biden, who has largely pressed a campaign message about how Trump handled the virus, emphasized that Trump “has no plan” and laid out his own approach if elected, warning that the country is headed for a “dark winter” if Trump remains in office.
“This is the same fellow who told you this is going to end by Easter,” Biden said, bringing up Trump’s initial claims in March that the pandemic would be over within weeks. “We’re about to go into a dark winter — a dark winter — and he has no clear plan. And there’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”
On Reopening the Economy
Tensions began to slightly rise a bit while the two candidates began disagreeing on precautions businesses need to take in order to safely reopen while the coronavirus is still a danger.
“I don’t look at this the way he does — red states, blue states, it’s all the United States,” Biden said. “What we have to do is say wear these masks, and get the help these businesses need.”
Trump argued that “we need to open up” and said it’s too expensive for businesses to be mandated to put up things like plexiglass barriers. “These are restaurants that are dying,” Trump said.
Biden then sought to correct Trump’s claim that his opponent wants to shut down the country.
“I'm going to shut down the virus. Not the country,” Biden said.
On National Security & Personal Finances
Things began to get conspiratorial when Welker asked the candidates about foreign policy, as Trump began raising unfounded claims about Biden’s family (and in particular his son Hunter, who has a history of personal troubles) as the former vice president shook his head.
“Let me be clear: I have not taken a penny from any foreign source,” Biden said, before shifting the debate toward the fact Trump has still never released his tax returns — a question lingering over the president since before Trump was elected in 2016.
“What is he hiding?” Biden asked. “What’s going on here? Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
Trump said: “I’m going to release them as soon as I can. I want to do it.”
The president then claimed, without proof, that he’s paid “millions and millions of dollars” in taxes.
“He’s been saying this for four years. Show us. Just show us,” Biden said. “C’mon.”
On Healthcare & American Families
The two candidates sparred over their stances on healthcare, as Trump continued to claim Biden’s healthcare plans is “socialist,” while the Democratic nominee called that description “ridiculous."
“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said, pointing out he ran against other Democratic candidates in the primary largely on the premise that he didn’t support universal public healthcare plans.
“He thinks he’s running against somebody else," Biden said. "Joe Biden. It’s Joe Biden he’s running against.”
Trump had told CBS anchor Lesley Stahl in an interview airing Sunday on 60 Minutes that he wants to see the Supreme Court repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
Biden said he would adjust his previous administration’s plan.
“I’m going to pass Obamacare with a public option,” calling the proposal “Bidencare.”
Biden Calls Out Trump on Race
Welker asked both candidates to speak directly to voters about racism.
Biden sympathized for Black parents who need to talk to their kids about being targeted by the police because of their race.
“The fact of the matter is, there is institutional racism in the United States of America,” Biden said.
Trump then claimed he understands what Black communities experience and claimed “nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump” with the “possible exception” of President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery.
That prompted a head-shaking moment from Biden, who raised Trump’s previous racist remarks and actions throughout his life — including his pursuit for the death penalty on five Black and Hispanic youth who were wrongly accused in the "Central Park five" case.
“You know who I am, you know who he is,” Biden said. “You know my character. Our character is on the ballot. Look at us closely.”
Welker then asked Trump what he has to say about his past remarks, including that he retweeted a video of a man yelling “white power!” to his 87-plus million followers on Twitter.
“The first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting ‘pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon,’ ” Trump said. “That was my first glimpse. I thought it was a terrible thing.”
Trump then said to Welker, who is of Black and Native American descent: “I am the least racist person in this room.”
On Climate Change
Welker asked the candidates about their stances on climate change and the environment, which led to Trump diving into his longtime angst against windmills.
“I know more about wind than you do,” Trump told Biden. “It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds.”Biden laughed and responded, “Find me a scientist that says that.”
Trump also argued that his administration has done a “wonderful job” on the environment, while Biden brought up the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back nearly 100 environmental rules, as reported by The New York Times.
The Democratic nominee then turned the debate towards more realistic issues, stating that he’s not against fracking. (Biden is against “fracking on federal land,” he said.)
Trump & Biden Give Their Final Message to America
Welker then turned the debate to its final question: “What will you say to Americans who did not vote for you?”
Trump and Biden gave different answers.
“We have to make our country totally successful,” Trump said, before launching into repeated talking points on COVID-19 and his record on race. “Success is going to bring us all together.”
Biden then took a more unifying route.
“I will say I’m an American president,” Biden said. “I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me. I’m going to make sure you’re represented.”
Biden then added that “what is on the ballot here is decency” and vowed, “I’m going to choose science over fiction.”
Welker thanked the two nominees for a “robust” debate, reminded Americans to vote by Nov. 3, and signed off.
First Lady Melania Trump and former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, both wearing masks, then walked on stage to stand next to their husbands and wave to the crowd.
Trump was the only one on stage not wearing a mask and turned and walked away with the first lady, as Biden waved at him goodbye.
Have questions about how to vote ahead of the Nov. 3 election? Use vote.org to check your state-specific information about registering to vote, voting by mail, early voting, finding your polling place and more. Early and mail voting are already underway across much of the country, while many states also allow voters to register at their polling places on the same day they cast their ballots