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Anger management: Final Trump-Biden debate as polite as 2020 politics will get

President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden at

President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden at the second and final presidential debate Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Composite: Pool / AFP via Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski, Jim Watson and Morry Gash

Wow, they took turns

On the second try, America got a debate closer to the one it deserved. It remains to be seen whether the faceoff moved voters with minds mostly made up to rethink their choice one way or another, but the contrasts between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden stood out sharply Thursday night without excess noise getting in the way.

Where should the nation be going in the coronavirus pandemic on a day? On Thursday, eight months into the crisis, the U.S. recorded more than 75,000 new daily cases, nearing the peak levels of July, and more than 820 new daily deaths, pushing the total near 223,000.

"We're learning to live with it. We have no choice," said Trump, calling for more states to reopen fully and dangling the hope of vaccines soon, while acknowledging there's no "guarantee" of that. "People are learning to die with it," retorted Biden, contending that Trump has abdicated responsibility for outbreak containment with a "dark winter" coming. "Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America."

Trump fell back on a now-familiar refrain: "We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner … It’s going away." Biden offered a reminder of how Trump keeps getting that wrong.

The debate in Nashville, Tennessee, moved on to cover a wide range of ground with moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News skillfully keeping it on track and under control. Offstage mic muters helped enforce the rules. Trump, who had complained in advance about a "biased" Welker and the setup as unfair, ended up complimenting her.

On race relations, Trump recycled his rally and speech lines. "Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump … with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception," the president said. Biden, mocking Trump, said, "Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire."

But Trump put Biden on the defensive for supporting the 1994 federal crime bill, which "put tens of thousands of Black men, mostly, in jail." Biden conceded that his support for that bill was "a mistake." The candidates went into one-upmanship over who helped get more people out of prison who received excessive sentences. Biden said, "No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem."

Inside/outside game

Trump went back repeatedly to a claim that Biden "never did a thing" in eight years as vice president and 47 years in government. Biden shot back at Trump's undelivered promises after his nearly four years as president.

"I guess we’re going to get the preexisting condition plan [in an Obamacare replacement] at the same time we get the infrastructure plan," Biden said.

As Trump accused Biden of favoring the "Medicare for All" system boosted by progressives such as primaries rival Bernie Sanders, Biden responded, "He thinks he is running against someone else. I beat all those people because I disagreed with them."

Welker raised an issue seldom discussed in the campaign: North Korea's still-growing nuclear might. Trump defended his wooing of Kim Jong Un even as efforts for an agreement go nowhere. "North Korea, we're not in a war. We have a good relationship," Trump said.

Biden, noting that Pyongyang recently showed off an intercontinental missile and has grown more capable of attacking the U.S., called Kim a "thug." Biden said he would consent to meet only if Kim agreed to draw down his nuclear capacity, and that Biden would maintain pressure on China, which has leverage over the Kim regime.

High energy

Trump's eyes lit up, thinking of contested states like Texas and Pennsylvania, when Biden said, "I would transition from the oil industry" to meet goals for cutting carbon emissions to combat climate change.

Biden amended his comment to say he was talking about ending federal subsidies to the industry, and in post-debate comments said "we're not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time. It will not be gone [until] probably 2050."

Trump treated the debate audience to his rally-pleasing but scientifically dubious disdain for wind energy.

"He thinks wind causes cancer. Windmills," Biden exclaimed. "I know more about wind than you do," Trump retorted. Trump went on: "It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds. It’s very intermittent." He also claimed they emit fumes.

Character count

It wouldn't be a Trump-era debate without slashing personal attacks.

Trump accused Biden based on highly disputed evidence of profiting from foreign business endeavors by his son Hunter. Joe Biden's categorical denial: "I have not taken a penny from any foreign source at any point in my life."

"The only guy who has made money from China was this guy," Biden said of Trump, noting recent revelations about the president's bank account and business ventures there. The former vice president pointed out that he's released 22 years of tax returns while Trump refuses to disclose his. "What are you hiding?" Biden demanded.

Trump went back to his perennial excuse — his returns are under audit — and shifted into grievance mode: "I get treated very badly by the IRS. Very unfairly."

More broadly, Biden said, "You know my character. Our character is on the ballot. Look at us closely." Trump pushed back, calling Biden "corrupt" and sneering: "Don't give me this stuff about how you're this innocent baby."

The debate kept fact-checkers busy combing questionable statements by both candidates, but mostly Trump. Here's are the falsehoods and misleading statements sniffed out by The Associated Press, CNN, ABC News and The New York Times. Click here for a complete transcript of the debate and here for a full video.

The debate drew 10 million fewer viewers than in the first Trump-Biden faceoff. The Nielsen company said Friday that about 63 million viewers tuned in to 15 networks that aired the event, The Associated Press reports.

Janison: Job performance review

At age 74, Trump is a week and a half away from his first real job evaluation by his bosses — America's voters. He'd never worked full time for anyone before, other than his father and himself, which may explain a thing or two about his first-term performance as a public employee, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Carelessness, lack of diligence, deception, and actions outside the job description will get anyone in trouble. Whether that person is fired, though, depends on whether an acceptably competent replacement can better fill the slot, at least for the time being.

Trump made clear again this week how he feels about being tested and evaluated. He cut short his interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" when Lesley Stahl had the temerity to ask how he'd protect patients with preexisting conditions if he succeeds in his quest to eviscerate Obamacare.

"I’ll protect it," Trump said. "Will be totally protected." He was twice asked how. He had no further explanation.

Challenger Biden, 77, can be judged in part by the record of the Obama administration in which he was vice president, following a long Senate career. One of the most salient put-downs from several Democratic rivals during the primary season was that Biden hasn’t been a reformer. But Trump tries to paint Biden as corrupt, to make the Democrat look more transactional than he is.

Melania out and about

First lady Melania Trump flew with her husband to Nashville after canceling a rally appearance earlier this week because of lingering coronavirus effects. It was her first time in public since her illness.

The Trumps and the Bidens all were reported to have tested negative Thursday. Donald and Melania Trump were diagnosed with COVID-19 a couple of days after the first debate held on Sept. 29, meaning they likely had been infected for several days.

The two candidates were to have been separated onstage by plexiglass despite objections from the Trump campaign. But the barriers were removed after Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was consulted on the issue, said they were unnecessary because the candidates' COVID-19 tests came up clean.

Trump's preemptive strike at Lesley Stahl

On the morning of the debate, Trump directed a closing argument against Stahl. He accused her in a tweet of treating him with "bias, hatred, and rudeness" in an interview taped for Sunday airing.

To get even, he posted online what the White House said was unedited video of the "60 Minutes" exchange. The questioning of the president by the veteran correspondent, a pioneering woman TV journalist, seemed no more or less aggressive than that of Fox News' Chris Wallace or Axios' Jonathan Swan in recent months. But Trump tweeted that the public should compare Stahl’s "constant interruptions and anger" with his "full, flowing and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers."

At the outset, Stahl seems to set the president aback by asking, "Are you ready for some tough questions?" When Stahl notes that the last time she interviewed Trump, he told her to "bring it on," the president responds that "I’m not looking for that."

He grew increasingly irritated when pressed on his coronavirus response, the economy, the "lock her up" chants at his rallies. (He falsely claimed he never echoed or encouraged the refrains.) When Trump abruptly declared the interview over, he was still steaming about the "tough questions" warning. "That’s no way to talk. No way to talk," he said.

Trump also made news by saying flatly that he hoped the Supreme Court would strike down Obamacare in its entirety — "I hope that they end it" — contradicting Senate Republicans who have been moving through his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

This day in polls

Biden leads Trump by 10 points — 51% to 41% — with likely voters in the latest national Quinnipiac poll. The margin is unchanged from Quinnipiac's last two surveys.

The latest swing-state polling of likely voters from Morning Consult finds Biden with an edge of 12 points in Wisconsin, 9 in Pennsylvania, 9 in Minnesota, 8 in Michigan, 7 in Florida and 3 in North Carolina.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved Trump’s nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court, while Democratic senators boycotted the meeting. A final Senate confirmation vote is planned for Monday.
  • Punting on the unanswered question over whether he'd favor expanding the Supreme Court to reverse its rightward tilt, Biden said he would name a bipartisan commission to consider changes. The court system is "getting out of whack, the way in which it's being handled," Biden said in an interview airing Sunday on "60 Minutes."
  • Early voting in New York State begins Saturday, and officials are saying the increasingly popular option may provide as much as 20% of the turnout for the general election this year, reports Newsday's Michael Gormley. Early-voting sites will offer evening and weekend hours and are listed on the websites of the Suffolk County and Nassau County boards of election.
  • Trump and his advisers have repeatedly discussed whether to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray after Election Day, in part for not making a public move to investigate the Bidens, according to The Washington Post.
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has spent recent weeks plotting to oust Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Stephen Hahn, Politico reports. Hahn of late has been putting up stronger resistance to political interference for approving a coronavirus vaccine and treatments.
  • New York City, Seattle and Portland, Oregon — designated "anarchist jurisdictions" by the Trump administration for how they have handled protests — sued to stop a threatened retaliatory cutoff of billions of dollars in federal aid.
  • Vice President Mike Pence is not the first candidate on a campaign tour to forget where they are, just the latest. In Michigan Thursday, Pence told a crowd, "It’s really great to be in Pontiac." The audience yelled a correction: "Waterford!"

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