President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE on Thursday clashed for a final time before Election Day, exchanging blows on the public health and economic crises facing the country in what was a decidedly more orderly — though still at times personal — contest than the first debate.
The proceedings, which took place in Nashville, Tenn., were aided in part by a mute button that allowed each candidate to speak uninterrupted for two minutes about each of the six topics before the two men could go back and forth.
Trump showed more discipline as the debate opened, adopting a muted tone as he fielded questions on the coronavirus pandemic during the first segment. Advisers had lamented that his aggressive approach in the first debate, where he regularly interrupted Biden and challenged moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBiden vaccine mandate puts McConnell, GOP leaders in a tough spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Biden's .5 trillion plan will likely have to shrink Breyer says term limits would 'make life easier for me' MORE, was ineffective and turned off undecided voters.
But the two men, who have shown a clear dislike for one another, also frequently lobbed attacks at one another in a preview of what is likely to be a hostile final 10 days of the campaign.
During the first segment, Trump repeated many of his usual overly optimistic statements about the trajectory of the virus, insisting new rising cases would soon be “gone” and that a possible vaccine was on the way and would be available in a matter of weeks.
“It will go away and I say we’re rounding the turn, we are rounding the corner. It is going away,” Trump said of the coronavirus, a remark that his administration’s own health officials have contradicted.
Biden frequently shook his head or openly laughed as Trump spoke, ending answers with an exasperated “come on” throughout the debate. He repeatedly slammed Trump on his response to the virus, accusing him of having no plan to address the pandemic and taking zero responsibility for the deaths in the United States.
“Anyone who's responsible for not taking control … anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said at the outset of the debate.
The two went on to spar over policy on health care, immigration, climate change and criminal justice reform. Trump insisted that he would release a health care plan that would ultimately protect Americans with preexisting conditions despite providing no proof of such a plan, even as the Supreme Court weighs a case brought by his administration to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature health care law.
Trump faced questions on his comments criticizing Black Lives Matter as a symbol of “hate” and his sharing of a video of a man shouting “white power.” He highlighted his administration’s work on criminal justice reform and repeated his oft-used claim that he has done more for Black Americans than any other president with the “possible exception” of Abraham Lincoln.
Biden cited Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries and his comments during his first presidential run referring to some Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” arguing “he pours fuel on every racist fire.”
The president was also on the defensive over new reporting that hundreds of migrant children separated from their families at the border during his administration still had not been reunited with their parents. But he caused a fresh headache for himself when he mocked immigrants who show up for their court hearings as those “with the lowest IQ.
“Only the really — I hate to say this — but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back,” Trump said, appearing to realize in the moment the statement could be problematic.
The debate was its most contentious during exchanges about the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, something the president’s allies have sought to make a central issue in the final weeks of the campaign.
It was Biden who first brought up Trump’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiRoger Stone served with Capitol riot lawsuit during radio interview FEC finds Twitter didn't break law by blocking spread of Hunter Biden story Juan Williams: The toxic legacy of Trump's corruption MORE, accusing him of being a “Russian pawn” and receiving false information.
Trump then leaned into criticism of Hunter Biden over his foreign business dealings, an attack he has practiced at his campaign rallies over the last week and that his campaign telegraphed with one of its guests at Thursday’s debate.
"He’s 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.
The president has seized on a New York Post report that said Hunter Biden sought to connect a Ukrainian businessman with his father, then the vice president, and subsequent dealings Hunter Biden allegedly had in China.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source, ever, in my life," Joe Biden said, seeking to turn the issue around on Trump, citing the president’s impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to investigate him.
There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden related to his son’s business dealings, though some government officials have acknowledged there was minimally a conflict of interest while Biden was vice president. Hunter Biden also acknowledged that he regretted his involvement with a Ukrainian gas firm when his father was vice president.
When Biden again argued that the attacks against him and his family are part of a Russian disinformation scheme, Trump appeared to be in disbelief.
“You mean the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia, hoax?” Trump said. “You have to be kidding me.”
Some of Trump’s allies believe that hitting Biden over his family's business dealings could drive down his favorability ratings. But other conservatives worry that the attacks are inconsequential to most voters and that Trump is wasting his time with less than two weeks until Election Day.
Trump used his closing remarks to focus on policy, saying a Biden administration would increase taxes and raise regulations, and he repeatedly questioned why Biden did not act on key issues during his decades in the Senate.
In his own closing remarks, Biden offered a message of unity and hope, saying that the “character of this country” is on the ballot.
The debate represented Trump’s last major opportunity to significantly shift the trajectory of the race. While Trump managed to avoid a clear self-inflicted wound like last debate, when he declined to clearly condemn white supremacists, it was unclear that his performance would be enough to single-handedly change his fortunes.
Polls show Biden with a lead over Trump nationally and in swing states, though the race remains close in some key battlegrounds.
Millions of people have already cast their ballots as early voting opens up across the country. Polls have consistently shown Biden with steady leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and narrow leads in Florida and Arizona, even as Trump tries out new lines of attack. Trump won each of those states in 2016, and can ill afford to lose more than a couple of them next month if he is to retain the presidency.
Both candidates will return to the campaign trail Friday for the final stretch of the race, with Trump in Florida and Bide delivering remarks in Delaware.