No matter what happens, this is Donald Trump’s last presidential debate. That’s the straw American voters grasped at Thursday night ahead of the final showdown between the impeached and infected Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. This debate—the second of what was supposed to be three—was broadcast live from Belmont University in Nashville, moderated by NBC News’ Kristen Welker, and followed the same format as the first debate on Sept. 29, which absolutely everyone absolutely hated. As the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced in September:
The debate will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator and announced at least one week before the debate.
The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.
Of course, that was before Trump reminded the nation why he absolutely has to go. The first debate was, as CNN’s Dana Bash said just moments after it ended, “a shitshow.” (Jake Tapper called it a “hot mess inside of a dumpster fire” moments later.) It was undeniable. Trump’s inability to let Biden or moderator Chris Wallace get a word in forced the CPD to declare that “additional structure” was needed for the debates to follow. On Oct. 19, the CPD revealed that “structure” looked like a mute button. Unfortunately for all of us, muting was only permitted during the initial two minutes granted to each candidate at the top of the six segments. Trump’s been whining about it ever since, perhaps because interrupting Biden at every turn was the Trump campaign’s only game plan. After all, the superspreader-in-chief faces scrutiny from a nation that watched him fail to keep his campaign promises on a massive scale, an electorate who’s seen him fumble just about every chance he had to move our nation forward, and, of course, a country left to fend for itself in the face of a deadly pandemic.
As always, I watched every single second of this debate so you didn’t have to. Let’s go.
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Welker announced six topics on Oct. 16. The Today Show weekend anchor and White House correspondent offered these points of focus: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership. Most of these subjects were tackled in some form in the first debate and subsequent dueling town halls, but “American families” and “leadership” are pretty vague, so this should be interesting, assuming the candidates don’t pull a Pence and just answer completely different questions than those asked. We all know that Trump is lagging in the polls and that his campaign is broke, but more importantly, we know he’d rather talk about anything but COVID-19, and would love to focus on debunked Hunter Biden nonsense, insist that helping our nation’s poorest will destroy the suburbs, and yell about either Leslie Stahl or Hillary’s emails. Trump, through spokeswoman Alyssa Farah, announced his intentions on the morning of the debate; it’s clear he started the day determined to showcase the obsession that got him impeached.
I hate this debate already. Send chocolate.
A few minutes late, a maskless and angry Trump walked onto the stage, while a cheerful Biden emerged from his mask.
After a polite explanation about the mute button, Trump got the first question.
Trump was asked how he’d navigate the next stage of the global pandemic. Trump kicked off by listing the number of people who didn’t die.
He then flaunted manipulated statistics and lies about surging states and boasts of his own recovery from the virus. He then claimed that other heads of states called him to congratulate him on his performance. He finished by promising a vaccine was coming within weeks and echoing his new refrain about “rounding the curve.” So, he didn’t answer the question.
Trump smirked as Biden somberly stated, “220,000 Americans dead.” He then noted Trump’s refusal to take any responsibility for those deaths and declared that he didn't deserve to be president.
He shot holes in Trump’s comparison of the U.S. to Europe, warned of at least 200,000 more deaths, entreated people to wear masks, and insisted that Trump has no plan before launching into his own: rapid testing, mask encouragement, and figuring out how to craft plans and direct resources to schools and businesses so that they can re-open safely and successfully. Trump, remarkably, kept quiet the entire time.
Welker wanted to know more about the promise of a vaccine “within weeks.”
Trump then named names of companies that were on their way. Welker pointed out that his own administration says that it will take months, and asked him if he was being realistic. Trump insisted his timeline was “more accurate,” and implied his own experts didn’t know about his plan to use the military to distribute “a hundred million” vials of a vaccine.
Biden was asked how he’d help Americans have confidence in a vaccine once approved, citing that 40% of Americans said they have no plans to take one. The former vice president noted the need to be transparent about the approval process. He warned of a “dark winter,” and reminded the audience that Trump said that the pandemic would be over by Easter 2019.
Trump touted his “China Ban” that wasn’t a ban and brought up Biden’s critiques of it as being xenophobic, before veering into H1N1.
Biden didn’t bother replying to the H1N1 nonsense, then reiterated that Trump is xenophobic and noted that Trump didn’t send scientists to China and praised Xi Jinping.
Trump replied by spending a long time talking about Biden living in his basement, made a hint about Biden making his money in a questionable way before hinting that Biden made his money in shady ways.
He then lamented having to see Gold Star families before pointing out that young people recover quickly and declaring that if we don’t reopen the nation, we won’t have a nation.
Welker deftly slipped in a quick fact-check, noting that young people can get COVID-19 and pass it to others. She began to ask Biden a question about pandemic strategy before Biden became the first to challenge the moderator. He asked to respond to Trump’s statement that people are “learning to live with it,” by stating that we’re learning to die with it. He then repeated that Trump refuses to take responsibility for any of it.
Trump then did his signature “excuse me” without waiting to be excused and offered his first Trumpian quote of the night.
He then blamed China for containing it within its borders but not from spreading across the planet. Biden repeated the “whole range of things,” all wrong, that Trump said to Americans. Trump again brought up Biden’s “xenophobic” critique, and Biden basically gave it a half-hearted rebuttal.
Welker asked Biden about the economic and social impact of a shutdown. Biden vowed to “shut down the virus, not the country.” He noted that Trump’s ineptitude was the reason people were suffering, not the shutdowns. He then insisted that Trump should have been working with Pelosi to get relief to people. Trump mocked Biden for talking about shutdowns too much and rattled off attacks at states with Democratic governors.
He also declared that Barron, his son with his third wife, recovered from COVID-19 quickly, painting it as a miracle.
Biden again repeated that cities and states needed resources to reopen safely, bringing up school ventilation systems as an example. Trump bashed New York as a ghost town where nobody wants to live and repeated several talking points this writer recognized as almost verbatim from his 60 Minutes interview that he leaked today.
Biden continued to talk basic strategy and pointing out Trump’s aversion to it.
Trump brought up and bashed as many Democratic governors in swing states as he could—Michigan and Pennsylvania—and Biden brought up Wall Street. Trump attempted to paint Biden as owned by Wall Street while simultaneously claiming he controlled Wall Street. Biden slipped in that his average contribution was $43 before Welker declared the topic completed.
Biden was up first and asked about new reports that multiple nations are interfering in our election. Biden brought up that Trump has done nothing to stop Vladimir Putin of Russia, and brought up the way that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has been duped by Russia. He then vowed to lay down the law on American adversaries.
Instead of letting Welker ask a question, Trump lived up to his vow to answer the questions that he want, and used his time to first insist he’s hard on Russia before diving into his big goal of painting the Biden family as a corrupt crime family with emails and millions of dollars, all procured from Russia and China. After referencing an unnamed person who had a press conference where unspecified accusations were made, demanded that Biden answer his accusation.
Biden denied everything before launching into Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, noting that he’s released all of his. Trump insisted that his accountants told him that he “prepays” all of his taxes, and that’s why he doesn’t pay any taxes. Welker asked him when he’d release his returns, and Trump played the victim, claiming that he “gets treated worse than the tea party,” and is only being audited because he ran for president.
He then shifted into a nonsensical mafia narrative where Biden is known as “The Big Man” and gets 10% of all his sons’ schemes.
Biden repeated his demand that Trump release his returns, and Trump repeated his accusations of corruption, painting himself as a victim due to being impeached and hinted at some dirt on Biden’s brother and Iraq.
Welker jumped in before Biden could reply, and asked Biden if there was any truth to the allegations. Biden said there was not, and pointed out that the only bad deeds going on was Trump trying to get dirt that didn’t exist. Trump rattled off some numbers, Biden reiterated that no wrongdoing was found.
Welker asked about the Chinese banking recently uncovered by The New York Times and Trump told a story about how there’s nothing wrong at all with anything he did. Trumpian “excuse me” steamrollers went right over Welker before she insisted on moving on, asking Biden what he’d do to China if elected.
Biden vowed to make China play by the rules and use proper policy to punish them if they do not, instead of Trump’s stupid tariffs. He brought up North Korea, and when Welker went to ask about it to Trump, he rolled over Welker again to hint at Biden crime family nonsense, and Welker actually stopped him to ask about his own policies with China. Trump insisted that his tariffs and sanctions were effective, netted billions of dollars and helped farmers. When Biden pointed out that taxpayers bailed out farmers, Trump claimed China is the taxpayer.
When Welker finally asked Trump about his relationship with North Korea, Trump claimed Barack Obama told him war was imminent, but he became buddies with Kim Jong Un and that’s why there’s no war. Biden explained North Korean policy under Obama and why it was good policy. Trump insisted that Jong Un just didn’t like Obama. Biden pointed out that was because Obama wanted to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Trump said Obama left him “a mess” before Welker moved onto health care.
Welker asked Trump about his administration’s current effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court, and what happens if they win? Trump railed about how terrible Obamacare is and how overturning the individual mandate made it something totally different but it’s still terrible and needs to be replaced by his nonexistent plan which totally always was going to cover preexisting conditions, totally always was going to cover them. He then said Biden would create socialized medicine. Biden was asked the same question. Pointing out that it put him at odds with most of the Democratic primary candidates, Biden vowed to create Obamacare with a public option, which would reduce prescription prices, let people keep their private insurance, and protect preexisting conditions. He clarified that it’s not the next step to fully socialized medicine as Trump always claims, pointed out that providing health care for all will help businesses. Trump, who was obviously communicating with someone in the audience, then leaned into “47 years in government” taunting of Biden, and insisted that his running mate Kamala Harris is “more liberal than Bernie Sanders” before bringing up fracking. He then thanked Welker for her “handling” of things before telling her to ask a question she did not let him finish.
Trump then repeated his fearmongering about socialism before Biden joked that he must be confused about who he’s running against. Biden then boasted that he won the nomination because he beat all the other candidates.
Trump, deciding he was done with health care, brought up how stocks boomed under him. Trump vaguely accused Biden of harming Social Security somewhere in time, and also said Biden is not “really” from Scranton, in addition to insisting he’s the savior of the stock market and everyone’s 401(k).
Welker then brought up the struggles Americans are facing under the COVID-19-fueled recession, and asked Trump why he’s not helped. Trump blamed Pelosi. Welker asked Biden why he’s not pushed Democrats to make a deal, and Biden pointed out that the HEROES Act has been withering on the vine for months, and could have helped cities, counties, and states—teachers, firefighters, first responders—while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to take it up.
Trump insisted that the HEROES Act was horrible and benefited blue states and illegal immigrants. Biden fired back that he’s a proud Democrat but will be an American president and it shouldn’t be about the politics of each state’s leadership.
Welker then asked about the fight to raise the minimum wage, and asked if this was the right time to do so. Biden said it was, because we need to help businesses. Trump claimed it be a state choice, insisting that $15 would kill small businesses. Biden said there’s no data that supports that myth.
Welker then asked Trump about the recent news that Homeland Security has lost track of the parents of over 500 children separated at the border. Trump then blamed the baby cages on Obama before saying that his administration was looking for these parents, and wrongly implying that the children came to the country alone. Biden was disgusted and fact-checked Trump: The children were with their parents when they got here.
Trump refused to address the actual question and repeated his blaming of Obama for baby cages, claiming that his administration put migrant children in lavish digs.
Welker asked Biden why voters should trust him to overhaul the immigration system. He vowed to create a path to citizenship, particularly for DACA recipients. Trump cited his own overhaul, saying that Biden had eight years to fix the system as vice president. Trump then celebrated his end of “catch and release” before blaming Obama for baby cages again.
RACE IN AMERICA
Welker asked Biden to speak to families of color, who have to have “The Talk” with their children to teach them about the dangers of police that they face as people of color, regardless of their economic class. Biden noted that his daughter is a social worker before stating that there is systemic racism in this country. He then ran through a bulleted list of places where people of color need investment, including education and small businesses.
After bringing up the 1994 Crime Bill and “super predators,” Trump insisted that he’s the best president for Black people since Lincoln—and implied that he might outrank Lincoln, actually.
He then claimed liberals cried in his office in gratitude for his work with prison reform and HBCUs, and giving Sen. Tim Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate a shoutout.
Biden then denied the “super predator” accusation and pointed out that the Obama administration pardoned (checks calculator) nearly 500 times as many people as Trump has. Trump then asked why Biden didn’t fix everything when he was vice president before saying that he only ran in 2016 because of him and Barack Obama.
Biden contrasted himself against Trump directly to the American people and explained his plan to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. Trump immediately went back to his accusations of Biden family corruption and “the laptop” before Welker, who was done playing around, pulled it back to the topic at hand: race.
Reading several of Trump’s many racist acts to him, she asked him why people should trust him. Trump used his time to insist he’s not racist and disparage Black Lives Matter as people who wanted to kill cops.
Biden made an Abraham Lincoln joke at Trump’s expense that Trump pretended he didn’t get, all the better to launch into how not-racist he is, and how he is the best thing Black people have ever seen, and to bring up the 1994 Crime Bill again.
Biden took responsibility, among with the entire Senate, for the Crime Bill, and expressed regret, particularly for the disparity in cocaine sentences. Trump kept asking why Biden didn’t fix the criminal justice system when he was vice president. In an awkward moment, Biden blamed the Republican Congress, and Trump said he should have convinced them. With that, it was time for
Welker, after pointing out the candidates’ very different visions to combat climate change, asked Trump why his was better. Trump spent most of his two minutes talking about a trillion trees and bashing Obama, but claimed none of it matters since the U.S. can’t force Russia or China or India to do anything.
He also declared that the Paris Climate Accord was horrible.
Biden solemnly addressed the real crisis that is our destruction of this planet, laid out a detailed plan to combat climate change, and Trump decided to take aim at The Squad, who he calls “AOC Plus Three,” and accused Biden of wanting to knock down all the buildings with big windows and replace them with buildings that have tiny windows.
Biden laughed the entire time, and dismissed Trump entirely before insisting that the nation could grow and be cleaner under his plan. Trump attacked windmills and solar power with some absolute gobsmacking lies that have nothing to do with science or reality. He tried to get to fracking but Biden jumped in, insisting he’s never been against it. Trump said Biden will turn against fracking because the party said so.
Trump was then asked about his plans to fight environmental racism. Trump insisted that people of color are all working, and then essentially said he hadn’t heard of environmental racism before bragging about how we don’t get our oil from other countries anymore, proving he’d absolutely missed the point.
Biden, by contrast, spoke to the “fence line” communities that bear the brunt of oil pollution. Trump—not the actual moderator—then asked Biden if he’d shut down the oil industry, and Biden answered him, saying that he’d transition us out of it. Trump then said “he’s gonna shut down the oil industry” and named battleground states like Texas and Ohio, telling them to “remember that” in a desperate ploy for votes.
LAST QUESTION, LAST DEBATE
For the final question, Welker asked each candidate what they would say to people who didn’t vote for them in their inaugural address.
Trump blamed China for the pandemic again before insisting that everyone loved him before it, and bashed about what a horrible president Biden would be. Biden took his time to call himself an “American president” who represents everyone, and vowed to improve conditions for the whole country. He slipped in an entreaty for voters to remember what’s on the ballot and then, thankfully, it was over.
It was time for the wives to join the candidates on the stage.
Daniel Dale will be working hard tonight.
And me? I never ever have to do another Donald Trump debate Twitter recap for the rest of my life.