It was, as Kasie Hunt put it the next morning on her MSNBC show, Way Too Early, the “status quo debate.”
Thursday’s second and final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was missing the fireworks, the interruptions, the name-calling and the chaos of the first meeting between these two men two weeks ago. Yes, Trump still lied—repeatedly—and Biden again looked directly into the camera to speak to American families about the loved ones missing from their kitchen tables because of Covid. But under the firm guidance and fast tempo of the debate moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, this surprise-fee debate most likely did nothing more than reinforce the image most voters had of these two candidates, for better or worse.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper said Thursday night, in a post-debate exchange with the former Obama strategist David Axelrod, “I don’t think we have seen anything tonight that will change anything in any meaningful way.” Responded Axelrod: “Joe Biden held his own and that’s all he needed to do.”
Although it is hard to imagine that this debate changed a single vote—or inspired a single piece of merchandise, like the “Will you shut up, man” T-shirts or “I’m speaking” coffee mugs from previous encounters this campaign season—there were still some key moments, ones in which the two candidates were pressed by Welker to defend their policies, explain some of their more controversial statements and make their case why they should be elected president on Nov. 3.
Trump Still Doesn’t Have a Plan to Deal With the Pandemic
The first question, and the one the two candidates spent the most time debating, was about coronavirus and the bungled response of the Trump administration that has contributed to the deaths of more than 220,000. Though he must have been prepped for this question by his advisers, Trump stumbled right out of the gate, again insisting, as he has from the very beginning of this pandemic, that it was going to just miraculously disappear. Told by Welker that the U.S. had just set a new record for daily COVID-19 cases, Trump dodged and deflected. “There was a spike in Florida, and it’s now gone,” Trump said. “There was a very big spike in Texas; it’s now gone. There was a very big spike in Arizona; it’s now gone. And there were some spikes and surges and other places; they will soon be gone. We have a vaccine that’s coming. It’s ready. It’s going to be announced within weeks and it’s going to be delivered.” Of the pandemic itself, Trump said almost blithely, that “we’re learning to live with it. We have no choice.”
That brought a sharp response from Biden. “Learning to live with it? People are learning to die with with it.” The former vice president later added: “Two-hundred twenty thousand Americans dead. f you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: Anyone who is responsible, for not taking control—in fact, saying I take no responsibility initially—anyone that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
‘Least Racist Person in the Room’
When pressed by Welker about the Black Lives Matter movement, which she pointed out the president has called “a symbol of hate,” and asked whether he thought his failures to condemn white supremacy had contributed to “a climate of racism and hate,” Trump said “I think I have great relationships with all people,” and then added this dubious claim: ”I am the least racist person in the room.” That brought a taunting reply from Biden: “‘Abraham Lincoln’ here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire. Every single one. Started off this campaign coming down the escalator saying he was going to get rid of those ‘Mexican rapists.’ He has banned Muslims because they’re Muslims. He has moved around and made everything worse across the board.” Biden added: “This guy has a dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”
The exchange immediately became a trending topic on Twitter. Many noticed the irony of Trump making that claim while in the room was a moderator who is African-American.
“I’m the least racist person in this room.” … Trump trying to explain away his retweeting of “white power” calling #BlackLivesMatter a “symbol of hate” and his racist policies, to KRISTEN WELKER, the black moderator in the same room. pic.twitter.com/WwxX8EyfaJ
— Rula Jebreal (@rulajebreal) October 23, 2020
The white male president telling the black woman moderator that he's the least racist person in the room is peak 2020 #Debates2020
— MoH (@mdHQ211) October 23, 2020
Trump says he's the "least racist person in the room." Let's roll back the tapes.
2016: “I don’t know anything about David Duke.”
2017: “Very fine people."
2020: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
— Bend the Arc: Jewish Action (@jewishaction) October 23, 2020
Children in Cages
On a day that it was revealed that the government had lost track of the parents of 545 migrant children being held in custody on the Mexico/U.S. border, Welker asked Trump how his administration planned to reunite those families. The president’s first response was to suggest that the children had been brought across the border by smugglers, not their parents. But when that dubious claim failed to land, and Welker pressed again, “Do you have a plan to reunite the kids?” Trump briefly responded that his administration had a plan, without actually disclosing what it was, and then shifted to praising the large cages where the children are being held. “They are so well taken care of,” Trump said of the children, some as young as 4 months old. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.” The topic brought out the night’s only real flash of anger from Biden. “Let’s talk about what we’re talking about,” he said. “What happened? Parents were ripped — their kids were ripped from their arms and separated and now they cannot find over 500 of sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal, it’s criminal.” The former vice president added that the family separation policy “’makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
‘What Are You Hiding?’
In a somewhat confusing exchange, Trump accused, without citing any evidence, that Biden and his family got “three and a half million dollars from Russia, from Putin,” and then claimed, “I never got money from Russia.” Biden responded, “I have never taken a penny from any foreign source, ever in my life,” and then, referencing a recent article in The New York Times, cited a “secret bank account” that Trump had in China and that the president was doing business with a country he has continually demonized as being the source of the “China flu.”
But Biden then used that opening to quickly pivot to one of his key campaign issues: Trump’s refusal to release his taxes and avoid disclosing where his income comes from. “I have released all of my tax returns, 22 years, go look at them,” Biden said. Then he turned toward Trump and said, “You have not released a single solitary year of your tax returns. What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling? The foreign countries are paying you a lot. Russia is paying you a lot. China is paying you a lot.” Trump responded by repeating a line he first trotted out four years ago, when he was running against Hillary Clinton: “I called my accountants. We’re under audit. I’m going to release them as soon as I can.” Biden laughed in response. Here is the full exchange:
Is New York a Ghost Town?
As the two candidates continued to be asked about the pandemic, Trump insisted that the country had to reopen, by whatever means necessary, and cited the experience of his former hometown as a cautionary tale. “If you go and look at what’s happened to New York, it’s a ghost town, it’s a ghost town,” Trump said. “And when you talk about plexiglass, these are restaurants that are dying, these are businesses with no money…putting up plexiglass is unbelievable expensive and it’s not the answer…what you’re gonna sit there in a cubicle wrapped around in plastic? These are business that are dying. Joe you can’t do that to people…take a look at New York and what’s happened to my wonderful city. For so many years I loved it, it was vibrant — it’s dying, everyone is leaving New York.”Biden responded by praising New York’s response to the coronavirus, “in terms of the turning the curve down, in terms of the number of people dying.” But, really, there is only one rejoinder to Trump’s claim that New York is a ghost town: “Have you tried to get a reservation at Pastis at any time in the past month?”
There is no joy in Trumpville
One of the more striking aspects of last night’s debate was the demeanor of the two men. Biden, as he did in the first debate, made a point of looking directly into the camera (and the millions of people watching at home), as he made his pitch for their votes. Though it was a serious night, he occasionally chuckled at some of Trump’s more more outrageous remarks or flashed an indulgent smile as the president attacked his record. But Trump never smiled once the entire evening. Instead, as if he were trying to channel Alec Baldwin, the president scowled, grimaced, rolled his eyes and pursed his lips. He looked off into space and fidgeted like a small child being told to behave. He looked like a man who did not want to be there. He looked like a man who knows he is about to lose.