The first debate was pandemonium. The second was canceled after the president was hospitalized with Covid-19. The third and, mercifully, last debate was a relatively sedate affair. It took place a week and half before what we call Election Day, but already 50 million Americans have locked in their votes across the country. Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News kept unflinching command of the contest at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, even as Trump insisted to the black moderator that he was the “least-racist person in the room.”
Trump, the incumbent, repeatedly tried to play the insurgent, frequently attacking Biden as a “politician,” as though Trump himself had not been constantly campaigning for office since 2015. Biden continually called out Trump on both substance (the stain of separating children from their parents at the border) and character (mocking him for repeatedly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln while pursuing a brazenly bigoted agenda as president).
The contest did not feature any knock-out punches, and only a few blows below the belt. It’s unlikely it will be remembered as a game changer in the 2020 election. But it succeeded in showcasing the contrast between the candidates. Trump was Trump: a bundle of his grievance and conspiracy, shameless skating through the debate on lies. Biden was Biden: dutiful, decent, at times ineloquent, but quick to call out “malarkey.”
Here are five of the most memorable moments from the final debate of the 2020 election:
“I take full responsibility. … It’s not my fault.”
Journalists have written millions of words trying to pin down the psychology informing Trump’s approach to the presidency. Trump did it himself in one sentence Thursday night while attempting to defend his record on Covid-19. “I take full responsibility, it’s not my fault.”
When Biden called out Trump for his explicit refusal to take responsibility for his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump reflexively countered Biden before immediately reverting to his default state of blaming everyone but himself for the devastation the pandemic has wrought on America.
That devastation will continue absent any sort of coherent plan to stop it, but when asked for specifics about what he intends to do, Trump could only recycle the same tired points about how he barred people from entering the United States from China, how the virus will “soon be gone,” and how a vaccine that experts say may not be widely available until 2021 is “ready” and would be announced “within weeks.” When Welker followed up, Trump admitted that a few weeks might not be accurate. No shit.
To quell any lingering concerns, Trump reminded Americans that he understands vaccine development better than the scientists. “My timeline is more accurate,” the president said.
Biden, by contrast, stressed the need to wear masks, promised he would invest in rapid testing, and said he would work to set nationwide standards for how businesses can open safely. “We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Biden said when Trump accused him of wanting to “close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy” tells him to.
Biden also promised to be transparent with the American people, citing the moment Trump admitted on tape that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the virus in order to prevent people from panicking. “Americans don’t panic,” Biden said. “He panicked.”
“It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family.”
When the topics for this final presidential debate were released publicly, the Trump campaign was furious over the fact that “foreign policy” was not among the listed issues. Campaign manager Bill Stepien went so far as to write a two-page letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates demanding a change. (They didn’t grant it.) On Thursday night, during the national security segment, viewers found out why. President Trump was intent on needling Biden over an unproven allegation that the wife of the former mayor of Moscow paid $3.5 million payment to an investment firm linked to Hunter Biden. (Hunter Biden’s lawyer denies the claim, and fact-checkers at multiple outlets have failed to find support for the allegation.) He went on to claim there was “a very strong email” suggesting influence peddling in China.
Biden swiped back at Trump, hitting him over the revelations that he has a previously undisclosed bank account in China, and his ongoing refusal to publicly release his tax returns. “What are you hiding?” Biden said. “Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
Trump trotted out the old excuse that he is under audit, and added a new set of claims he “prepaid” “tens of millions of dollars” of tax returns. Oh, and that $750 dollars that his leaked tax returns show he paid in 2017 and 2018? That was just a “filing fee.”
Biden, though, seemed to cut through the noise when he addressed the camera directly. “There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey. There’s a reason for it: He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family,” Biden said. “If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now… We should be talking about your families, but he doesn’t want to talk about that.”
“Typical politician!” the president spat back, as if it were a bad thing to care about constituents’ concerns. “I’m not a typical politician,” Trump said. (Fact check: true.)
“I see the United States”
During an exchange about why a new Covid-19 relief bill has been stalled in Congress, Donald Trump tried to stick it to House Speaker (and longtime GOP boogeywoman) Nancy Pelosi. Trump claimed that the Democrats’ HEROES Act — passed in May at $3 trillion, and scaled down to $2 trillion and passed again in October — was an egregious bailout for “badly run Democrat states and cities.”
Trump’s outburst against states that do not support him electorally gave Biden an opening, and he seized the moment to tar Trump for governing as a hyper-partisan. “I’m a proud Democrat,” Biden said, “but I’m running to be an American president. I don’t see red states and blue states,” he continued, “I see America. I see the United States.”
For Biden it was a clean hit on Trump — who recently threatened to withhold federal fire disaster aid from California, the state that ensured his loss in the popular vote in 2016. But the phrasing also invoked nostalgia, echoing then-future president Barack Obama’s famous 2004 Democratic convention speech. (“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” Obama said in the address that launched his career in national politics.)
Biden returned to this theme of national unity in his closing remarks, pledging again to be “an American president. I represent all of you, whether you vote for me or against me.” Pledging to restore hope after four years of Trump, Biden insisted: “What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” vowing he would lead America in a spirit of “decency, honesty, respect… and making sure everyone gets an even chance.”
“They terminated it, so we don’t have to worry about it anymore, Joe!”
One of the strongest contrasts of the evening came when Welker asked about the Trump administration’s policy of separating undocumented children from their parents at the southern border with Mexico. The administration was forced to retract the policy under heavy criticism, but according to a recent report, more than two years later, 545 of the more than 2,000 children have still not been reunited with their families. That includes about 60 children who were under the age of five when they were forcibly removed from their parents. Welker wanted to know how the president would reunite those families. Trump didn’t answer that question, choosing instead to speak about the “coyotes” and “cartels” and “gangs” that use children to cross into America.
Biden called out that evasion. “These 500-plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come here … Coyotes didn’t bring them over, their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents … And it violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Two-thirds of the parents who are still missing their children are believed to have been deported, while their children remain in U.S. custody; a committee in charge of reunification has said the parents of as many as 470 children may be “unreachable.” “Let’s talk about what we’re talking about,” Biden emphasized on Thursday night. “Parents, their kids, were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over five hundred sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.“
“They terminated it, so we don’t have to worry about it anymore, Joe!” Trump said.
“ — And you have  kids not knowing where they are going to be and lost their parents,” Biden replied.
“I’m the least-racist person in this room, OK”
The Exonerated Five were not a topic of conversation during the 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton’s campaign never brought up in a meaningful way Donald Trump’s very public and unmistakably racist condemnation of the five innocent teenagers in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. This was curious because Trump, as recently as 2019, refused to apologize for placing an ad that demanded the restoration of the death penalty just weeks after the incident and didn’t accept that they were proven to be innocent of the crime. “You have people on both sides of that,” he said when asked about the case at the White House. “They admitted their guilt.”
The 1989 death penalty ad was Trump clearing his throat for Charlottesville. That we knew who this president was with regards to his attitudes toward black people does not soften the blow when he speaks of us, repeatedly in the most patronizing terms. And with Joe Biden, the regretful author of the infamous 1994 crime bill, he believes that he has a soft target.
But as Trump berated the former vice president Thursday night over his record of incarcerating black men, what he conveniently ignored is that his own persecution of those five New York City schoolchildren helped fan the national flames for that crime bill just five short years later. If Trump wants to pin a medal on himself for commuting just 20 sentences — Barack Obama commuted nearly 1,400, more than any other president — we can’t stop him.
However, it was appropriate that Biden took the president’s patronizing praise for himself and turned it on its head, pointing to him and saying “Abraham Lincoln over here.” It was even more telling that Trump took such offense and clearly didn’t understand that he was being mocked. He doesn’t have enough good sense to recognize that freeing Alice Johnson, Matthew Charles, and a few other black people from prison via the FIRST STEP Act, that flawed and middling piece of civil-rights legislation, doesn’t suddenly transform it into the second coming of the Emancipation Proclamation. But we should.
(And as much as Trump would like to have made the case that he was the true white savior on the stage, the pied piper of white supremacy looked all the more ridiculous when he tried to claim that “I’m the least-racist person in this room, OK?” in front of Welker, the first black woman to moderate a presidential debate solo since Carole Simpson in 1992.)
Biden, thankfully, didn’t repeat Clinton’s mistake. In the midst of listing Trump’s own lust for the carceral state, Biden said that “this is a guy, with the Central Park Five, five innocent black kids” — one, Raymond Santana, is Latino — “he continued to push for making sure they got the death penalty. None of them, none of them, were guilty of the crimes that were suggested.” Trump didn’t respond. He had nothing to say.