The final presidential debate Thursday night was less chaotic than the first, probably because muting of microphones prevented the participants from talking over each other, but it was still marked by wild exaggerations and outright lies on the part of Donald Trump.
The Republican president and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, debated for a little more than 90 minutes at Belmont University in Nashville, with NBC’s Kristen Welker as moderator. The event saw Trump claim yet again that he’d done more for African-Americans than any president with the “possible exception” of Abraham Lincoln (and call himself “the least racist person in this room”), refer to a “laptop from hell” that allegedly belonged to Biden’s son Hunter, and defend his response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Biden made a few misleading statements too, but on the whole, “Mr. Trump relied more on questionable and specious arguments about Mr. Biden’s family, Democratic policy positions and his own record,” as The New York Times put it.
Welker’s first question involved the pandemic response, noting that cases are surging in many parts of the country. Trump said, without evidence, that the surge would soon be over and indeed, the virus itself would soon be going away. He called an experimental treatment he received for COVID a cure, when there is no cure, and claimed that he’s now immune to the virus (no one can be sure of that). He repeated his frequent assertion that “We have the best testing in the world by far — that is why we have so many cases,” ignoring the fact that one can have an illness without knowing it.
He accused Biden of wanting to shut down the economy to deal with the pandemic and called again for businesses and schools to open. Biden said it’s not a choice between the economy and public health. “We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Mr. Biden said. “We ought to be able to safely open, but you need resources to open. You need to be able to, for example, if you are going to open a business, have social distancing in the business. If you have a restaurant, you need plexiglass dividers so people cannot infect one another. You need to be in a position to take testing rapidly and know whether a person is in fact infected.” In response to Trump’s remark that the country is “learning to live with” COVID, Biden said, “People are learning to die with it.”
With more than 200,000 Americans dead from COVID, Trump contended he had saved 2 million lives by shutting down some (not all) travel from China and taking some other steps against the virus. He cited one projection that 2.2 million Americans would die from it, but that was an unrealistic and worst-case scenario in a study that assumed people “took no actions against the coronavirus — nobody avoided crowded elevators, wore masks, washed their hands more often, or bought gloves or hand sanitizer — which the study acknowledged was unrealistic,” The Washington Post notes.
The president also criticized the work of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I get along very well with Anthony, but he did say don’t wear masks,” Trump said. “He did say, as you know, this is not going to be a problem. I think he’s a Democrat, but that’s OK. He said this is not going to be a problem. We are not going to have a problem at all.” Fauci is an independent, and his response to the virus has evolved. Early on, he and other infectious disease experts worried that widespread mask-wearing by the general public would mean masks weren’t available to frontline health care workers, but they began to encourage everyone to mask up when this turned out to be an effective means of preventing asymptomatic transmission.
On race, Welker, only the second Black woman to ever moderate a presidential debate solo, asked Trump about his many disparaging remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement and people of color generally. He responded by talking about BLM protesters referring to police as “pigs in a blanket” who should be fried “like bacon,” but this “was an isolated incident and condemned by BLM leaders,” according to the Post’s fact checker. He also claimed to be “the least racist person in this room” and say he’d done more for Black Americans than any president other than, possibly, Lincoln (when President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the 1960s, signed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act).
Biden countered, “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire. … This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Trump further tried to tar Joe and Hunter Biden with the story of incriminating evidence of influence-peddling being found on a “laptop from hell” once belonging to Hunter, although whatever was found on the laptop has not been independently verified. And the president repeated the claim that Hunter Biden received $3.5 million from Russian interests, something the Biden family has denied on multiple occasions.
The candidates sparred over many other things, including immigration and the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and caging them at detention centers. Trump said the caging originated with President Barack Obama’s administration, in which Biden was vice president. Biden didn’t address this, but during his and Obama’s administration, such facilities were intended for very limited, temporary use. Family separation was likewise very limited under Obama, while Trump’s administration has greatly expanded it.
Trump also claimed to be coming forward with a great health care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, although he hasn’t yet, and he wants the Supreme Court to declare the ACA unconstitutional. He accused Biden of being a socialist and wanting to do away with private health insurance, when Biden actually wants to expand the ACA with a public option but allow people who like their private insurance to keep it, unlike some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination who wanted a universal government-run program.
LGBTQ+ issues did not come up, nor did reproductive rights, gun control, or many other topics. But LGBTQ+ activists and other liberal groups slammed Trump’s performance.
“Donald Trump once again spewed an endless stream of lies and baseless attacks, highlighting not only his bias but utter bankruptcy of a plan,” said a statement issued by Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which has endorsed Biden. “Trump has no plan — never has. He has no plans to release his tax returns after four years. He has no plans for protecting people with preexisting conditions. He has no plan to fight COVID-19. He has no plan to reunite the families his own administration separated at the border. And he has no plan to heal our nation.
“Joe Biden came prepared to tell Americans what life could be like with a president prepared to lead, prepared to take action and help this nation recover and thrive. This election is a referendum on our nation’s values. It’s up to us to unite for equality and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
“If there was any doubt left about Donald Trump’s unfitness for office, he removed it with his whining and dishonest performance tonight — including his deeply offensive remark suggesting migrants have ‘low IQs,’” Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, said in a statement. “Kudos to Joe Biden and to moderator Kristen Welker for showing respect for the American people in the way they addressed the issues that really matter in this election, like health care, the pandemic, and our national reckoning with racial inequity. Biden was the clear winner tonight on the issues and demonstrated his integrity, honesty and commitment to our democracy. The only thing that remains is for us to get out and vote for Biden and Kamala Harris, and take the first step toward healing our country after four disastrous years of the Trump administration.”