President Donald Trump trails former Vice President Joe Biden by substantial margins in polls. COVID-19 cases have increased by more than 30 percent in the past two weeks. A second stimulus package is being threatened by his own party, and there are only a dozen days until the election that could make him only the second Republican incumbent in more than a century not to win a second term.
It was in that context that Trump sought to change the conversation at the second and final presidential debate on Thursday night. But while he landed some rhetorical jabs, he also took as much he dished out—even on friendly territory like policing and China. And his inability to break out of the Fox News echo chamber that has engulfed his campaign seemed to prevent him from scoring the type of performance that would substantially shift the trajectory of the race.
The debate between Trump and Biden was set to be waged with both candidates protected by two plexiglass shields, but even after they were removed, Trump seemed to be encased in a plastic bubble—sheltering him not just from the coronavirus, but from political reality. Returning again and again to the latest thread in the vivid tapestry of conspiracy and innuendo about Biden’s surviving son, Trump was, at times, so caught in the lather of ultraconservative media that he seemed to lose sense of what polls show voters actually care about.
In the most illustrative moment of the night, Trump concluded a lengthy diatribe about Hunter Biden and Russian mayors and secret slush funds paying for the former vice president’s retirement, only for Biden to turn to the camera and say: “This isn’t about his family or mine. It’s about yours.”
A senior Biden aide said it wasn’t necessarily the high point of the evening. But it was “certainly right down the fairway for us.”
It wasn’t all a bust for the president. Trump succeeded in tripping up Biden, such as during exchanges about the fate of the oil industry under a potential Biden administration and in sweeping condemnations of Biden’s history on issues like criminal justice reform. But even when he did land a blow—attacking Biden repeatedly for promising reforms that he couldn’t fully deliver while in the Senate or in the Obama administration, for example—his attention repeatedly drifted back to the musings of Breitbart.
“You mean the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax?” Trump said in a tangent during a section of the debate theoretically focused on race in America. “You have to be kidding me—here we go again with Russia.”
The embattled president’s reversion to speaking the language of Fox News’ evening lineup was no great surprise. His campaign had previewed the attacks on Hunter Biden for days, even touting a press conference with a would-be former business partner of Hunter Biden’s in the hours before the debate. Beyond that, Trump has shown only a transitory interest in winning over supporters beyond his fervently passionate base.
Biden, whom the president mocked for spending days in intense debate prep, took advantage of the preview Trump gave him, often beating the president to the buzzer on issues where the president had indicated he would attack.
It was Biden, not Trump, who first mentioned Rudy Giuliani or Burisma by name. Biden, not Trump, first went after his opponent for questionable foreign dealings and being in the pocket of China. Biden, not Trump, accused his rival of putting the jobs of police officers at risk with his inability to pass a second stimulus.
Biden may be oft-criticized for just how long he’s been on the national scene, but as he showed Thursday, there are benefits that come with that seasoning.
“I have not taken a single penny from any country whatsoever, ever,” Biden said, in response to the opening salvo accusing him of taking tens of millions of dollars from Russia, pivoting the argument into Trump’s refusal to release any tax returns despite years of pledges to do so. “You have not released a single solitary year of your tax returns—why are you hiding?”
Despite spending days hyping the ammunition he was going to use against Biden, the president, at times, struggled to deploy it. Trump failed to actually name Tony Bobulinski, the would-be former business partner of Hunter Biden’s, despite re-hashing a stunt from the final presidential debate in 2016 by bringing Bobulinski to the debate itself. In a discussion about why Black parents fear for their children engaging with police, Trump repeated a long-since-debunked anecdote about Black Lives Matter protesters around the country chanting “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em up like bacon.”
Sapped of his ability to interrupt Biden as frequently as he did in the pugilistic first debate—the Commission on Presidential Debates implemented the unprecedented practice of muting each candidate’s microphone during their opponent’s opening statement—Trump tried sniping, accusing Biden of not actually growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and telling moderator Kristen Welker, who is Black, that he was “the least racist person in this room.”
Behind closed doors, Trump’s own top advisers had widely panned the president’s first debate performance in Cleveland—which was fueled largely by the president’s shouting and off-putting aggressiveness—so much that they spent much of the intervening weeks trying to prevent a rerun. Some officials were convinced a repeat in Nashville would even risk sealing Trump’s fate as a one-termer for good.
In the lead-up to debate night this week, various confidants and senior aides gently counseled Trump to tone it down, and to be a “fighter” but not a bully, according to two people who spoke directly to the president about this. Several advisers spent the days prior to Thursday’s televised debate doing everything they could to lift Trump’s spirits—from privately assuring him the race was moving in his direction, to telling him that the Hunter and Joe Biden corruption allegations were a great gift to him and his campaign—calculating that a happy Trump would mean a smoother, more appealing Trump on-stage Thursday evening.
Multiple Trump officials implored the president that, once he took the stage, to avoid touching on the sex and crack cocaine-related materials regarding Hunter Biden that some in Trumpworld, including the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have been pushing with glee.
Trump, it appeared, took their advice.
“I won’t get into that,” he said during the debate, alluding to the attack he launched (to facepalming at Team Trump headquarters) at the first debate, when he went after Hunter Biden for his past drug abuse.
Across Trumpworld, there were audible sighs of relief that, even if the debate didn’t present a game-changer, it at least wasn’t another disaster.
“Trump did exactly what he needed to do and really helped himself tonight. It was a complete 180 from the first debate and was actually eerily similar to the third debate in 2016,” said one Trump campaign adviser, reacting at the event’s conclusion. “If Trump pulls off a surprise win on November 3rd, I think we’ll all look back to tonight as a big reason why.”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein