January 23, 2021
Trump, Biden clash over COVID-19, climate change and racial justice in final debate

Trump, Biden clash over COVID-19, climate change and racial justice in final debate


President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met Thursday at the final presidential debate.


This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden battled on Thursday night over the nation’s coronavirus response, racial equity and several other topics during the final US presidential debate before Election Day on Nov. 3.

The debate, a more orderly meeting than the chaotic clash last month, focused heavily on the COVID-19 crisis, which has battered the economy and killed more than 222,000 Americans. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, went after Trump for his handling of the pandemic. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not be president of the United States of America,” said Biden, who warned the country was heading for a “dark winter.”

Trump dismissed Biden’s attack, referencing his own bout with the virus. “I was in the hospital. I had it. I got better,” he said. “We have to recover.” He mentioned the survival rate of those who contract the virus, including young people like his 14-year-old son, Barron.

Biden shot back: “He says we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.” 

The debate, held in Nashville, Tennessee, was the first meeting between the two presidential candidates since Trump tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. The president backed out of a debate scheduled for last week after rejecting a virtual format that organizers instituted as a safety precaution. The candidates instead appeared at dueling town halls that aired simultaneously on different TV networks. 

The organizing body introduced new rules for Thursday’s debate, with the candidates’ microphones muted when it wasn’t their turn to speak. The rule was added after last month’s debate, which devolved into a verbal melee as Trump repeatedly went over his speaking time limit. The tone of Thursday night’s debate was still testy, but more restrained, with less interruption from either candidate. 


Former Vice President Joe Biden


When asked about Russian and Iranian attempts to influence the election, Biden said the countries would “pay the price” if he was elected. 

Trump said Russia and Iran were working to prevent him from being re-elected. “There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” he said.

The debate also turned to the topic of racial justice. The night’s moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, brought up Trump’s calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate,” as well as his sharing of a white supremacist video. She asked the president to responds to his critics. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “They can say anything. It makes me sad.”

Read more: New mic-muting rules prompt presidential debate memes.

Biden was asked about his voting record in the 1980s and ’90s, which has been criticized for its role in incarcerating tens of thousands of young Black men for small amounts of drug possession. “It was a mistake,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been arguing that in fact we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense. They should be going into treatment across the board.” 

On climate change and the environment, Biden reiterated his plan for reducing carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035. The plan calls for stricter gas mileage standards and would also fund investments for weatherizing millions of homes and commercial buildings. It would also upgrade the nation’s transportation system, as well as invest in wind and solar energy. 


President Donald Trump


Trump touted the oil industry and argued that the US has become energy independent under his administration. “We don’t need all these countries that we had to fight wars over because we needed their energy,” he said. 

He called wind energy “extremely expensive,” adding that it “kills all the birds.” Counting on solar energy as an alternative energy source is a “pipe dream,” he said. 

Perhaps the biggest statement on climate and energy came from Biden, who said he would work to transition away from oil entirely and move toward renewable energies. “The oil industry pollutes significantly,” he said, when asked why he would make the shift. He added that it must be replaced “over time.”

Trump seized on the statement and spoke directly to voters in swing states with significant petroleum industries. “He is going to destroy you,” Trump said. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma?” 

The event was the last chance Americans will get to see the candidates head-to-head before they head to the polls. More than 45 million people have already voted nationwide, a record turnout for early ballots. Two weeks ago, the candidates’ running mates took the stage in Salt Lake City to make the case for their tickets. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Sen. Kamala Harris battled over many of the same topics as Trump and Biden, including the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. 

CNET’s Andrew Morse contributed to this report.

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