WASHINGTON, Wash. — Donald Trump appeared to do something Thursday he rarely does: follow someone else’s advice.
The U.S. president showed a measure of restraint in the final presidential debate, shrugging off Joe Biden’s attacks over his handling of the pandemic and accusing the Democratic nominee of planning to shut down the country.
The first part of the debate in Nashville, Tenn., focused on the COVID-19 crisis and featured measured exchanges and cool tempers, a far cry from the hectoring and haranguing that was a dominant feature of last month’s initial clash.
The relative calm didn’t last the whole 90 minutes, however.
There were flashes of anger and frustration on both sides throughout the night, although this time the discussion didn’t immediately collapse into insults and name-calling thanks to brief two-minute periods with muted microphones.
More than 220,000 Americans are dead of the novel coronavirus, Biden said at the outset — deaths that happened on the president’s watch. Nearly as many more could die before the end of the year, he added, describing the coming months as a “dark winter.”
“If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” Biden said.
“Anyone who’s responsible for not taking control — in fact, saying … ‘I take no responsibility,’ initially — anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
Trump, as he often does, insisted that a vaccine is imminent — “a matter of weeks,” he claimed, though he added that timeline is not guaranteed — and that the severity of the pandemic is fading, even though the opposite is true.
“We’re rounding the corner,” he insisted. “It’s going away.”
After last month’s interruptive, insult-riddled clash, Biden and Trump were each given a two-minute window every 15 minutes when their rival’s microphone was turned off. White House advisers reportedly implored the president to follow that example.
For the most part, he did — perhaps because he’s been sliding in the polls, particularly since the last debate. Even though more than 47 million Americans have already cast ballots, the rest of the country may only now be paying close attention to the race.
As a result, Biden was able to better enunciate positions on issues like health care, immigration, climate change and raising the minimum wage — and to rebut Trump’s efforts to brand him and his family as having enriched themselves during his tenure as vice-president.
But Trump managed to land a few blows of his own, accusing Biden of planning to ban fracking, a major issue in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, and of stumping for the costly Green New Deal, a climate-change plan championed by progressive Democrats in Congress.
Biden insisted neither claim is true. But he saved his most strenuous denial for Trump’s most dubious charge.
In a report last week as widely disputed as it was explosive, the New York Post disclosed emails supposedly retrieved from a laptop belonging to the former vice-president’s son that refer to a meeting between his father and an adviser to Ukrainian energy giant Burisma.
Subsequent Post reports based on the material, which was provided to the newspaper by longtime Trump operative Rudy Giuliani, allege a business agreement involving the Bidens and a Chinese company.
Indeed, one of Trump’s guests at the debate Thursday was Tony Bobulinski, a former associate of Hunter Biden who told the Post the emails are legitimate and make reference to the elder Biden as “the big guy.”
“All of the emails, the emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in — you and your family,” Trump said.
“It should have never happened. And I think you owe an explanation to the American people.”
The former vice-president, who has dismissed the whole saga as a “last-ditch effort” to smear him and his family, laughed off Trump’s allegations, and pointed out the president’s steadfast refusal to release his tax returns.
“I did my job (as vice-president) impeccably,” Biden insisted.
“The guy who got in trouble in Ukraine was this guy,” he said, pointing at Trump, “trying to bribe the Ukrainian government to say something negative about me, which they would not do, and did not do because it never, ever, ever happened.”
One of the night’s most powerful exchanges came during the segment on immigration, when Biden flagged recent reports that officials have been unable to locate the deported parents of some 545 children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We’re trying very hard,” Trump said, claiming some children arrive in the U.S. without their parents as part of the activity of illegal cartels and so-called “coyotes.”
Not these children, Biden shot back.
“Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone,” he said.
“Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
Trump insisted that the children are well cared for and that the cages used to detain them were originally built under the Obama administration.
“They are so well taken care of,” he said. “Just ask one question: Who built the cages?”
The debate, hosted by Belmont University, was moderated by NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker. Topics included American families, race relations, climate change, national security and leadership.
During last month’s clash in Ohio, Trump interrupted, antagonized and irritated his Democratic rival from the outset, vexing moderator Chris Wallace and eliciting an exasperated plea for order from Biden himself: “Will you shut up, man?”
The version of Trump on display that night showed up a few times Thursday. This time, Biden mostly laughed him off.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2020.