US election: Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s final debate marked by clashes, but less chaos

After the first US presidential debate was panned so widely that organisers introduced a mute button, today’s second and final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was far more civil.

Whether because of that button or the terrible reviews – especially for Trump – the two interrupted each other far less frequently, even as they clashed on issues ranging from Covid-19 to crime.

Trump, in particular, was on his best behaviour early, especially with the moderator, whom he’d repeatedly attacked before the debate.

“So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this,” Trump told NBC’s Kristen Welker when she gave him time to respond to Biden at one point.

Still, Trump and Biden offered sharply different visions of how to handle the surging pandemic and fought over how much taxes Trump pays during the final faceoff of a tumultuous campaign.

With two weeks until the election’s conclusion, the night at Belmont University 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.

Trump declared that the virus will go away but Biden warned that the nation was heading towards “a dark winter”.

Polling suggests it is the campaign’s defining issue for voters, and Biden declared: “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain President of the United States of America.”

Trump defended his management of the nation’s most deadly health crisis in a century, dismissing Biden’s warning that the nation had a dire stretch ahead because of spikes in infections. And he promised that a vaccine would be ready in weeks.

“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.”

“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.”

But Biden vowed that his administration would defer to the scientists and said that Trump’s divisive approach hindered the nation’s response.

“I don’t look at this in the way he does – blue states and red states,” Biden said. “They’re all the United States. And look at all the states that are having a spike in the coronavirus – they’re the red states.”

Biden said that America has learned from a New York Times report that Trump only paid US$750 a year in federal taxes while holding “a secret bank account” in China.

The former vice president then noted he’s released all of his tax returns going back 22 years and challenged the President to release his, saying, “What are you hiding?”

Trump claimed his accountants told him he “prepaid tens of millions of dollars” in taxes.

However, as he has for the past four years, after promising to release his taxes, he declined to say when he might do so.

In a visual reminder of the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of American society and fundamentally changed the campaign, sheets of plexiglass had been installed onstage on Thursday between the two men. But in the hours before the debate, they were removed.

Questions swirled beforehand as to how Trump, whose hectoring performance at the first debate was viewed by aides as a mistake that turned off viewers, would perform amid a stretch of the campaign in which he has taken angry aim at the news media and unleashed deeply personal attacks on Biden and his adult son.

Trump’s campaign held a surprise pre-debate news conference featuring Tony Bobulinski, who said he was Hunter Biden’s former business partner and made unproven allegations that the vice-president’s son consulted with his father on China-related business dealings.

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.”

Because of the pandemic, only around 200 people were in the debate hall in the massive college arena in Nashville.

That included a representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates, who was tasked with ensuring each candidate had two full minutes of uninterrupted time to deliver opening answers on six major topics, according to debate commission chair Frank Fahrenkopf.

A member of each of the Trump and Biden campaigns monitored the person who controlled the mute button backstage, Fahrenkopf said, noting that the button would not be used beyond the first four minutes of each topic.

The button was among a handful of changes implemented by the nonpartisan debate commission to help ensure a more orderly debate after the raucous and widely criticised opening debate 23 days ago.

Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 two days after the event, and he and the White House have refused to say whether he abided by commission rules and tested negative for the virus before that debate.

This time, Trump was tested aboard Air Force One en route to the debate and tested negative, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said. Biden’s campaign reported he also tested negative.

All attendees were required to wear masks for the duration of the debate.

There were several layers of security protecting attendees, and dozens of protesters gathered just off campus beyond the security perimeter.

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