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A Muted Trump Tones it Down in the Final Debate Against Biden

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 10/23/2020 Susan Milligan

America finally got the presidential debate it had so far been denied Thursday night, with an unusually controlled and prepared President Donald Trump sparring with a wonky and grandfatherly Joe Biden, each actually allowing the other to speak as the threat of the new "mute" button loomed.

But the debate – the last in person face-off between the two men before Election Day Nov. 3 – didn't offer a dramatic or revealing moment that might flip a Trump voter to Biden's side, or vice versa. Nearly 49 million people have already voted early – more than 35% of the entire 2016 turnout – and Thursday's debate likely did not change the trajectory of the race.

Both men spent the evening at Belmont University in Nashville calling the other a liar, questioning the other's character and claiming that the nation faced a grim future if the other were to win the election.

Most were classic, closing-argument talking points very familiar to each man's voter base. Trump derisively, noted Biden's 47 years in public service and repeatedly said the former vice president was "all talk and no action" on the changes Biden wants to make.

Biden lambasted Trump for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, race and immigration, saying Trump's handling of the coronavirus alone made him ineligible to be president. Those are all common charges Biden makes against Trump on the campaign trail.

When Trump said America was learning to live with the virus – re-opening businesses and schools so the economy could recover, Biden shot back in outrage.

"He says we're learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it," Biden said.

Trump went after Biden for his role in crafting a controversial crime bill decades ago when Biden was a U.S. senator from Delaware, saying, "you put thousands of mostly black young men in prison. You know why, Joe? Because you're all talk and no action."

Trump's performance was arguably the best of his three chances to face American voters with Biden in the room (or on another network at the same time). At the first debate, Trump was bombastic, frequently talking over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, who had to repeatedly try to get Trump to relinquish the floor. During a single town hall (after a joint town hall was canceled because Trump would not agree to a virtual event), Trump became testy and defensive with moderator Savannah Guthrie.

But Thursday, Trump's tone, at least, was calmer, even as he continued the same line of attack and made some unsubstantiated claims against his opponent. Moderator Kristen Welker sometimes had to talk over Trump to get him to move to another question, but for the most part – perhaps because the Commission on Presidential Debates installed a mute button to allow each man to speak uninterrupted – he kept to the rules.

Biden, too, stayed largely on script, saying Trump's claims were not true – whether they were about his family, climate change or Biden's energy policy – and bringing the conversation back to his central argument: that Trump does not have the character and trustworthiness to be leader of the free world.

"You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth. I am anxious to have this race … the character of this country is on the ballot."

For the first time in the debate season, Biden and Trump were asked about immigration. Trump, pressed about the 545 immigrant children who were separated from their families at the border and whose parents cannot be located, dodged the direct question.

"They are so well taken care of," Trump said of the immigrant children, after first saying they had been brought over not by families but "coyotes" trafficking people over the border illegally.

Biden, after Welker noted that former President Barack Obama was known as the "deporter in chief" because of the number of people sent back to their home countries, said, "we made a mistake. We took too long to make it right." He said he would send an immigration reform bill to Congress in his first 100 days.

Trump's most passionate moments came when he tried to turn the debate into an expose of Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who was once on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Without evidence, Trump accused the former vice president of receiving 3.5 million from Russia, as well as money from China, and pointed to unsubstantiated emails advanced by Trump and his allies that purport to show a connection between Biden's official duties as vice president and his son's business interests.

"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life," Biden said, noting he had released more than two decades worth of tax returns while Trump had released none. It was the president, Biden said, who had a secret bank account in China (Trump said it was an old business bank account) and whose hotel and golf businesses benefited from Chinese and Russian patronage.

The exchange fell flat as a game-changing matter, instead appealing to Trump supporters who already think Biden is sketchy and Biden supporters who think Trump is a liar.

Much of the debate went over common ground. Trump claimed he had, in fact, paid millions of dollars in taxes in advance of filing tax returns, suggesting that was why the documents The New York Times reported on showed he had paid just $750 a year in federal taxes in each of two years. Still, he refused to release his tax returns, citing an ongoing audit. Trump has made the same argument since he was first running for president in 2015.

[READ: Democracy Demographics: The data behind the votes.]

Biden talked about the "institutional racism" in America and clicked off the things he would do to level the playing field, such as investing in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and making it easier for Black people to get mortgages.

Trump, repeating the claim he has made at his rallies, said "I am the least racist person in this room," and said "not since Abraham Lincoln," who freed the slaves, have Black people had such an ally as president.

An incredulous Biden noted Trump's Muslim ban, refusal at the first debate to denounce the white supremacist group the Proud Boys, and then-candidate Trump's reference to Mexicans as "criminals" and "rapists."

"Come on. This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a bullhorn," Biden said.

Trump closed by warning that the stock market would crash and the nation would go into a depression if Biden were elected. "Success is going to bring us together," Trump said when asked what he would say in his inaugural address to people who had not voted for him.

Biden retreated to his usual theme, saying he would be the president of all America, not just those who voted for him.

"Character, decency, honor, respect, dignity is on the ballot. I'm going to make sure you get that. You haven't been getting that the last four years," Biden said.

Copyright 2020 U.S. News & World Report

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