President Donald Trump heeded the pleas of his advisers when he took the debate stage Thursday night, delivering a much more restrained performance as he took on his rival, Joe Biden, but he failed to get the game-changing moment he needed to dramatically alter the trajectory of the race.
While much more subdued than his destructive performance in the first presidential debate, Trump's remarks were still threaded with lies and occasional slashing personal attacks. At such a late stage of the presidential campaign, Trump entered the night looking for something that would help him catch up to Biden in key battleground states.
In stark contrast to the last debate, Thursday night's event in Nashville was substantive and wide-ranging, giving American voters the chance to take the measure of both candidates without the distraction of Trump's relentless interruptions from the first debate, which made it almost impossible to understand what either candidate was saying.
The pressure was on Trump, who entered the 90-minute matchup trailing Biden by 10 points nationally in CNN's Poll of Polls, as the former vice president is also edging Trump in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all of which the President won by narrow margins in 2016.
In order to win in 11 days, Trump needed to halt his precipitous slide among seniors and suburban women, while winning back some voters within his core constituency, non-college educated White voters, who have increasingly drifted to Biden -- with even male voters becoming a new area of alarm for his advisers.
But while the President was more focused in his attacks on Biden as a tool of the radical left who would raise taxes, lead the country toward socialized medicine and kill energy sector jobs with his moves toward more renewable energy, he was still deeply defensive about his handling of the pandemic, failing to connect at a human level with voters who have lost loved ones. And when the debate moved to the topic of immigration, he was appallingly callous about the toll that his policies have taken on children who were separated from their parents at the border.
Biden slams Trump over his defense of separating families at the border
Both presidential candidates were trying to win over Latino voters Thursday night, in part because Biden is not performing as well as Hillary Clinton was at this point in her race in 2016 with that demographic. Yet Trump defended his administration's decision to separate parents from their children at the border and could not provide an answer for what happened to the more than 500 children still separated from their parents.
Instead of explaining his administration's policy -- or expressing regret about the families that were separated -- he repeatedly tried to argue that "the cages" that some children were held in were built under the Obama administration and boasted about how the children separated from their parents are being treated. "They are so well taken care of. They are in facilities that are so clean," Trump said.
Trump's cold response offered an opening for Biden to deliver his most passionate answer of the evening, calling the family separation policy contrary to everything that America stands for. "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. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It's criminal," Biden said.
Lawyers have not been able to reach the parents of 545 children who had been separated from their families by US border officials between 2017 and 2018, according to a court filing on October 20. Hundreds of parents may also have been deported without their children.
The filing from the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union is part of an ongoing effort to identify and reunite families separated by the Trump administration, more than two years after the "zero tolerance" policy was created. While a federal court order forced the reunification of many of those families, an explosive government watchdog report released last year revealed there could be thousands more who hadn't previously been acknowledged by officials.
Trump went on to claim that the policies of his administration have been a deterrent and touted ending a policy that allowed people illegally crossing the border to be released while their court cases are heard. "They never come back," Trump falsely said about those migrants who had their cases heard in immigration courts. "Only the really -- I hate to say this -- but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back." Justice Department data shows about 75% came back in 2016.
Later during a section on "race in America," Trump once again falsely claimed that he's done more for Black people than any president since Abraham Lincoln and denied allegations that he was a racist. "I am the least racist person in this room," he said.
Biden mocked that response: "Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we've have had in American history."
The debate was far more controlled than the first presidential debate as Trump kept his temper under control and did not try to derail Biden with incessant interruptions as he did during the first debate. That first event was so chaotic that the Commission on Presidential Debates took the unprecedented step of changing the rules: cutting off candidate's microphones while their opponent responded to the first question in each of six segments.
Pandemic again dominates the debate
Both candidates were asked at the beginning of the debate to explain how they would tamp down the surge of coronavirus cases that the nation is seeing once again in a majority of states. A CNN analysis showed that 42 states have seen hospitalizations from Covid-19 increase by more than 5% over the past two weeks, a key indicator of how quickly the disease is spreading.
Trump once again blamed China for the virus and offered a defiant defense of his handling of the pandemic. At the top of his remarks, he made the misleading claim that his response stopped 2 million Americans from dying. While initial models did show that 2 million Americans could die from Covid-19, that was only if there were no interventions to stop the disease. And though the country is in the midst of a second deadly wave, Trump insisted on projecting an upbeat tone, claiming the US is "rounding the turn." "We are rounding the corner. It's going away," the President said.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects there will be 235,000 to 247,000 coronavirus deaths in this country by November 14. But Trump spoke about his own experience fighting Covid-19 and downplayed the current surge in cases. "There are some spikes and surges in other places. They will soon be gone," Trump said.
Biden, for his part, strongly criticized Trump's handling of the virus, noting that 1,000 people a day are dying. He focused on Trump's past words -- pointing toward his March statement that he takes "no responsibility" for the slow rate of coronavirus testing growth -- and said his response is disqualifying for anyone seeking the highest office in the land. "Anybody that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America," Biden said."I will take care of this, I will end this, I will make sure that we have a plan," Biden added.
Biden warns of "dark winter" as Trump pushes reopening.
The two men offered sharply different visions for the months ahead at a time when cases are rising in more than 30 states. Biden warned that the US is going to have a "dark winter" as the virus begins to rage out of control. Trump rejected that view while presenting misleading statistics. "I don't think we are going to have a dark winter," the President said. "It's not my fault that it came here," Trump said at one point, defending his handling of the virus. "It's China's fault."
The President repeatedly tried to suggest that a Biden White House would shut down the economy and be overly reliant on scientists and medical experts, instead of weighing the economic costs to the country. "We are opening up our country," Trump said, adding that the US is "learning to live with it." "We have no choice, we can't lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does." "I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country," Biden responded. "He says that we're learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it. You folks at home will have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning."
In his condemnation of Biden's more conservative approach to the virus, Trump stressed what he views as the dire consequences of too many coronavirus restrictions. "We can't keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy. People are losing their jobs," the President said. "They're committing suicide. There's depression, alcohol, drugs at a level that nobody's ever seen before. There's abuse, tremendous abuse. We have to open our country. You know, I've said it often -- the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself." "He'll close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy says we should close it down," Trump added. "Simply not true," Biden replied. "We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We ought to be able to safely open. But they need resources to open," Biden said of businesses across the country.
Biden defends son's overseas business dealings.
Joe Biden denied any wrongdoing by his son Hunter Biden in his overseas business dealings, pointing out that in Trump's impeachment proceedings "no one has said anything (Hunter Biden) did was wrong in Ukraine."
It was the most direct way in which the former vice president addressed his son's overseas business ties, which Trump and his allies have sought to use to portray Biden as connected to unseemly foreign money. "The guy who got in trouble in Ukraine was this guy," Biden said, pointing to Trump, "trying to bribe the Ukrainian government to say something negative about me, which they would not do." Trump's actions in Ukraine led the House to impeach him. "I have not taken a penny from any foreign government," Biden said.
The exchange came during the national security section of the debate, in which Trump claimed to have averted nuclear war with North Korea, even though what he has called his "love affair" with dictator Kim Jong Un has failed to secure any cuts in Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. While tensions with North Korea that boiled early in Trump's term have now cooled, the isolated state has more capable missiles and more nuclear arms than when Trump took office. And, according to Bob Woodward's new book, "Rage," former Defense Secretary James Mattis sometimes would sleep in his clothes because he thought war with North Korea could break out at any minute."They left us a mess," Trump said, referring to Biden and former President Barack Obama. The former vice president said he would force China to rein in its fellow communist state, and said that unlike Trump, Obama refused to meet with Kim because the condition of such talks was denuclearization steps. More than anything else, the exchange exemplified how no president for decades has managed to come up with an answer to one of the US' thorniest foreign policy issues.
Photograph: USA Today