Looking to turn around a trailing campaign, US president Donald Trump dug deep, chilled out and threw a bunch of garbage at the wall, hoping at least some of it would stick.
Trump opened Thursday night’s debate by falsely claiming a vaccine for Covid-19 was imminent, followed up by continuing to lie about his refusal to release his tax returns, then raised a series of nonsensical allegations about Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son, and ended with a pack of mistruths about both his and Biden’s policy accomplishments and proposals.
Trump mostly abandoned the constant interruptions and abrasive style he deployed in the first debate, but continued with the falsehoods and exaggerations. His performance is likely to reassure some Republican political strategists who are fretting about a potential Democratic landslide.
Still, the incumbent badly needed a dramatic moment to have any hope of improving his flailing chances ahead of November 3. Roughly 50 million Americans have already cast their ballots, and Biden has led for months in nearly every available public poll both nationally and in the critical swing states that will decide the electoral college.
He didn’t get it.
The debate’s defining moment came during an exchange over Trump’s allegations of corruption surrounding Biden’s son, Hunter. Biden, after pointing to Trump’s own moneymaking entanglements with foreign governments, said the issue was a distraction compared to the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn.
“It’s not about my family or his family, it’s about your family,” Biden said. “We should be talking about your family. But that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.”
“That’s a typical politician statement,” Trump responded. “I’m not a typical politician.”
The exchange highlighted a fundamental problem for Trump: Many of the issues he has focused on are obscure to all but the most dedicated watchers of Fox News, while Biden has remained narrowly focused on the pandemic, the economic downturn and health care. Those are typically the highest-priority issues for the electorate in public polling.
Trump displayed his atypical tendencies during the debate’s opening, promising the imminent delivery of a coronavirus vaccine, before quickly backing down after fact-checking from moderator Kristen Welker. Biden quickly attacked Trump for failing to develop a plan to control the pandemic.
“220,000 deaths,” Biden said, noting the number of deaths from coronavirus so far. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States.”
Trump, meanwhile, continued to cast about for others to blame. “I take full responsibility,” he said at one point, appearing to engage in some rare self-reflection. He quickly added: “It’s not my fault that it came here, it’s China’s fault.”
Trump’s assertions on policy didn’t hold water. A brief sampling:
On immigration, Trump baselessly claimed that “less than 1%” of asylum-seekers apprehended crossing the border actually come back to immigration courts for their hearings. His own administration puts the number closer to 50%.
On health care, Trump asserted that Biden’s plan to include a public option in the Affordable Care Act would get rid of private health insurance for 180 million Americans. Biden has never supported a single-payer health care program that would move all Americans to government-sponsored insurance.
On criminal justice reform, Trump said Biden used the phrase “super predators” in the 1990s — that was Hillary Clinton.
On taxes, Trump again claimed Biden wanted to raise “everybody’s taxes.” Biden has said he wouldn’t hike taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.
Trump’s best moments came when he deployed tried-and-true political attacks, mostly slamming Biden as a do-nothing career politician. During debates over criminal justice and immigration, he repeatedly questioned why Biden and president Barack Obama did not pass significant legislation on those issues during their administration.
“Why didn’t you fix all of these thing when you were there?,” Trump asked rhetorically.
Biden’s answer was accurate ― they were dealing with a recalcitrant Republican-controlled Congress ― but the attacks could still land with undecided voters.
But if they were designed to win over the relatively small percentage of Black and Latino men whose votes the Trump campaign hopes to win, the incumbent undercut that outreach in other moments.
At one point, while looking directly at Welker, who is Black, Trump claimed to be “the least racist person in the room”. At another, when Biden attacked him over his administration’s unpopular policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, Trump said the children “are so well taken care of. ... They’re in facilities that were so clean”.
Biden, as the frontrunner in the race, primarily sought to avoid mistakes. Freed from Trump’s badgering, he delivered more coherent answers, while still occasionally fumbling on policy details. But in the latter stages of the debate, he displayed more fire and populist language than he typically does.
At one point, Biden noted the wealth of American billionaires had increased by more than $700 billion over the course of the pandemic.
“What happens to the ordinary people out there?” Biden asked, jamming his finger on the lectern for emphasis. “What happens to them?”
At other times, Trump walked into Biden’s attacks. At one point, he criticised Biden for wanting to raise the minimum wage, arguing it would lead to job loss. The problem? Increasing the minimum wage is broadly popular, supported by roughly two-thirds of Americans.
Tara Golshan contributed reporting.