Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, speaks as Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, listens. (Photographer: Morry Gash/AP Photo/Bloomberg)

Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden traded charges of secretly taking money from foreign interests, after the former vice president addressed head-on Trump’s efforts to portray him as corrupt.

Biden, declaring he had never accepted a foreign payment, noted Thursday in their final debate of the campaign in Nashville, Tennessee, that Trump has never publicly released his tax returns. He pointed at the president and demanded: “What are you hiding?”

Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On

Unlike their first debate, in which Trump repeatedly talked over Biden and the former vice president called his opponent a “clown” and told him to “shut up,” the candidates largely complied with rules of the debate that called for them to allow each other time to speak. In addition to accusing each other of being compromised by foreign money, Trump and Biden sparred over their economic policies, the coronavirus pandemic, immigration and racism.

The encounter was one of the last potential turning points of the 2020 election. It was markedly less contentious than their first debate, in September, after which Trump slid in public polls.

But with more than 47 million Americans having already voted in the election, the president had less opportunity to change the dynamic.

Biden showed he had anticipated that Trump would try to advance allegations that Biden had taken foreign money. Before the debate, Trump’s campaign introduced a man to reporters traveling with the president, Tony Bobulinski, who claimed without evidence to have discussed a business venture in China with Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

Russian Disinformation

Biden raised the topic before Trump, accusing the president and his associates of promoting Russian disinformation in unsubstantiated allegations about Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

“We are in a situation where foreign countries are trying to interfere in the outcome of our election,” Biden said. “His buddy Rudy Giuliani -- he’s being used as a Russian pawn.”

Trump responded by falsely accusing Biden of accepting $3.5 million from Russia. A report by Senate Republicans in September alleged that Hunter Biden received a payment of $3.5 million from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow.

“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life,” Biden said. Pointing his finger at the president, he said: “You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. What are you hiding?”

Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On

“The foreign countries are paying you a lot,” Biden said. “Russia’s paying out a lot. China’s paying you a lot. And your hotels and businesses all around the country, all around the world.”

Trump responded that Russia was “paying you a lot of money” when it invaded Ukraine during the Obama presidency “and they probably still are.” Bobulinski, who told reporters before the debate that he had spoken with Biden and his son about a Chinese business venture that didn’t get off the ground, “was damning,” Trump said.

Bobulinksi’s alleged relationship with the Bidens could not be immediately verified, he didn’t provide substantiation for his claims, and he didn’t take questions from reporters.

Tax Returns

“Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption,” Biden said.

“I called my accountants. Under audit,” Trump responded. “I’m going to release them as soon as I can -- I want to do it -- and it will show how successful, how great this company is.”

He continued: “I don’t make money from China, you do. I don’t make money from Ukraine, you do.”

Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On

Neither man provided specific substantiation in the moment for their claims that the other had received foreign payments, though Biden cited New York Times reporting on information about Trump’s taxes the paper has obtained.

“Theres a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said. “He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. “It’s not about my family or his family. It’s about your family.”

‘Typical Political Statement’

Trump mocked the remark: “That’s a typical political statement.”

Later, Biden mocked Trump’s frequent observation of stock market highs, which the president treats as a barometer of his success.

“If he’s elected, the stock market will crash. The biggest analysts are saying that,” Trump said.

Biden responded, “The idea that the stock market is booming is his only measure of what’s happening. Where I come from, in Scranton and Claymont, the people don’t live off the stock market.”

Trump’s campaign felt its candidate scored a serious blow against Biden by drawing him into an admission that he wants the U.S. to eventually abandon oil.

‘Transition’ From Oil

After Trump asked Biden whether he’d shut down the industry, Biden answered, “I would transition from the oil industry, yes. The oil industry pollutes significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Trump responded with incredulity. “Basically what he is saying is he would destroy the oil industry. Would you remember that Texas? Would you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?”

Trump, Biden Spar Over Graft, Covid, Racism But Keep Gloves On

His campaign later highlighted the exchange in a press release.

Biden opened their final debate by blaming Trump for the deaths of more than 220,000 Americans in the coronavirus pandemic, saying the president doesn’t deserve re-election.

“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said. “We’re about to go into a dark winter. A dark winter. And he has no clear plan.”

Wearing Masks

Biden said he would encourage all Americans to wear masks, contrasting himself with Trump, who has seldom covered his face before or after contracting Covid-19 himself. Trump defended his response to the pandemic, saying that spikes in cases in states including Florida and Texas have come down, his administration has directed the production of ample medical supplies, and the country is “rounding the turn.”

“I was in the hospital. I had it. I got better,” Trump said. “More and more people are getting better. We have a problem that’s a world-wide problem. I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do.”

Trump accused Biden of supporting further economic shutdowns that have crushed the U.S. economy. “We can’t close up our nation or we’re not going to have a nation,” he said.

The former vice president again accused Trump of being a racist, after questions from the moderator about their positions on the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump criticized the movement for what he said were abusive and crude remarks about police, but said, “I am the least racist person in this room.”

“I got criminal justice reform done and prison reform and opportunity zones. I took care of black colleges and universities. I don’t know what to say,” Trump said.

Biden responded: “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” mocking Trump’s habit of comparing himself with the 16th president. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”

Separating Children

Trump managed to get in another jab on Biden during an exchange on immigration. Asked about the Trump administration’s former policy of separating migrant children from their families at the Mexican border, Biden noted that the parents of more than 500 kids haven’t been located.

“It makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” he said.

But Trump, nothing that the Obama administration had at times detained migrant children, asked Biden, twice: “Who built the cages, Joe?”

Biden didn’t directly respond but said the Trump administration policy is “criminal.”

“They are so well taken care of,” Trump said of the separated children. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.”

Biden’s campaign had said he was ready for a confrontation at Thursday’s debate with Trump, as the incumbent had said he would attempt to steer the discussion to allegations of corruption against Hunter Biden. But for the most part, the two candidates engaged in a traditional-sounding debate without resorting to personal attacks.

Trump backed out of what was supposed to be their second debate after the Commission on Presidential Debates changed it to a virtual format because of the president’s recovery from Covid-19.

Trump needed to tamp down his aggressive posture from the first encounter -- which polls by broadcast networks showed repelled viewers -- and make the case for a second term, a line of argument he has struggled with in the past.

Biden Ahead in Polls

Biden, who is ahead by nearly 8 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, had to avoid any debate-defining gaffes that change the status quo. And he needed to minimize reactions to Trump’s provocations.

The debate, at Belmont University, had one twist after Trump talked over Biden repeatedly during the last face-off, in Cleveland. Moderators muted the candidates while the other gave his initial two-minute response on each topic.

Trump’s mic was cut off at least once as he attempted to interject while Biden spoke.

The Trump team said earlier this week it believed the debate would focus on foreign policy, something that neither the commission nor moderator Kristen Welker of NBC had ever committed to publicly.

The Trump campaign said it would force Biden to account for his nearly five decades of foreign policy positions. Trump has long downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus and has only intensified that message since his recovery from the disease it causes.

Biden has hammered Trump for what he considers a cavalier approach toward the pandemic that has killed more than 223,000 people in the U.S.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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