Trump and Biden dig into COVID-19, immigration in final debate

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The final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, moderated by NBC News White House Correspondent Kristen Welker.

Daisy Conant and James Pollard

In case you missed the collective sigh reverberating throughout Evanston shortly after 9:30 p.m. yesterday, Thursday night marked the final debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

NBC News White House Correspondent Kristen Welker, only the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate on her own, questioned the candidates for over 90 minutes. With Trump trailing Biden nationally by nearly double digits and behind in crucial battleground states, the event served as the final opportunity to pitch his platform to an audience of this magnitude.

“This will be Mr. Trump’s last chance to convince the voters that he can behave like a president and have real answers to their questions about COVID-19, the economy and race relations,” political science Prof. Alvin Tillery said in a news release before the debate.

Leading the next stage of national coronavirus response

The night began with a heated positioning of both candidates on their plans to fight the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump went on defense, recounting the points he’s continuously fallen back on in supporting his administration’s handling of the virus: closing the borders to travelers from China, a comparatively low mortality rate to the rest of the world, a commitment to quickly reopening the economy, and the assertion that the virus is “going away” as people are “learning to live with it,” despite daily cases in the U.S. rising over the past two weeks.

“I take full responsibility,” Trump said. “It’s not my fault that it came here.”

The president also claimed that a vaccine is “ready” and would be announced in weeks — a commitment Welker immediately asked him to confirm, considering Trump’s own advisors have said a vaccine may not be ready until 2021. The president then walked back the guarantee, yet contended that his timeline was “more accurate” than his advisors and that a “100 million vials” of a vaccine would be available “by the end of the year.”

Biden presented a biting critique of the president’s handling of the pandemic and offered his own loose plan for managing the spread of the virus: encouraging consistent mask-wearing, investment in rapid testing, setting up national standards for opening schools and businesses, and providing financial resources for states to do so.

“220,000 dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” Biden said. “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America.”

National security

One day before the debate, top national security officials announced Iran and Russia had both obtained voter registration information, with the former country attempting to threaten voters in fake emails.

A more restrained but often deceitful Trump suggested “there has been nobody tougher on Russia,” a false claim that ignores his unwillingness to punish the Kremlin for actions like poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain.

The conversation quickly devolved into one over corruption. Trump peddled the unproven claim that Hunter Biden, the Democratic nominee’s son, received $3.5 million from Russia. Biden accused Trump of making money from foreign entities, referring to a New York Times analysis that found Trump maintains a bank account in China that paid taxes until 2015.

“It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family,” Biden said. “If you’re a middle class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now…we should be talking about your families, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.”

Healthcare and raising the minimum wage

If the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act, over 21 million Americans could lose their healthcare insurance. With this possibility looming — especially as Senate Republicans push through Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the bench — Welker asked both candidates what their plan would be if Obamacare was ruled unconstitutional.

Trump asserted that his administration will “come up with better healthcare, always protecting people with preexisting conditions,” claiming that Biden’s plan will “basically be socialized medicine.” Biden disagreed, noting that his answer to an unconstitutional ruling of the ACA — Obamacare with a public option, or “Bidencare” — wouldn’t force anyone off their private insurance.

“Healthcare is not a privilege, it’s a right,” Biden concluded. “People deserve to have affordable healthcare, period. Period, period, period.”

In a quick back-and-forth on minimum wage, Trump asserted he wouldn’t support a nationwide federal increase to $15, arguing doing so would be “ruinous” to small businesses and the decision should be made on a state-by-state basis.

Countering that there is “no evidence” raising the minimum wage would cause the level of job loss Trump posited, Biden asserted he fully supported implementing a $15 federal minimum wage.

Immigration

Thursday night marked the first time the presidential hopefuls heavily debated the issue of immigration, a key part of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the parents of 545 migrant children separated from their families under the Trump administration’s policy have not been found.

When Welker asked the incumbent president how he would reunite these families, Trump complained the Obama administration had built the cages he used to house the separated children — whom he said were “brought here by lots of bad people” and “were so well taken care of.” After a follow-up, the president said “we’re trying very hard but a lot of these kids come without the parents.”

“These 500 plus kids came with parents,” Biden responded. “They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive… it makes us a laughing stock.”

The Obama administration, which oversaw record levels of deportations, resorted to creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program through executive action. Biden committed to sending Congress a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants.

While data show the majority of undocumented immigrants show up for court, Trump incorrectly stated over 90 percent of undocumented immigrants do not show up for court. He added only “those with the lowest IQ would come back.”

Records on racism and criminal justice

Throughout the section of the debate on their respective understandings of racial injustice in the United States, Welker had to continually redirect the candidates back onto the issue, as both continuously deflected.

Trump took aim at Biden’s own record on criminal justice, criticizing the former senator for his support of the 1994 Crime Bill, which many politicians and advocates attribute to furthering the mass incarceration of Black men over the past two decades.

When Welker pressed Biden on his support of the bill, the former Vice President affirmed his sponsorship “was a mistake,” noting he believed no one should be sent to jail on “pure drug offenses” and advocating for rehabilitation over incarceration.

“The fact of the matter is there is institutional racism in America,” Biden said, adding of him and the president, “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth.”

Campus reacts

McCormick junior Ryan Abbott, the secretary of public relations for NU College Republicans, said while the debate was “lukewarm,” Trump “got the curtain pulled back a little more” on Biden’s agenda.

“President Trump succeeded in casting himself, impressively since he’s the president, as an outsider still fighting against the political elite,” Abbott said.

He took issue with the commission’s topics, which he said were either “rehashes” of previous topics or new topics that “didn’t really add anything.”

Weinberg senior Adam Downing, the programming director for NU College Democrats, said Biden brought “facts and logic” to the debate.

“Donald Trump did the exact thing he does every single time,” Downing said. “He gets up there, he’s all show and he has no substance to back it up. Joe Biden shows up with tangible plans and things that he wants to do to make this country better. And that’s what we support.”

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @daisy_conant

Twitter: @pamesjollard

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