By Evan Halper, Noah Bierman & Brittny Mejia | Los Angeles Times
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TCA) — President Donald Trump sought a last-minute comeback on Oct. 23 at his final debate with Joe Biden, pushing unsubstantiated claims about the former vice president’s financial dealings and promises that a coronavirus vaccine will be available long before public health experts say is possible.
While the event was less raucous than their first debate, many of the president’s charges were personal and inflammatory, especially his repeated allegations — without offering any evidence — that the former vice president was corrupt.
The two traded barbs for 90 minutes over the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s opposition to fracking and the dangers of climate change. They sparred over treatment of immigrants, the nation’s racial divisions and foreign policy toward Russia, China and North Korea.
While more substantive than the first debate, the heated exchanges seemed unlikely to help Trump, who trails Biden by at least 10 points in national polls, boost his appeal to the wavering moderate voters he needs to close the gap in the 12 days before Election Day.
The hottest clashes came as Trump repeatedly sought to accuse his rival of vague misdeeds in Ukraine, China and elsewhere when he was vice president, although he offered no evidence other than to say, “If this stuff is true, then he’s a corrupt politician.”
“He is the vice president of the United States, and his son, his brother and his other brother are getting rich. They’re like a vacuum cleaner,” Trump said.
Biden responded angrily: “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life … I have released all of my tax returns. … You have not released a single solitary year of your tax returns. What are you hiding?”
“Don’t give me the stuff about how you’re this innocent baby,” Trump told Biden later, before repeating unsubstantiated charges that a laptop Trump associates obtained contains supposedly incriminating emails. Trump called it “the laptop from hell.”
“There are 50 former national intelligence officials who said what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant,” Biden said.
The night started with a sharp dispute over the incumbent’s record on handling the coronavirus crisis, which has killed more than 223,000 Americans this year, more than any other country. Trump insisted his efforts had saved lives.
The president also inexplicably claimed a coronavirus vaccine is only weeks away. That contradicts the nation’s top public health experts, who say production of a safe, reliable vaccine is months away, and widespread distribution is unlikely before mid-2021 at the earliest.
“We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” Trump said, ignoring warnings that infections and hospitalizations are surging in many states, and a third wave is expected this winter as more people are forced indoors.
Biden denounced those claims as reckless, and called Trump responsible for the vast death toll.
“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said. He warned that “we’re about to go into a dark winter” with “no clear plan.”
Organizers of the debate, which was moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News, were determined not to allow a repeat of the unruly last face-off between Trump and Biden, which devolved into an incoherent shouting match largely because of Trump’s repeated interruptions.
The meltdown of decorum moved the independent Commission on Presidential Debates to add a precaution to its format: a mute button. The button was never put to use, but the threat helped produce a far more orderly and comprehensible exchange at Nashville’s Belmont University.
Before the debate, other Republicans urged Trump to strike a calmer, more serious tone in an effort to reassure wavering voters, but the president went in a different direction.
In a reprise of a Trump debate stunt in 2016, when he hammered relentlessly at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and when he brought women to a debate who had accused former President Bill Clinton of misbehavior, the president brought as his guest a former business partner of Biden’s son Hunter who is accusing the Biden family of corruption.
When the topic turned to race, Trump, who offered words of encouragement to the far-right Proud Boys hate group in the last debate, bristled at Biden’s charge that he repeatedly stokes racial division.
“I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump said, declaring himself the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln. Trump pointed to the criminal justice reform package he signed while attacking Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill that labeled some offenders “superpredators.”
Biden said he believed the 1994 legislation was “a mistake” but said he had worked in the intervening years to lower drug sentences and instead seek treatment options.
“He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Biden said of Trump. He said Trump launched his first presidential campaign “coming down the escalator saying, ‘Get rid of those Mexican rapists.’ He’s banned Muslims because they’re Muslims. He has moved around and made everything worse across the board.”
“Come on, this guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn,” Biden said.
The president grew defensive during a volatile exchange about immigration that focused on the 545 children who have yet to be reunited with their parents after being separated early in the Trump administration.
Lawyers say they have been unable to find those parents. Welker questioned how those children would be reunited.
“Children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people,” Trump responded, returning to his familiar characterization of Central American immigrants. Pressed again on reuniting families, Trump responded, “We’re working on it. We’re trying very hard.” He did not provide details.
“These 500-plus kids came with parents,” Biden said. “They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with … it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Biden called it “criminal.” He said that within 100 days he would send to Congress a proposed pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people.
In response, Trump touted his administration ending “catch and release,” the unofficial name for a policy that predated his presidency in which immigration agencies allow migrants deemed low risk to remain at large pending a hearing.
Trump called the policy a “disaster” and said that migrants would not return for their hearings, which Biden disputed.
“They don’t come back, Joe,” Trump said, again attacking immigrants. “They never come back. Only the really, I hate to say this, but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.”
Trump, an unabashed ally of oil and gas who has aggressively worked to undermine climate action and roll back clean air and clean water protections, sought to recast his environmental record at the debate as that of a strident conservationist.
“Look at China, how filthy it is. Look at Russia, look at India. It’s filthy. The air is filthy,” Trump said. “We have done an incredible job environmentally.”
Biden mocked the president’s environmental record. “He thinks windmills cause cancer,” Biden said.
“I know more about wind than you do,” Trump retorted. “It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds.”
The remark drew a murmur of chuckles from the otherwise silent audience in the debate hall. Trump said the plan Biden laid out at the debate to cut federal subsidies for fossil fuels and “transition” the nation from oil to renewable energy would be an economic disaster.
“Basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump said. “Will you remember that Texas, will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Biden said Trump was taking him out of context but “we have to move toward net zero emissions.”
The president made no apologies to the low-income communities of color bearing the brunt of pollution from oil refineries. “They’re making a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said.
Biden responded: “It doesn’t matter what you’re paying them. It matters how you keep them safe.”
The candidates had a familiar clash on health care. Biden accused Trump of working to take away the Affordable Care Act without having any plan to replace it.
And the former vice president, who does not support Medicare for All plans championed by his Democratic primary opponents, took exception at Trump’s charge that he wants to impose socialized medicine and eliminate private insurance.
“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people.”
Trump defended his efforts to eliminate “Obamacare” in court, boasting that he has already eliminated the requirement to buy insurance and insisting he would protect people with preexisting conditions, though he has failed to offer a plan for the last four years.
Despite his lead in polls, Biden is far from locking up the race and Democrats have not forgotten that at this point in the 2016 campaign, Trump appeared finished.
The candidates made sharply contrasting closing arguments Thursday night. Trump promised his focus on the economy “would make our country totally successful as it was prior to the plague coming in from China.”
Biden countered with a promise to choose “hope over fear” and “science over fiction.”
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country, decency, honor, respect,” he said. “Treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance.”
(Halper reported from Washington, Bierman from Nags Head, N.C., and Mejia from Nashville.)
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