President Donald Trump and Joe Biden delved into the pandemic, health insurance and energy in their final debate Thursday night. But for 11 minutes, they detoured down a labyrinthine path of personal charges and countercharges that voters likely struggled to follow.
Rapid-fire accusations of corruption, veering from the tax returns Trump has never released to the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter and the purported “laptop from hell,” punctuated the second segment of the debate. The candidates started off talking about the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation for months now, but they also captured the obsessions animating smaller subsets of Americans — without effectively describing either of them.
The debate eventually returned to policy questions, but not before Trump brought up unverified reporting about Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. The president hurled dollar figures he claims Biden’s family pocketed from foreign powers, trying to reclaim outsider status by branding Biden as corrupt.
Biden shot back, painting Trump as a tax-dodging plutocrat whose henchmen rely on Russian adversaries trying to dirty Biden’s name. Biden, for his part, said his release of 22 years of tax returns disprove the idea that any questionable income came his way and that he did not do anything with regard to Ukraine but carry out U.S. policy toward the country.
Surprisingly, it was Biden who first brought up Trump’s recent attacks on him and his son. The moment, nearly 30 minutes into the debate, started with a question about Russian interference in American elections, when moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News cited Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s announcement Wednesday night that foreign hackers were behind threatening emails to Democratic voters in Florida and Alaska.
Biden didn’t dwell long on Ratcliffe’s announcement, pivoting instead to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney who claims to be in possession of material from Hunter Biden’s hard drive — though Biden seemed initially to hesitate to go there.
“His own national security adviser told him that what is happening with his buddy — I shouldn’t — actually, I will,” Biden said. “His buddy Rudy Giuliani. He’s being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that is Russian — that is not true.”
Trump, ignoring the question Welker posed to him, leapt to accuse Biden of getting “$3.5 million from Russia, and it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow, and it was the mayor of Moscow’s wife.”
It was a cliff notes version of a footnote with little backup tucked away in a Senate Republican report, which reprised years-old claims that Biden acted improperly with regard to Ukraine. Biden has denied wrongdoing, and subsequent investigations and testimony of U.S. officials at the time have backed up the former vice president.
Trump also said that Biden was “selling pillows and sheets” and “I sold tank busters to Ukraine,” but it’s not clear what the president was referring to.
Then, without context, Trump veered to “all of the emails.” It sounded like a reprise of his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, but this time he was talking about emails purportedly to and from Biden’s son.
“The emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family,” Trump said, citing a “news conference” held just hours before the final debate, and “what he said was damning.”
It was a reference to a charge Biden’s campaign has denied: that he held a meeting with an official at the Ukrainian company where Hunter sat on the board. The New York Post claimed the alleged cache of Hunter Biden emails supplied by Giuliani includes evidence of this, but the emails alone don’t substantiate the claim.
Trump didn’t go any deeper before the former vice president got to answer. Biden volleyed back with an attack on Trump’s taxes, leaning on reporting from The New York Times that reported on a “secret bank account with China,” as Biden put it.
“Russia’s paying you a lot. China’s paying you a lot,” Biden continued. “And your hotels and all your businesses all around the country, all around the world. And China’s building a new road to a new — a golf course you have overseas. So what’s going on here? Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
Trump leaned on an old crutch, arguing his tax returns were under audit and unveiling a new contention that he “prepaid” millions of dollars in taxes in advance.
By this point, a viewer could be forgiven for losing track of the debate. Even fewer were likely to be swayed by what they were hearing. But Trump wasn’t done yet, accusing the Obama-Biden administration of “[spying] on my campaign” — an overstated claim Trump has made repeatedly, but which lacks context and evidence regarding the U.S. law enforcement investigation into possible ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump also aired long-held grievances about his own impeachment.
Welker interjected by posing individual questions, confronting Biden over Hunter’s business in Ukraine. Biden again contended that nothing his son did was unethical and that it didn’t affect Biden’s role in U.S. policy. Biden pointed to testimony of witnesses during Trump’s impeachment proceedings as evidence that “not one single solitary thing was out of line.”
“The only guy that made money from China is this guy,” Biden added, motioning to Trump. “He’s the only one. Nobody else has made money from China.”
Trump, taking the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue approach, stepped in to accuse Biden’s “son, his brother, and his other brother are getting rich. They’re like a vacuum cleaner. They’re sucking –”
Welker cut Trump off, reminding him: “Okay. President Trump, thank you. We do need to move on.”
Welker briefly steered the debate into trade policy, with Biden and Trump arguing over whether Trump’s standoffs have harmed the heartland.
“I just gave $28 billion to our farmers,” Trump said.
“Taxpayers’ money,” Biden replied. “Taxpayers’ money. It didn’t come from China.”
“You know who the taxpayer is,” Trump shot back. “It’s called China.”
He went on about penalizing China for “killing our steel industry.”
Welker asked Biden to respond, giving the former vice president a change to inject a favorite buzzword into the final debate.
“My response is look, there’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said. “There’s a reason for it. He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues.”