NASHVILLE - With just 12 days left until Election Day, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off in the final presidential debate of 2020 and clashed on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, taxes and foreign interference.
Thursday’s event appeared more restrained than the first debate, which was considered one of the most tumultuous in modern history with the two men frequently talking over each other and clashing on several topics.
The debate opened on the topic of COVID-19, which has killed more than 223,000 Americans and infected nearly 8.5 million across the country as of Oct. 22, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Trump touted his administration’s response to the pandemic, claiming the crisis “is going away” and promising a vaccine will be announced “within weeks.”
The president also highlighted his own recovery from the novel coronavirus after being treated for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center earlier this month before completing his recovery at the White House. Both candidates tested negative for the virus prior to Thursday’s event.
This combination of pictures shows President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29
“This has been a worldwide problem, but I’ve been congratulated by many countries on what we’ve been able to do,” the president said.
Biden slammed Trump’s response to the pandemic, stating “the president has no plan.”
“He always says people are learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it,” Biden said, promising that if elected he would “make sure we have a plan.”
Reopening the economy
Shutdowns across the country in an effort to help curb the spread of the virus have devastated the economy and led to record unemployment.
In response to a question on how each candidate would proceed, Biden referred to his plan to reopen schools — calling for more federal funding and guidance for local districts.
Trump called for schools to reopen in the fall amid the ongoing virus threat, saying that “the transmittal rate to teachers is very small.”
“We’re not going to shut down and we have to open our schools,” Trump said. “The cure can not be worse than the problem itself.”
“We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Biden said on the topic of reopening safely.
U.S. officials have reported that Russian hackers have targeted the networks of dozens of state and local governments in the United States in recent days, stealing data from at least two servers.
Officials are also accusing Iran of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for Trump.
When asked how each would handle the threat, Biden replied: "I made it clear that any country, no matter who it is, that interferes in American elections will pay a price. They will pay a price."
Trump said nobody has been tougher on Russia through sanctions and pushing for increased military spending by NATO.
Similar to the previous presidential debate, the candidates clashed over their tax returns on Thursday.
Trump raised unfounded allegations that Biden has received funds from Russian sources. The president previously alleged that Biden’s son, Hunter, received $3.5 million from Russian billionaire Yelena Baturina, who was married to the late Moscow mayor. A statement from Hunter Biden’s lawyer has called the allegations false.
In response to the claim, Biden noted that he’s released 22 years of taxes.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said, who then told Trump to “release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
Trump responded that he aims to release his returns “as soon as we can.” Since he first ran for president in 2016, Trump has claimed that he can't release his returns because his taxes have been under audit by the Internal Revenue Service.
The New York Times reported last month that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he was elected president, and again in 2017, his first year in office. The report said Trump paid no federal income taxes for 10 of the 15 years before that.
The president responded to the report during Thursday’s debate, saying he was told he “prepaid tens of millions of dollars,” and that the $750 he paid was a “filing fee.”
But Biden again called on Trump to release proof. “Show us,” Biden said. “Stop playing around.”
The Supreme Court on Nov. 10 is set to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which gives more than 20 million Americans health insurance coverage.
Should the high court overturn the law, Trump said he would like to create a “much better health care. Much better. We'll always protect people with pre-existing (conditions).”
"I'd like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new beautiful health care," he said.
Biden, who served as vice president in the Obama administration during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, said he aims to protect and build on the law.
“What I'm going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option, and become 'Bidencare,'” he said. "Secondly, we're going to make sure we reduce the premiums and drug prices by making sure that there's competition that doesn't exist now."
Praise for the moderator
At one point during the debate, Trump offered praise to Welker as moderator. “So far I respect very much the way you are handling this, I have to say,” he said.
The statement came after Trump attacked her on Twitter over the weekend, stating she has “always been terrible and unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters.”
Just hours before the final matchup, Trump posted unedited video of interviews that he and Vice President Mike Pence gave to “60 Minutes” before its broadcast this weekend, claiming it showed “bias, hatred and rudeness.”
In the footage, the president repeatedly told CBS interviewer Lesley Stahl she would not have challenged Biden in the same way.
“You wouldn't say to Biden what you just said to me,” Trump told Stahl when she questioned his characterization of the economy prior to the pandemic. “If he had it, you would never say that to Biden.”
After posting the video, Trump tweeted: “Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse! #MAGA.”
In a contrast to the first debate, the two presidential contenders went more than 15 minutes before interrupting each other at Thursday night’s event.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced changes this time around, with each candidate’s mic being muted while the other delivered an opening two-minute answer.
The candidates appeared on stage exactly 12.25 feet apart at the event, held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and audience members were required to wear masks.
The final debate of the presidential election season has been thought to play a role in electoral outcomes, but this showdown is different given that more than 47 million people have already cast their ballots amid the ongoing pandemic and a rise in early voting.
Still, the event will be a chance for voters who have not yet cast their ballot to decide which candidate would best fit the role of president of the United States.
Biden currently leads in most national polls and has a narrow advantage in key battleground states.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.