With time running out, Trump again forced to defend coronavirus approach at debate

Trailing in opinion polls with the Nov. 3 election fast approaching, President Donald Trump is under pressure to revive his flagging campaign in Thursday’s final presidential debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020. Picture taken September 29, 2020. Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS

Here are four takeaways from the debate, which began at 9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT Friday):


After the first Trump-Biden debate in September devolved into a chaotic shouting match, moderators said they would mute each candidate’s microphone to allow the other to speak without interruption for two minutes at the outset of each 15-minute debate segment.

The mute button is not being used, however, for the remaining 11 minutes of each segment, so there is still plenty of opportunity for the candidates to mix it up.

Whether thanks to the mute button or not, the debate got off to a relatively civil start as the two candidates made their opening statements and allowed each other to answer questions from moderator Kristen Welker without interruption.

Trump, in particular, seemed to be on his best behavior. Viewers largely panned his performance in the first debate, in which he repeatedly interrupted Biden.


Shortly after the last debate, Trump contracted COVID-19 and spent three days in a hospital. The pandemic, which has killed more than 222,000 people in the United States, remains the top issue for voters and Biden has repeatedly accused Trump of mismanaging the crisis.

“I caught it, I learned a lot. Great doctors, great hospitals,” Trump said.

Trump appeared to make news by promising that a vaccine for the virus would be ready “within weeks,” before backpedaling. “It’s not a guarantee,” he clarified. He promised that the country was “rounding the corner,” even as several U.S. states reported record one-day increases.

Biden waved his black face mask as a prop, an implicit rebuke of a president who has famously been reluctant to wear one. “If we just wore masks, we could save 100,000 lives,” he said.

Organizers had planned to install a plexiglass barrier between the two candidates to reduce the risk of infection, but they took it down after Trump tested negative for the virus.

Members of the Trump family did not wear masks at the last debate. For this one, they arrived with masks on.


A question about foreign election interference quickly turned personal, as Trump accused Biden’s son Hunter of improper business dealings with Ukraine and China.

An investigation by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee turned up no evidence to support that allegation.

In fact, the only result has been Trump’s impeachment last year by the House of Representatives for pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden.

Biden flatly denied any impropriety on his part, and contrasted his willingness to release his tax returns with Trump’s refusal to do so. “What are you hiding?” he asked. “Release your tax returns, or stop talking about corruption.”

Trump was left to air old grievances about the Internal Revenue Service, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and others who he thought were treating him unfairly. “I get treated very badly by the IRS, very unfairly,” he said.

Biden eventually sought to turn the discussion away from their personal finances. Addressing viewers, he said: “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family. And your family’s hurting badly,” he said.


Even as the two were debating, the campaigns reported fundraising figures that showed Biden sharply outraising Trump in the first two weeks of October.

The Biden campaign told the Federal Election Commission it raised $130 million in that period, while the Trump campaign took in $43.6 million.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrive on stage to participate on their final 2020 U.S. presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The televised encounter in Nashville, Tennessee, represented one of the Republican Trump’s last remaining opportunities to reshape a campaign dominated by a pandemic that has killed more than 221,000 people in the United States and devastated the economy.

“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America,” Biden said.

Trump, who was far more restrained than at the first debate in September when he aggressively talked over Biden, defended his approach to the outbreak and claimed the worst of the pandemic was in the past.

“We’re rounding the corner,” said Trump, who has played down the virus for months. “It’s going away.”

Opinion polls show most Americans disapprove of the president’s response to the virus. Several U.S. states, including the election swing state of Ohio, reported record single-day increases in COVID-19 infections on Thursday, evidence the pandemic is accelerating anew.

Though Trump trails former vice president Biden significantly in national polls, the contest is much tighter in some battleground states where the election will likely be decided.

Biden leads Trump by eight percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, conducted Oct. 20-22. His lead has narrowed slightly over the past few weeks and is back to where it was in September before Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Relatively few voters have yet to make up their minds, and Trump’s window to influence the outcome may be closing. A record 47 million Americans already have cast ballots, eclipsing total early voting from the 2016 election.

The first segment of the debate was far more civil than the candidates’ first clash in September when Trump’s constant interruptions and exchanges of personal insults derailed the evening.

As a result, each candidate’s microphone on Thursday was switched off while his opponent made a two-minute introductory statement on a topic. Even after the microphones were turned back on during discussion periods, however, the candidates largely allowed each other to speak.

Biden faulted Trump for avoiding responsibility for the pandemic.

“I take full responsibility,” Trump said. “It’s not my fault that it came here, it’s China’s fault.”

Trump claimed on Thursday that a vaccine was close to ready, saying approval would be announced within “weeks” before acknowledging that it was not a guarantee. Most experts, including administration officials, have said a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until mid-2021.

Before the debate began, Trump’s campaign signaled that the often pugnacious president would attack Biden, 77, for not accomplishing more during his near half-century of public service and zero in on what Trump, 74, alleges were corrupt practices by Biden’s family.

Trump invited as his guest Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Biden’s son, Hunter, who claims to have evidence of business ties between the Biden family and a Chinese state-owned enterprise. He cooperated in an investigation by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, which last month said it found no evidence that Joe Biden exerted improper influence over American policy.


In a statement, a Biden campaign spokesman, Andrew Bates, called Bobulinski’s presence a “desperate, pathetic farce.”

Trump has repeatedly accused Joe and Hunter Biden of unethical practices in China and Ukraine. No evidence has been verified to support corruption allegations, and Biden called them false and discredited.

Trump’s effort to uncover dirt on Hunter Biden’s Ukraine business ties led to the president’s impeachment.

Trump and his children have been accused of conflicts of interest of their own since he entered the White House in 2017, most involving the family’s real estate and hotel businesses in the United States and abroad.

Thursday’s surprise guest was reminiscent of a Trump debate with rival Hillary Clinton in 2016 in which he invited women who accused her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct as guests. Trump has faced similar accusations, which he has denied.

Ahead of the debate, Biden aides said he needed to avoid allowing Trump to get under his skin with attacks on his family. One Biden adviser said aides wanted him to counter Trump without seeming un-presidential.

The contentious first debate, when the two men traded insults, was watched by at least 73 million viewers. Trump passed up another planned debate last week after it was switched to a virtual format following his COVID-19 diagnosis.

On Thursday, the commission that oversees the debate removed plexiglass barriers separating the candidates after Trump provided proof he had tested negative for COVID-19, a source familiar with the matter said.

The approximately 200 attendees had their temperatures checked before entering the venue, and everyone was required to wear a medical mask at all times.

Debate topics were to include pandemic, race relations, climate change, and national security. The Trump campaign argued that the entire debate should be focused on foreign policy.

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