There was less fury and more urgency in the 90-minute debate in Nashville on Thursday night, just 12 days out from Election Day.
The moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, kept a tight lid on the Republican president and the Democratic nominee as she peppered them with questions about the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and foreign interference in the election, as well as the candidates’ finances.
Compared with the first debate — which was defined by furious crosstalk and personal insults — the final face-off was an almost staid affair. But despite the clearer delivery, neither candidate pulled punches, and the volume started to rise later in the evening.
“He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues,” Biden said at one point after a lengthy exchange with Trump, in which each candidate shot accusations at the other about money they had allegedly received.
“It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family,” Biden said, speaking into the camera.
“That’s a typical political statement,” Trump responded. “‘Let’s get off the subject of China, let’s talk around sitting around the table.’ Come on, Joe, you can do better.”
Here are the highlights:
Asked how he could boost Americans’ confidence to take a vaccine if and when it arrives, Biden said he would “make sure it’s totally transparent.”
“We’re about to go into a dark winter,” Biden said. “And [Trump] has no clear plan and there’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine available for a majority of the people until the middle of next year.”
Trump pushed back: “I don’t think we’re going to have a dark winter at all. We’re opening up our country, we’ve learned and studied and understand the disease, which we didn’t at the beginning.”
The president also took his first shot of the night at Biden, noting that the former vice president criticized him in January when he put restrictions on travel from China.
“Now he’s saying, ‘Oh, I should have moved quicker.’ But he didn’t move quicker, he was months behind me,” Trump said.
Sparring over personal finances
Trump claimed Biden makes money from Russia, China and Ukraine, an allegation the former vice president strongly denied before mocking Trump for failing to publicly release his income tax returns and for having a bank account in China.
“Joe got $3.5 million from Russia that came through [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin because he was friendly with the mayor of Moscow,” Trump said. “I never got any money from Russia.”
“Russia was paying you a lot of money, and they probably still are,” Trump claimed. “I think you owe an explanation to the American people.”
Biden replied, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life.”
“We learned this president does business in China, has a secret bank account in China and is talking about me taking money? I have not taken a penny from a single country whatsoever,” Biden said.
“No. 2 … I released all my tax returns — 22 years, go look at them. You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return,” Biden said. “What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling?”
Trump then said, as he has for years, that he can’t release his tax returns because they are under audit by the IRS.
If the Supreme Court rules the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, Biden said his next move would be to “pass Obamacare with a public option: Bidencare.”
Biden said that under his plan, the public option would mean that “if you qualify for Medicaid and you do not have the wherewithal in your state to get Medicaid, you are automatically enrolled.”
Additionally, the Democrat said his plan would reduce premiums and allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with insurance companies.
Biden also pushed back on Trump, who beforehand called Biden’s health-care proposal “socialized medicine.”
Trump said, “I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new beautiful health care … Come up with better health care, always protecting people with preexisting conditions.”
Biden responded by attacking Trump for not having a clear health-care plan, despite promising that he would unveil it.
“There’s no way he can protect preexisting conditions. None. Zero,” Biden said. “You can’t do it in the ether.”
Nationwide minimum wage
Trump and Biden differed sharply on the question of a national minimum wage.
The current national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and Trump argued that the minimum wage should be left to the states. Biden backed a nationwide $15 minimum wage.
“Small businesses, by raising the minimum wage — that is not helping,” said Trump. “It should be a state option. Alabama is different from New York. New York is different from Vermont. Every state is different. We have to help our small businesses.”
The question of whether raising the minimum wage contributes to unemployment on a macro level is still hotly debated by economists.
Welker pressed Trump on his previous suggestion that he’d consider raising the minimum wage. “I would consider it to an extent,” Trump said. “But not to a level that is going to put all these businesses out of business. It should be a state option. Different places are all different. Some places, $15 is not so bad. In other places, $15 [is good].”
Biden jumped in. “These people are working two jobs, because one job is below poverty,” Biden said. “People are making $6, $7 an hour. These first responders, we clap as they come down the street … They deserve a minimum wage of $15. Anything below that puts you below the poverty level. And there is no evidence that when you raise the minimum wage, businesses go out of business.”