President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, clashed Thursday night in the second and final presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election.
Trump and Biden traded boasts and criticisms in a meeting that began at 9 p.m. EDT at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, after officials said both men tested negative for COVID-19.
What follows are eight highlights from the 90-minute debate moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker.
1. Reopening Schools, Businesses
Republican Trump and Democrat Biden differed on the issue of shutdowns during the pandemic, especially in terms of reopening schools safely as soon as possible.
Trump said that although Americans will continue to deal with COVID-19, the country can’t stay closed and must continue the process of reopening.
“We can’t close up our nation, or you’re not going to have a nation,” Trump said.
Biden said that he did not aim to keep the country shut down.
“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden said.
However, Biden expressed a greater willingness to keep lockdowns in place until certain needs are met.
“I’m not shutting down today, but look, you need standards,” Biden said. “If you have a [virus] reproduction rate above a certain level, everybody says slow down, do not open bars and gymnasiums, until you get this under more control.”
He wants schools to reopen, Biden said, but more needs to be done to get them into a place to do so, such as better ventilation.
“Schools, they need a lot of money to open,” Biden said. “They need to deal with smaller classrooms.”
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Biden’s reopening plan stipulates: “Emergency funding needs have been met so that schools have the resources to reconfigure classrooms, kitchens, and other spaces, improve ventilation, and take other necessary steps to make it easier to physically distance and minimize risk of spread.”
Biden also said Trump had failed to negotiate a new coronavirus relief package with the Democrat-controlled House.
The president countered that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn’t want to make a deal before the election.
“We are ready, willing, and able to do something,” Trump said.
2. COVID-19 Vaccine and China
The first debate between Trump and Biden took place Sept. 29. The Commission on Presidential Debates canceled the originally scheduled second of three debates, set for Oct. 15, after Trump objected to a format in which the candidates would appear in separate “town hall” settings.
The commission announced the change in format Oct. 8, the day after Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, met in their only debate. At the time, Trump was recovering from COVID-19 after a three-day stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Thursday night, Trump repeated his prediction that a COVID-19 vaccine will be approved by the end of this year.
Trump said several companies–including Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer–are “doing very well” in developing a vaccine, adding that the U.S. also is working with European nations to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Welker questioned Trump about his vaccine timeline, noting that his own health officials have said it may be well into 2021 before a vaccine is generally available.
“I think my timeline is going to be more accurate,” Trump said, adding:
I don’t know that they [health officials] are counting on the military the way I do, but we have our generals lined up. One in particular that’s the head of logistics, and this is a very easy distribution for him. He is ready to go. As soon as we have the vaccine–and we expect to have 100 million vials–as soon as we have the vaccine, he is ready to go.
Biden fired back at Trump, criticizing the president’s handling of the virus.
“We are about to go into a dark winter,” Biden said. “And he has no clear plan and there is no prospect that there is going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”
Asked to respond, the president said he acted quickly in response to the spread of the virus and closed down flights from China in January, an action that he says Biden called him “xenophobic” for taking.
Biden retorted that Trump had closed the border to China only after other countries already had done so.
Trump said Biden’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu was “a total disaster.”
“Had that had this kind of numbers, 700,000 people would be dead right now, but [swine flu] was a far less lethal disease.”
Trump denied saying that the virus is going to be “over soon,” but said Americans are “learning to live with it.” He added: “We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does.”
The president said 99% of those who contract the disease caused by the new coronavirus recover.
“People are learning to die with it,” the former vice president fired back, adding that the president has not taken responsibility for the toll taken by the virus.
“I take full responsibility. It is not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault. And you know what? It’s not Joe’s fault that it came here, either. It is China’s fault,” Trump said.
Biden also said, referring to COVID-19, “Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight … anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States.”
3. Fracking, Climate Change, and the Oil Industry
When it came to climate change and the energy industry, the two candidates had notable differences.
“I will not sacrifice tens of millions of jobs, thousands and thousands of companies, because of the Paris accord,” Trump said, referring to the international climate agreement the United States joined under President Barack Obama with Biden as vice president.
Six months into his presidency, Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the climate agreement.
“We have the cleanest air, the cleanest water, and the best carbon emissions standards that we’ve seen in many, many years. And we haven’t destroyed our industries,” Trump said.
He said the climate accord was too easy on nations such as China, Russia, and India that have “filthy” air.
“Climate change, climate warming, global warming is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it,” Biden said, adding that it was crucial to act in the next eight to 10 years.
Referring to his climate plan, which includes adding charging machines for electric cars to U.S. highways and retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficient, Biden said: “It will create millions of new, good-paying jobs.”
“We are energy independent for the first time,” Trump said.
Fracking was another topic of contention between the two candidates.
“I have never said I oppose fracking,” Biden said, accusing Trump of “lying.”
“I do rule out banning fracking,” he said, although he later said he had called for banning fracking on federal lands.
The Trump campaign tweeted this video shortly after Biden’s remarks:
Welker said “people of color” are more likely to live near chemical plants and oil refineries, and that Texans living in such areas are concerned the proximity is making them sick.
“The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they’re making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made,” Trump said, noting his administration’s record jobs numbers among Hispanic, Asian, and black Americans.
He added, “I have not heard the numbers or the statistics that you’re saying, but they’re making a tremendous amount of money.”
“Those frontline communities, it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them, it matters how you keep them safe,” Biden said, talking about the need to regulate pollutants.
Trump asked BIden: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
Biden responded: “I would transition from the oil industry, yes … because the oil industry pollutes significantly. … It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry, I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”
4. Improving Health Care
Trump said that the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2009-10 during the Obama administration, was “no good.” He said that’s why the law, popularly known as Obamacare, is still being challenged in court.
The president said his administration ended the individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance and is overseeing what remains of Obamacare.
“We’re running it as well as we can, but it’s no good,” he said.
Trump said Biden and the Democrats would push the country toward “socialized medicine” and government-run health care, as promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.”
Instead, Biden said, he wants “Bidencare,” which includes a “public option” for health insurance. Under a public option, the government offers subsidized plans that are less expensive than those offered by insurance companies.
Biden said he supports private insurance and insisted that “not one single person with private insurance would lose their insurance under my plan, nor did they under Obamacare.”
Obama also promised that nobody would lose his or her health insurance under Obamacare, which didn’t turn out to be the case.
“When he says ‘public option,’ he’s talking about socialized medicine and health care,” Trump said. “When he talks about a public option, he’s talking about destroying your Medicare and destroying your Social Security. This whole country will come down.”
Biden contended that Trump would not make sure that Americans with preexisting health conditions could get insurance coverage, but the president reiterated that he would.
Trump also disputed Biden’s claim that he would not move toward socialized medicine.
“It’s not that he wants it—his vice president, I mean, [Harris] is more liberal than Bernie Sanders and wants it even more,” Trump said. “Bernie Sanders wants it. The Democrats want it. You’re going to have socialized medicine.”
5. Who’s Tougher on Russia
Trump and Biden sparred over America’s relationship with Russia and their respective ability to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the subject of election integrity, Biden said it is clear that Russia has tried to influence the 2020 election, as it did in 2016. The former vice president warned that Russia “will pay a price if I am elected.”
Biden said that Trump’s personal attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, “is being used as a Russian pawn”:
He’s being fed information that is Russian, that is not true. And then what happens? Nothing happens. And then you find out that everything [that] is going on here about Russia is wanting to make sure that I do not get elected the next president of the United States, because they know I know them, and they know me.
The owner of a computer repair shop in Delaware who said he believed he had an unclaimed laptop originally dropped off in April 2019 by Biden’s son, Hunter, eventually put it in the hands of the FBI. He made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to Giuliani, who turned it over to the New York Post.
The New York Post last week reported on some of the emails on the laptop, including one suggesting that the elder Biden met Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that at the time reportedly was paying Hunter Biden $50,000 a month.
Biden said it is worth asking why Trump has not been tougher on Putin.
“Joe got three and half million dollars from Russia,” the president responded. “And it came through Putin, because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow. … Someday, you are going to have to explain why you got three and a half million dollars.”
Trump’s comments appeared to be a reference to a report from Senate Republicans that states: “On Feb. 14, 2014, [Elena] Baturina wired $3.5 million to a Rosemont Seneca Thornton LLC (Rosemont Seneca Thornton) bank account for a ‘Consultancy Agreement DD12.02.2014.’ Rosemont Seneca Thornton is an investment firm co-founded by Hunter Biden that was incorporated on May 28, 2013 in Wilmington, Del.”
Baturina is married to Yury Luzkhkov, formerly mayor of Moscow.
But George Mesires, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, told PolitiFact in an email: “Hunter Biden had no interest in and was not a co-founder of Rosemont Seneca Thornton, so the claim that he was paid $3.5 million is false.”
PolitiFact said Mesires “did not respond” to a request that he “share documents to show that Hunter Biden was not a co-founder.”
One of the most dramatic moments of the debate came when Bided stated flatly: “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life.”
The president drew a link between Biden and Putin, saying that John Ratcliffe, director of national intelligence, believes the Russian president wants Trump to lose the election because “there has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”
Trump also criticized Biden for allowing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its seizing of the Crimea region during his time as Obama’s vice president.
Trump said of Biden: ”While he was selling pillows and sheets, I sold tank-busters to Ukraine.”
6. Illegal Immigration and Border Enforcement
Trump and Biden had a sharp disagreement about enforcing immigration law, in particular the Trump administration’s early policy of separating children from adults when they come across the southern border and placing children in detention centers with “cages.”
“The children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels … and they used to use them to get into our country,” Trump said. “We now have as strong a border as we’ve ever had. We’re over 400 miles of brand new wall. You see the numbers. We let people in, but they have to come in legally.”
Biden said that the policy of separating children from adults who crossed the border “violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
He said the policy was used as a disincentive for more illegal immigration.
But Trump said his administration actually inherited the Obama policy of putting children in cages.
“We changed the policy. They did it. We changed—they built the cages,” Trump said. “Who built the cages, Joe?”
According to The Associated Press, placing migrant children in cages began in 2014 under the Obama administration:
At the height of the controversy over Trump’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, photos that circulated online of children in the enclosures generated great anger. But those photos–by The Associated Press–were taken in 2014 and depicted some of the thousands of unaccompanied children held by President Barack Obama.
Biden admitted that the Obama administration got some things wrong on immigration enforcement, in particular on detaining children, but said his own administration would do better.
“We made a mistake. It took too long to get it right,” Biden said. “I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States.”
7. Black Lives Matter and Racism
When the issue of race came up in the debate, Trump defended his reputation, saying, “I am the least racist person in this room.”
Asked about some of his past comments, including on Black Lives Matter, Trump said: “The first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting, ‘Pigs in a blanket,’ talking about police … [chanting] ‘Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.’ I said, that’s a horrible thing.”
He also referred several times to record low unemployment rates for blacks and Hispanics before the pandemic.
Asked again about his rhetoric on race, Trump said, “I got criminal justice reform done, and prison reform, and opportunity zones. I took care of black colleges and universities. I don’t know what to say. They can say anything … It makes me sad.”
Trump signed the First Step Act, a major criminal justice reform bill, into law at the end of 2018. Opportunity zones are designated low-income areas where investors can get certain tax advantages in exchange for investing there.
In remarks in September, Trump noted what his administration had done for historically black colleges and universities, saying, “Last year … I was proud to highlight an increase of more than 13% in federal funding for HBCUs under my administration. In addition, I signed into law the FUTURE Act, which reauthorized more than $85 million in funding for HBCUs.”
“Abraham Lincoln over here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s repeated line that he probably has done more for black Americans than any president other than Lincoln.
“He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Biden said. “This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
8. Increasing the Minimum Wage
Amid a discussion of the economy and the impact of COVID-19, Biden argued that the federal minimum wage should be raised from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour.
“People are making six, seven, eight bucks an hour,” Biden said, adding:
These first responders we all clap for as they come down the street because they have allowed us to make it. What’s happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15, and anything below that puts you below the poverty level. And there is no evidence that when you raise the minimum wage businesses go out of business. That is simply not true.
Trump said he would consider raising the federal minimum wage, but “not to a level that’s going to put all these businesses out of business.”
The president went on to argue that the minimum wage should be decided by state governments, without a higher federal minimum that always supersedes state decisions.
“Some places, $15 is not so bad. In other places, other states, $15 would be ruinous,” Trump said, referring to restaurants and other businesses.
Katrina Trinko and Ken McIntyre contributed to this report, which has been modified since publication for clarity and detail.