Trump and Biden clash on pandemic, race relations during final presidential debate
Debate started with measured tones but quickly escalated
In their final presidential debate, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden offered sharply different visions of how to handle the surging pandemic, for international relations, and of the current state of race relations in the United States.
The night in Nashville, Tenn., opened with a clash over the president's handling of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs, before the candidates moved on to the issue of Trump's tax returns, the economy, health care and the United States' relationship with North Korea.
The debate initially struck a more measured tone than the first presidential debate in September, which was marred with interruptions and personal attacks. The format offered each candidate two minutes uninterrupted on each of the night's topics as the other's microphone was muted.
As the night progressed, however, Trump and Biden's rhetoric ratcheted up. Trump declared himself the least racist person in the room. Biden, for his part, invoked Hitler.
Polling suggests the pandemic is the campaign's defining issue for voters, and Biden declared, "Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America."
Trump defended his management of the nation's most deadly health crisis in a century, dismissing Biden's warning that the nation had a dire stretch ahead due to spikes in infections. And he promised that a vaccine would be ready in weeks.
WATCH | Trump, Biden offer different characterizations of New York City:
"It will go away," said Trump, staying with his optimistic assessment of the pandemic. "We're rounding the turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away."
But Biden vowed that his administration would defer to the scientists and said that Trump's divisive approach hindered the nation's response.
"I don't look at this in the way he does — blue states and red states," Biden said. "They're all the United States. And look at all the states that are having a spike in the coronavirus — they're the red states."
Sparring over tax returns
As the debate progressed, Trump promised again to release his tax returns. Biden was quick to point out that Trump has been making that promise for years.
Responding to unfounded allegations from Trump — that he's received funds from Russian sources — Biden noted that he's released 22 years of tax returns, which he says show he has "not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life."
Pointing his finger at Trump, Biden asked: "What are you hiding?" He told Trump to "release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption."
Trump responded that he would like to release his returns "as soon as we can," but said again that he's under audit, a claim he's made since he first ran for president in 2016. The president is not actually barred from releasing the documents while under audit.
North Korea, border separations
Trump also defended the United States' relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Biden, on the other hand, invoked Adolf Hitler.
"We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe," Biden quipped.
WATCH | Biden on North Korea:
The tension rose after moderator Kristen Welker asked a question about when more than 500 children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border will be reunited.
Trump sidestepped the question before offering: "We're trying very hard."
Biden seized on the issue.
"It's criminal," he said, adding that the issue makes the United States a "laughingstock."
On race relations
The candidates clashed on race relations, as the former vice-president called the current president "one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history."
Biden said Trump "pours fuel on every racist fire" and noted that at his last debate the president wouldn't condemn white supremacy and told an extremist group to "stand down and stand by."
Trump, for his part, declared himself "the least racist person in this room." He portrayed himself as a champion of Black people.
Repeating his standard line that no president has done more for Black Americans than anyone other than Abraham Lincoln, Trump accused Biden and former president Barack Obama of ignoring issues of racial justice.
WATCH | Trump and Biden on race relations:
Debate could be crucial
Final debates often play an outsized role in electoral outcomes. But Thursday night's showdown was different from those past.
More than 47 million people have already cast their ballots as part of a pandemic-era rise in early voting. In an election dominated by a polarizing president, far fewer undecided voters remain than at this point in 2016. The debate was a final chance for each candidate to make his case to a television audience of tens of millions of voters.
WATCH | Trump warns about the implications of a Biden presidency:
And questions swirled beforehand as to how Trump, whose hectoring performance at the first debate was viewed by aides as a mistake that turned off viewers, would perform amid a stretch of the campaign in which he has taken angry aim at the news media and unleashed deeply personal attacks on Biden and his adult son.
Despite historic tumult, the race has remained largely unchanged, with Biden holding advantages in many battleground states while Trump faces a shortage of campaign cash and, crucially, time. Election day is less than two weeks away.
WATCH | Biden says 'character of this country' is at stake:
The one-two punch of the first presidential debate and Trump's three-day hospital stint with COVID-19 rattled his base of support and triggered alarm among Republicans who fear the White House and Senate could be slipping away.
Only around 200 people were inside the arena, a mix of invited guests of the campaigns and the debate commission, students, the commission's production team, security and health and safety personnel. Audience members were seated in accordance with physical distancing recommendations; several empty seats separated each person or small group.
All audience members and support staff were required to undergo coronavirus testing onsite within three days of the event. They wore coloured wrist bands as evidence of their negative tests
Trump announced just two days after the first debate that he tested positive for the virus. He later spent three nights in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before returning to the White House.
After Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis, the debate commission ruled that the second debate, which was to have been held last week, be virtual. Trump balked, and the two men held duelling town halls instead, speaking at the same time more than 1,600 kilometres apart.
Biden and Trump were both tested for COVID-19 on Thursday and the results came back negative.
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With files from The Associated Press and Reuters