The second debate and the final one between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was highlighted by mutual character assassination.
In Nashville Thursday night, the septugenarian candidates debated passionately, with a recurring theme of which of the two was more compromised.
For Trump, the shifting of the narrative to Biden’s family business ties has been sought for some days now in this fast-closing race.
Overwhelmed in terms of cash on hand and air presence in the campaign’s closing stretch, the president has sought to weaponize the “laptop from hell” forgotten by Hunter Biden at a computer repair shop.
The laptop is the primary piece of evidence in the President’s argument that Hunter was a “vacuum cleaner” and the father and son team were peddling influence. He was helped ahead of the debate by former Biden business associate Tony Bobulinski offering further claims of dealmaking.
While that controversial reportage was not part of the agenda for the debate, Trump found a way to bring it up, including in the first segment: a discussion of COVID-19.
Much of the discussion was a familiar back and forth, until the President noted that Biden could afford to lock himself in a basement, saying “he’s made a lot of money someplace.”
Trump came back to that line of argument later in the segment, saying Biden was cutting deals with donors.
“You’ve raised a lot of money. And every time you raise money, deals are made,” Trump said.
Biden, looking irked, said “Average contribution $43.”
Discussion moved to foreign election interference, which led to more of Trump hitting the corruption motif.
Biden blasted Trump for “not being willing to take on Putin,” bemoaning Russian election interference. He also said Trump’s “buddy,” Rudy Giuliani, is “being used as a Russian pawn” in pushing the Hunter story.
“Joe got $3.5 million through Russia, and it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow,” the president said. “You made $3.5 million, Joe!”
Trump blasted the “horrible emails of money you were raking in … you were Vice President when some of this happened.”
The President pressed Biden to “clean it up.”
“I’ve not taken a single penny from any country whatsoever ever,” Biden said, noting that the President still won’t release his tax returns.
“The foreign countries are paying you a lot,” Biden said. “Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
The cuts continued, with Trump referring to Biden as “the big man,” a reference to the description of Joe Biden as “the big guy” in the emails.
“You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know. Maybe you’re not,” Trump said.
Biden pressed Trump again to “show us” the tax returns.
“Stop playing around,” he said. “You’ve been saying for four years you’re going to release your taxes.”
But rather than do that, the President described the Mueller “witch hunt.”
“$48 million, and they’ve found nothing wrong. I could spend a million on you and find something wrong,” Trump said.
The candidates continued to drop bombs on each other.
“The only guy who’s made money from China is this guy,” Biden said of Trump.
Moderator Kristin Welker pressed Trump on foreign conflicts of interest.
“I’ve had many foreign accounts and they’re all listed and all over the place,” Trump said of a corporate account he had in China while exploring a real estate deal. “I closed it before I even ran for President.”
“His son, his brother, his other brother are getting rich,” Trump said, “sucking cash … like a vacuum cleaner” while Biden was Vice President in some cases.
Biden was frustrated by the midway point in the debate.
“It’s not about his family or my family,” Biden said. “It’s about your family.”
The discussion point recurred during a discussion of race, with Trump mocking Biden’s contention that the laptop was a Russian plant.
“You mean the laptop is another Russian hoax? Here we go again: Russia, Russia, Russia,” Trump said.
Trump comms director Tim Mirtaugh in a press call after the debate zinged Biden for his “feeble defense.”
And the morning after, the campaign continued to press the case.
Senior advisor Jason Miller said on a Friday call with press that it was a “priority” to “remind voters that he’s the outsider, a reformer,” compared to Biden, a “47-year creature of the swamp.”
Biden “failed to push back on” the Bobulinski claims. Miller noted, with Trump having the former VP “dead to rights” on “foreign corruption allegations.”
The arguments are resonating.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien said that last night was the cash strapped campaign’s “biggest online fundraising day ever.”