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Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus, character in last debate

Updated October 23, 2020 - 12:10 am

WASHINGTON — Heeding new rules that created a veneer of civility, including the occasional muting of microphones, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden hammered each other’s character and credibility during the final 2020 presidential debate at Belmont University’s Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Trump accused the Biden family — son Hunter Biden and brother Jim Biden — of using the vice president’s power to cash in with foreign concerns. “They’re getting rich. They’re like a vacuum cleaner,” Trump charged.

The allegation referred to a New York Post story about material found on a laptop computer that purports to undercut Joe Biden’s insistence that he never spoke with his son about a Ukrainian energy firm that paid Hunter Biden around $50,000 per month as his father served as President Barack Obama’s point man in the fight to stamp out corruption in Ukraine.

Biden vehemently denied the charge, saying, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life.”

The Democratic nominee, who has released 22 years of his tax returns, then turned the tables on Trump by calling on the GOP president to release his tax returns. “What are you hiding?” Biden asked.

Trump answered that he would release his taxes as soon as an audit is done.

Trump and Biden stood roughly 12 feet apart and 18 feet from moderator Kristen Welker, NBC News White House correspondent, in a 5,500-seat venue with about 200 observers, who under Commission on Presidential Debates rules, were required to wear masks. Both candidates tested negative for the coronavirus before the debate.

Trading barbs

After a first debate infamous for interruptions, both candidates were more polite, if more effective, at slamming the other.

Trump repeatedly hit Biden for not delivering during his 47 years in public service.

Biden branded Trump as a xenophobe and a “racist” who began his campaign in 2015 assailing “Mexicans” and “pours fuel on every racist fire.”

Amid complaints even among Republican supporters about Trump’s sharp-elbows style, Biden offered that his character and kindness were reasons to send him back to Washington. “What is on the ballot here is the character of this country — decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity and making sure that everyone has a chance,” Biden said.

On the pandemic

The back and forth began with the issue of coronavirus, and two different views of how Washington should address the pandemic.

Trump offered that he didn’t think the cure should be worse than the disease and that public schools should open, and he took credit for banning some travel from China.

“This is the same fellow who told you, this is going to end by Easter,” Biden scoffed as he warned the country was about to “go into a dark winter.” As president, Biden said, he would work to provide resources and adequate testing needed to open schools and shuttered businesses.

It was an approach Trump rejected.

“We have no choice,” he responded. “We can’t lock ourselves up in the basement like Joes does” — an allusion to Biden’s pared-back presence on the campaign trail as Trump has traveled the country to speak at rallies.

“All of the elements of the debate favored Biden,” Ken Khachigian, former chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, told the Review-Journal. “COVID-19 took place early.”

Nonetheless, Khachigian said, Biden erred by saying, “We have to move toward net zero emissions” by 2050 — a pledge likely to hurt him in Texas and maybe Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Ahead of the debate, Tony Bobulinski, a Navy veteran and former business partner of Biden’s son Hunter in a venture with CEFC China energy, told a small press gathering, “I’ve heard Joe Biden say that he’s never discussed this with Hunter. That is false.”

The Biden campaign responded with a statement that Biden “has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business period.” The statement also questioned Bobulinski’s credibility and noted that it is Trump who has a “secret Chinese bank account,” as The New York Times recently reported.

“Biden held his own, but his weaknesses as a speaker were more on display due to Trump’s improved performance,” said Ruth Sherman, a speech coach and communications specialist.

“Trump maintained discipline this time and showed he could counter perceptions of his performance at the first debate. It might move some people who were very turned off by the first debate, (to) show them he knows how to behave,” she added.

Sherman also felt Trump’s answer about immigrant children separated from their parents lacked empathy, and Trump did himself no favor referring to himself in the third person and saying, “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump.”

In a statement to the Review-Journal, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said that “only one candidate on that stage can relate to working-class people, and it isn’t the one with a Chinese bank account.”

“Joe Biden will turn the page on Trump’s four years of division, incompetence, and cruelty,” she said. “He is prepared to get this virus under control and get the economy back on track instead of pretending that it will magically disappear.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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