By John McCormick and Alex Leary
President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden offered starkly differing
views of the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic
and traded accusations about their personal finances Thursday
night, as they appealed to a relatively small pool of undecided
voters in the final debate before the Nov. 3 election.
"We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to
fight this horrible disease that came from China," Mr. Trump said,
while arguing his administration had taken tough steps to save
lives, noting his own battle with the virus. "We're rounding the
turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away."
Mr. Biden countered that the president lacked a national
strategy and had misled Americans about the severity of the crisis
that claimed more than 222,000 lives across the country, with 8.3
million reported U.S. infections.
"Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain
as president of the United States of America," Mr. Biden said as he
provided the latest statistics on new cases and deaths. "We're in a
circumstance where the president thus far still has no plan, no
The former vice president offered stark predictions about the
nation's potential challenges ahead with the pandemic, saying many
more people would die without a change in strategy.
"We're about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter," Mr. Biden
said. "He has no clear plan and there's no prospect that there's
going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American
people before the middle of next year."
The president said the country cannot remain locked up, jabbing
that his rival has remained in a basement during the campaign. Mr.
Biden made few in-person appearances over the summer and has a
lighter travel schedule than the president.
"We can't close up our nation or you're not going to have a
nation," Mr. Trump said, a point he made repeatedly.
"I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country," Mr. Biden
said, adding that the country needs more resources to allow schools
and businesses to fully reopen.
Mr. Trump repeatedly suggested Mr. Biden and his family members
had benefited financially from his time as vice president, when his
son Hunter Biden had business dealings in Ukraine.
A report released by Senate Republicans said two Obama
administration officials raised concerns that Hunter Biden's
position on the board of a Ukrainian natural-gas company created
the perception of a conflict of interest with his father's work.
The report did not find that Joe Biden sought the removal of a
Ukrainian prosecutor to protect the company from investigation.
"I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my
life," Mr. Biden said.
The former vice president also said Mr. Trump should release his
tax returns. The president has so far broken a four-decade-long
tradition of major-party presidential candidates and presidents
doing so. Mr. Trump said, as he has before, that he couldn't
release his tax returns because he was under audit.
Despite the clashes, the tone early on was far more cordial,
with both men respecting each other's time, though it intensified
over a discussion about foreign interference in the election that
morphed into a back-and-forth over who had benefited from other
The event at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., was
expected to be their last joint appearance before a large
television audience, with national polls showing the incumbent
trailing and his campaign at a cash disadvantage.
The face-off was held as 47 million ballots -- more than a third
of the total 2016 vote -- have already been cast. Both campaigns
are mostly focused on turning out their supporters and making
closing arguments to the few remaining undecided voters.
The gathering, moderated by NBC's Kristen Welker, included a
first for a modern presidential debate: Each candidate had their
microphone muted at times. The nonpartisan Commission on
Presidential Debates wanted to better control the session, after
2020's first and only other presidential debate featured frequent
interruptions, mostly by Mr. Trump.
The 90-minute event was to include six 15-minute segments
addressing the topics of fighting the pandemic, American families,
race relations, climate change, national security and
Tumultuous news cycles dominated by the pandemic, economic
challenges and racial unrest have failed to move the needle much on
the race's national polling for most of the summer and fall.
A national poll average from RealClearPolitics shows Mr. Trump
trailing Mr. Biden by 7.9 percentage points, and state surveys
suggest he's also facing close contests in some battlegrounds he
easily won four years ago. He and his aides have projected optimism
by suggesting that the surveys are wrong, as some were in states
that delivered his 2016 victory.
On a day when Senate Republicans took another step toward
installing Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump's third Supreme Court pick,
Mr. Biden said in an excerpt released Thursday of a CBS interview
that if he won he planned to create a bipartisan commission to
study overhauling the nation's judiciary. Some on the left have
called to expand the high court as a way to offset what they said
is an outsize conservative grip on the panel.
His campaign has not said what possible changes the review would
consider. Symone Sanders, a senior Biden campaign adviser, told
reporters Thursday that the commission would recommend "ways to
restore balance to the Supreme Court," but would also focus on the
federal judiciary at large.
The former vice president has resisted calls from liberal
segments of his party to endorse an expansion of the Supreme Court,
following the Sept. 18 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In the first debate, Mr. Biden declined to answer questions over
whether he would expand the size of the nation's top court, saying
he would announce his position before the election.
Mr. Trump's campaign had criticized the planned topics for the
debate, saying they don't allow enough time for foreign policy
For this event, each candidate was told they would have two
minutes of uninterrupted time to speak at the beginning of each of
the debate's six segments, with their opponent's microphone muted.
Despite criticism of the change, Mr. Trump's advisers were hoping
he would be less combative and give Mr. Biden, who they believe is
prone to gaffes, room to speak while pressing him on the business
dealings of Hunter Biden.
The final debate arrives three weeks after Mr. Trump's
hospitalization for Covid-19 infection. The president has
repeatedly said the country is rounding a corner in recovering from
the pandemic. In recent weeks, cases have begun to rise in most
parts of the country.
The economic damage from the coronavirus also persists, giving
Mr. Biden an opportunity to undercut what had been Mr. Trump's
strongest argument for another term. Mr. Trump blames China for the
virus and contends he's best equipped to rebuild the economy, while
casting Mr. Biden's policies as too liberal.
The former vice president's campaign started October with a
cash-on-hand balance almost three times as large as Mr. Trump's,
giving him a financial edge in race's closing days. Mr. Biden had
$177.3 million at the end of last month, compared with $63.1
million for Mr. Trump, filings with the Federal Election Commission
this week showed.
Mr. Biden plans to speak Friday near his home in Delaware on how
he would address the pandemic and bolster the economy, followed by
a Saturday visit to Bucks County, Pa. He ramped up his travel
schedule this fall, but he spent most of this week at home
preparing for the debate.
Mr. Trump has been doing campaign rallies nearly every day and
is set to travel to his adopted home state of Florida. He is
scheduled to hold rallies Friday in The Villages, a mega retirement
community in the center of the state, and then Pensacola, another
area when his campaign wants to run up the vote total.
Saturday morning, Mr. Trump is expected to cast an in-person
early vote in West Palm Beach and then hold rallies in North
Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.
--Joshua Jamerson, Madeleine Ngo and Sabrina Siddiqui
contributed to this article.
Write to John McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org and Alex Leary
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 22, 2020 22:18 ET (02:18 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.