Stakes were incredibly high at the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. After all, it was one of the last high-profile opportunities for both candidates to make their case to an audience of tens of millions of voters.
Compared to the first event, Thursday’s debate was a far, far smoother affair – thanks in part to the deft moderating of NBC News’ Kristen Welker and the widely-touted mute button.
The two candidates offered sharply different visions of how to handle the surging coronavirus pandemic. They argued over everything from how much Trump pays in taxes to the administration’s immigration policies.
Trump even called himself “the least racist person in this room” – a room which included Welker, who is Black.
With Trump trailing in major polls and needing to change the campaign’s trajectory, the debate could prove pivotal – though more than 48 million votes have already been cast, and this election looks to have fewer undecided voters than previous contests.
With less than two weeks until Election Day, the night in Nashville began with a battle over the president’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs. An exclusive Spectrum News/Ipsos poll of key states found that that COVID-19 is the biggest issue for voters heading into the election.
“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.”
Trump also attempted to turn the conversation multiple times toward Biden’s son, Hunter, a target in the last week for the president and his allies.
“I think you have to clear it up and talk to the American people,” Trump said, referencing the allegations presented in a dubious New York Post story about Hunter Biden and Ukraine.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source at any point in my life,” Biden responded.
He then turned the conversation toward a New York Times report about Trump having a bank account in China: “He’s talking about me taking money from China? I’ve not taken a penny from any country. Ever. Ever. Ever."
Biden declared the discussion about family entanglements “malarkey” and accused Trump of not wanting to talk about the substantive issues.
Turning to the camera and the millions watching at home, he said, “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly.”
Here are six takeaways from the final presidential debate.
Biden and Trump came out swinging at their opponent for the first topic of the night, offering starkly different positions on how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus as states across the country see a rise in cases.
President Trump, the first to speak under new rules that muted the opposition’s microphone, lauded his administration’s efforts to control the pandemic, claiming a vaccine for coronavirus is “ready” and will be announced within weeks. When pressed, Trump admitted this was “not a guarantee,” and that it may take until early next year for a vaccine to be approved.
“It will go away,” Trump said of coronavirus, staying with his optimistic assessment of the pandemic. “We’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
The president cited decreasing spikes of COVID in states like Florida, Arizona, and Texas as evidence that his administration’s plan was working.
In fact, Florida’s Department of Health confirmed 5,557 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s known total to 768,091. Thursday was the highest single-day total of new COVID cases since mid-August.
And just this week, Texas reported more active cases than at any time since the summertime peak, according to numbers state health officials reported Wednesday.
An estimated 84,538 cases of COVID-19 were active Wednesday, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported. That was the most since Sept. 1. Of those, 4,782 cases required hospitalization, the most since Aug. 26.
Still, the president denied Biden’s warning that the nation had a dire stretch ahead due to spikes in infections.
Biden opened with a fiery condemnation of the president’s handling of the pandemic, saying the 223,000 American lives lost to the pandemic disqualify Trump from another term in office.
“Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America,” Biden said.
The two widely differed on their approach to reopening the economy, with Trump insisting that Biden would shut down the United States – an accusation Biden staunchly denied.
“We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy,” Trump said. “There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
Biden maintained there are safe ways to reopen the economy, but the federal government needs to provide financial support for things like social distancing enforcement, rapid testing, and contact tracing.
“I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden quipped at his opponent. The former vice president pointed out that Americans have been denied much-needed relief because stimulus talks between the president and Democrats have continuously failed to produce an agreement.
Biden vowed that his administration would defer to the scientists and said that Trump’s divisive approach hindered the nation’s response.
Accusations of corruption and conflicts of interest were hurled from both sides of the stage.
As expected, Trump went after Biden about his son Hunter about the younger Biden's business dealings in Ukraine and China.
"All of the emails, the emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family," Trump said, referring to reports about a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter with unverified emails suggesting that Joe Biden, while vice president, met with a Ukrainian business associate of Hunter's and that Biden was slated to receive a cut of another business venture in China after he left office.
"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life," Biden responded.
Biden also pushed back against allegations that he sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Burisma, the energy company where Hunter was a board member, from a corruption investigation.
"Nothing was unethical," Biden said.
"Every single solitary person when he [Trump] was going through his impeachment testifying under oath who worked for him said I did my job impeccably," the former vice president added. "I carried out U.S. policy. Not one single solitary thing was out of line."
Biden insisted that his son has not made any money in China.
The Democratic nominee noted that he had released 22 years of his tax returns while Trump has refused to release any of his.
"What are you hiding?" Biden said. "Why are you unwilling? The foreign countries are paying you a lot. Russia's paying you a lot. China's paying you a lot on your hotels and all your businesses all around the country, all around the world.
"Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption."
Trump again blamed an IRS audit for preventing him from releasing his tax returns. The president claimed that the Mueller investigation into possible ties between Russia and his campaign went through his tax records and "found absolutely no collusion and nothing wrong," although a prosecutor on Mueller's team has said the probe did not fully examine whether there were any financial links between Trump and Russia.
The conversation on health care frequently devolved into jabs between the candidates on other issues, with Biden turning to Trump’s assets and Trump, in turn, pointing out Biden’s perceived flip-flopping on fracking.
When they did manage to stay on topic, Trump repeated his oft-touted claims that Biden advocates for socialized medicine, trying to link his opponent to more liberal members of his party.
“He wants socialized medicine,” Trump said of Biden. “This whole country will come down. It’s impossible to work. It doesn’t work.”
The president also took issue with Biden’s “public option” in his proposed healthcare plan, claiming the former vice president is “talking about destroying your medicare and your social security.”
Biden does not support Medicare for All but does support a public care option similar to Medicare that would be available on ACA exchanges.
“We have 180 million people out there that have great private health care — far more than what we’re talking about with Obamacare,” Trump said of Biden’s plan, going on to falsely claim that Biden’s proposal would “terminate 180 million plans.”
Trump and fellow Republicans have often tried to tie Medicare for All proposals to all Democrats, but Biden has repeatedly criticized the proposal during his campaign and has said he will not ban private insurance.
“He’s confused,” Biden said of Trump, comparing him to other candidates in the Democratic primary who supported Medicare for All. “He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with those other people on healthcare.”
The first mic cut of the night was given to Trump as he discussed dismantling the Affordable Care Act. Biden was having none of the president’s accusations.
“This is the guy who is trying to cut Medicare,” Biden said. “The idea that Donald J. Trump is lecturing me on Social Security and Medicare? Come on.”
The candidates, in turn, blamed their opponent for not doing enough work on health care during their time in office. Trump claimed he had done more in 47 months in office than Biden did in 47 years, a talking point he’s made at several rallies in recent days.
Biden said Trump had not made any notable progress on health care, other than railing against the Affordable Care Act.
“I’d like to terminate Obamacare and come up with a brand new beautiful healthcare,” Trump said of his plan.
The president and former vice president got into a heated exchange over the Trump administration's now-abandoned child separation policy at the Mexican border.
Court-appointed lawyers said Tuesday that they have been unable to find parents of 545 children who were separated between July 1, 2017, and June 26, 2018.
Trump said his administration is trying "very hard" to locate the parents but argued: "A lot of kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs."
Biden disputed that.
"Coyotes didn't bring them over," he said. "Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.
"Kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they can't find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It's criminal."
Just as he did in 2018, Trump falsely blamed Democrats, including the Obama administration, for the policy.
"Who built the cages, Joe? Who built the cages, Joe?" Trump said, referring to the chain-link enclosures that were constructed during the Obama administration to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children awaiting transfer into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The candidates each attempted to skewer the other over race relations, with the former vice president calling 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.”
“It makes me sad because I am the least racist person,” Trump said of Biden’s accusation. “I can’t even see the audience because it’s so dark, but I don’t care who’s in the audience. I’m the least racist person in this room.”
Notably, the room included the moderator, Welker, who is Black.
After being pressed by Welker on what he would say to Americans that are concerned about his rhetoric, Trump answered: “I don’t, I mean, I don’t know what to say.”
Trump also 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.
“Nobody has done what I’ve done, criminal justice reform,” Trump said. “Obama and Joe didn’t do it. I don’t even think they tried because they had no chance at doing it. They might have wanted to do it.”
Trump accused Biden and former President Barack Obama of ignoring issues of racial justice, taking particular issue with Biden’s support for a 1994 crime bill, saying the legislation “did such harm to the Black community.”
Trump told Biden: “You’ve done nothing but the crime bill which put tens of thousands of Black men in jail.”
Biden said he’s been trying to change drug sentencing laws that disproportionately harmed African Americans and that the public knows his record. Biden has called the law a mistake in the past, and he reiterated that Thursday, saying: “The fact of the matter is, there is institutional racism in America.”
The discussion over race in the country stretched on for several minutes, with Biden sarcastically seizing on Trump’s fondness for saying he’s done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln by referring to Trump as “Abraham Lincoln over here.”
Biden said Trump was race baiting, saying that the president “has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
In a discussion about energy and the environment, Biden admitted he wants to "transition from the oil industry," a statement on which Trump immediately pounced.
Biden said he believes the oil industry must be phased out because it "pollutes significantly."
"It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time. Over time," he said. "And to the oil industry, I'd stop giving them federal subsidies."
In what is sure to be a talking point in his upcoming rallies, Trump called Biden's comment "the biggest statement in terms of business."
"Because basically what he's saying is he's going to destroy the oil industry," the president said. "Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?"
The Democratic nominee called climate change an "existential threat to humanity" and claimed his climate plan would create millions of good-paying jobs.
"We have to move toward a net-zero emissions," Biden said. "The first place to do that by the year 2035 is in energy production. By 2050, totally."
Trump insisted the U.S. has some of the cleanest air and water in the world – he blamed China, India, and Russia for the world's pollution problems – and said he refused to sacrifice jobs to enact stringent environmental regulations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.