Donald Trump and Joe Biden squared off for the final time on Thursday night with just a week and a half until the election in a televised debate that saw the US presidential candidates spar over everything from the Covid-19 pandemic to race relations in America.
The bipartisan commission that organises presidential debates imposed new rules after the first debate, when Mr Trump repeatedly interrupted and spoke over Mr Biden, his Democratic challenger. The president’s own advisers acknowledged that the president’s bombastic approach during that encounter may have backfired.
This time debate organisers gave each candidate two minutes uninterrupted — with their opponent’s microphone turned off — at the start of each policy discussion. Both Mr Trump and Mr Biden followed the rules, and there were far fewer interruptions than in the first face-off, allowing for a largely substantive debate that underscored the policy differences between the two men.
However, the exchange grew more testy in the second half, which was marked by barbs and eyerolling. At one point, Mr Trump retorted: “Don’t give me this stuff about how you’re this innocent baby.”
In another instance, Mr Biden had a dig at Mr Trump after he likened himself to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US president who freed the slaves. “Abraham Lincoln over here is the most racist president we have ever had,” Mr Biden said, nodding towards the president. “This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a fog horn.”
Here are five key takeaways from the debate:
Mr Trump claimed a coronavirus vaccine was “ready” and would be announced “within weeks”, even though manufacturers are still conducting clinical trials while health experts say an inoculation will not be widely available until next year.
“We have a vaccine that’s coming, it’s ready,” the president said, namechecking pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. “It’s going to be announced within weeks, and it’s going to be delivered.”
When challenged, Mr Trump said his timeline would be “more accurate” than the estimates provided by health experts.
Mr Biden said voters could not trust the president, saying: “This is the same fellow who told you this is going to end by Easter last time, this is the same fellow who told you that, don’t worry, we’re going to end this by the summer. We’re about to go into a dark winter . . . and he has no clear plan.”
Money, money, money
Mr Trump and Mr Biden repeatedly levelled corruption allegations against each other. Mr Trump claimed Mr Biden was profiting from his son Hunter’s business dealings, while the Democrat referenced a recent report from The New York Times that revealed the president has a Chinese bank account.
Mr Biden said Mr Trump’s claims about Hunter were false. “I have not taken a penny from any foreign government,” he said. Mr Trump said he had shut down the Chinese bank account before he ran for president.
Separately, Mr Trump also suggested that Mr Biden was in the pocket of Wall Street and criticised the former US vice-president’s fundraising machine, which has broken new records for a presidential campaign. “You’re the one who takes all the money from Wall Street,” said Mr Trump, who has also received donations from financiers.
Asked why he had not released his tax returns, Mr Trump said they were being audited and suggested he was being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service.
Mr Trump and Mr Biden laid out competing visions for US foreign policy and the degree to which the US should be working with foreign adversaries such as Russia and North Korea.
The president trumpeted the fact that he had met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un unlike his predecessor Barack Obama.
“Having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing,” Mr Trump said. Mr Biden retorted: “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe . . . come on.”
Both candidates accused the other of benefiting from Russia. Mr Biden suggested the publication of emails attributed to Hunter were the result of a Russian disinformation plot designed to influence the election.
The candidates sparred over the Trump administration’s decision to break up migrant families after reports 545 children remain stranded because their parents — who have since been deported — cannot be found.
“Their kids were ripped from their [parents’] arms and separated,” Mr Biden declared. “And now . . . those kids are alone. It’s criminal.”
Mr Trump insisted that it was Mr Obama and his vice-president Mr Biden who had put migrant children in cages and that the children were being looked after. “They are so well taken care of. They are in facilities that are so clean,” the president said.
Mr Trump defended his decision to end the “catch and release” policy, which had allowed detained migrants to remain outside of custody until scheduled to appear in court.
“They never come back,” the president said, referring to those who did not attend their court appearances. “Only the really — I hate to say this — but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.”
In a heated exchange about climate change and environmental policy, Mr Trump asked Mr Biden if he would close down the oil industry. Mr Biden replied: “I would transition from the oil industry, yes.”
“That’s a big statement,” Mr Trump said. “It is a big statement,” Mr Biden agreed. “The oil industry pollutes significantly . . . it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
The comments were seized upon by the president and his Republican allies, who said the former US vice-president would lose support in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, which are reliant on the oil and gas sectors.
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Mr Biden currently leads in Pennsylvania — a state Mr Trump won in 2016 by just 44,000 votes — by an almost 6-point margin, according to a Financial Times analysis of RealClearPolitics data. In Texas, a traditionally Republican state, the margins are even closer, with Mr Trump holding on to a 3.4-point lead.
Some Democrats sought to distance themselves from Mr Biden’s comments. Kendra Horn, a Democratic congresswoman seeking re-election in Oklahoma, another state with a large oil and gas sector, said on Twitter that she did not agree with the former US vice-president, adding: “We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Mr Biden said fossil fuels would not be eliminated “for a long time . . . probably 2050”.
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