Kristen Welker, the debate’s moderator, began the night with a plea for civility.
“Please,” she instructed the men standing before her, “speak one at a time.”
For the most part, Ms. Welker got what she wanted.
In a high-stakes debut overseeing a presidential debate — taking charge of a candidate matchup that proved a bucking bronco for the last moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News — Ms. Welker, an NBC anchor and correspondent, managed to restore order to a quadrennial institution that some believed could not be tamed.
Mr. Wallace himself said on Fox News: “Well first of all, I’m jealous. I would’ve liked to have been able to moderate that debate and get a real exchange of views instead of hundreds of interruptions.”
No doubt, she benefited from Trump 2.0: a calmer president arrived onstage Thursday, a contrast with the candidate who derailed the proceedings in Cleveland last month. And she had a technological assist in the form of muted microphones, a novelty installed to keep the exchanges between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. from going from civics to chaos.
But in a poised and crisp performance, Ms. Welker, 44, succeeded where Mr. Wallace got walloped. Battle-tested by years of covering the Trump White House, she parried with the president and cut him off as needed; Mr. Trump, eager to shed voters’ memories of his unruly performance last month, mostly acquiesced.
Ms. Welker — the first Black woman to moderate a general-election presidential debate since Carole Simpson of ABC in 1992 — entered the evening facing an onslaught of attacks from Mr. Trump, who earlier this week called her “terrible.”
Little of the pressure showed onscreen. Ms. Welker was polite but firm in guiding the discussion, offering chances for brief rebuttals but also taking control when the candidates threatened to go on a harangue, repeatedly urging, “We need to move on.”
Kristen Welker’s final question of the debate to each candidate was simple: In your inaugural address, what would you say to Americans who didn’t vote for you?
President Trump, who has done little to articulate a second-term agenda during any of his interviews over the past several months, used his answer to defend his record on the coronavirus crisis and attack Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I am cutting taxes, and he wants to raise everybody’s taxes, and he wants to put new regulations on everything,” Mr. Trump said. “He will kill it. If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you have never seen. Your 401(k)s will go to hell and it will be a very, very sad day for this country.”
Mr. Biden offered a more traditional closing statement. He recited an uplifting vision for what the United States would look like under a Biden administration and delineated clear goals for what he would do as president.
“I am an American president,” Mr. Biden said he would say. “I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me. And I’m going to make sure that you’re represented. I’m going to give you hope.”
Mr. Biden went on to remind voters that the crux of his candidacy is about offering a vision of an America in which people of opposing political persuasions are not constantly at one another’s throats.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” Mr. Biden said. “Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making that sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that. You have not been getting it the last four years.”
The responses encapsulated perhaps the most crucial difference between the two presidential campaigns, one that has only become more apparent as the race has transpired: Mr. Trump’s re-election bid has largely revolved around attacking Democrats and Mr. Biden; Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has repeatedly articulated — at least in broad strokes — how the country would be different under his leadership.
Environmental justice — a theme in some of Democrats’ discussions during the primaries, focusing on the racially disparate effects of climate change and other environmental issues — made a striking appearance on the general-election debate stage.
As the moderator, Kristen Welker, noted, people of color are much likelier than white people to live near chemical plants and oil refineries, which can cause health problems. Given that President Trump’s administration has lifted restrictions on these facilities, Ms. Welker asked him, “Why should these families give you another four years in office?”
Mr. Trump, in his response, did not once mention the environment, health or racial disparities.
“I have not heard the numbers or the statistics you are saying, but they are making a tremendous amount of money economically,” he said. “I saved it again a number of months ago when oil was crashing because of the pandemic. Say what you want about the relationship, we got Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Russia to cut back, way back. We saved our oil industry and now it is very vibrant. Everyone has very inexpensive gasoline. Remember that.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr., by contrast, gave a detailed response.
“Those people live on what they call fence lines. He doesn’t understand this,” Mr. Biden said. “The fact is, those front line communities, it doesn’t matter what you are paying them. It matters how you keep them safe. What do you do. And you impose restrictions on the pollutants coming out of those fence line communities.”
Mr. Biden briefly discussed the pollution he saw in Claymont, Del., as a child, and the high rates of cancer there. He then repeated his campaign pledge to transition from oil and other fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“In terms of business, that’s the biggest statement. Because basically what he is saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry,” Mr. Trump responded. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma? Ohio?”
“He takes everything out of context,” Mr. Biden said. “But the point of it is, look, we have to move toward net-zero emissions.”
For Biden and Trump, Stark Contrasts on Alternative Energy
Joe Biden said solar and wind energy would provide an economic boost, while President Trump questioned their efficiency and called relying on them “a pipe dream.”
“The fastest-growing industry in America are — is the electric, excuse me, solar energy and wind. He thinks wind causes cancer — windmills. It’s the fastest-growing jobs, and they pay good prevailing wages: 45, 50 bucks an hour. We can grow and we can be cleaner if we go the route I’m proposing.” “President Trump.” “Excuse me.” “Please respond, and then I have two follow-ups.“ “We are energy independent for the first time. We don’t need all of these countries that we had to fight war over because we needed their energy. We are energy independent. I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds. It’s very intermittent. It’s got a lot of problems, and they happen to make the windmills in both Germany and China. And the fumes coming up — if you’re a believer in carbon emission — the fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we’re talking about with natural gas, which is very clean. One other thing.” “Find me a scientist that says that.” “Solar, I love solar, but solar doesn’t quite have it yet. It’s not powerful yet to really run our big, beautiful factories that we need to compete with the world. “So — ” “False.” “It’s all a pipe dream.”
One of the most heated exchanges in a much more sedate debate came over the issue of wind power.
President Trump, as he has often done, falsely claimed that Joseph R. Biden Jr. supported the Green New Deal. (Mr. Biden praised it on his website, but has not said he would back the progressive energy and job creation plan).
“If you look at what he wants to do — if you look at his plan, his environmental plan — you know who developed it? A.O.C. plus three,” he said, a reference to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive lawmakers.
(“It’s actually AOC plus 115 because that’s how many House and Senate members have cosponsored the most ambitious climate legislation in American history,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter.)
“We are energy-independent,” said Mr. Trump, who has pledged his support for coal and petroleum producers and ridiculed wind and solar energy sources as impractical.
“I know more about wind than you do,” he added. “It is extremely expensive, kills all the birds, it’s very intermittent, it’s got a lot of problems, and they happen to make the windmills in both Germany and China. And the fumes coming up — if you’re a believer in carbon emission — the fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we are talking about with natural gas.”
Mr. Biden replied: “Find me a scientist who says that.”
“I love solar, but solar doesn’t quite have it yet,” the president added. “It is not powerful yet to really run our big, beautiful factories that we need to compete with the world.”
Later, Mr. Biden said he “would transition from the oil industry” because “the oil industry pollutes significantly” — a fairly conventional answer in keeping with Obama administration policy and with the automotive industry, which has been moving toward high-efficiency or alternative-fuel vehicles for decades.
But Mr. Trump, eager for anything that could give him an edge in energy-producing battlegrounds, responded directly to the camera: “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma? Ohio?”
After the debate, speaking to reporters, Mr. Biden expanded on his remarks. “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he said, according to a pool report.
Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager on Mr. Biden’s team, also stressed the part of Mr. Biden’s answer in which he had referred to subsidies. “He was very clear in his answer, he was saying that he was going to eliminate oil subsidies,” she said in a call with reporters.
“I think, you know, writ large, the idea of transitioning off of oil is nothing new,” she added, invoking George W. Bush’s remarks on the subject in 2006.
President Trump came to the debate ready with his regular wrap on race when asked to explain his description of “Black Lives Matter” as a symbol of hate: He claimed he had done more than any president since Abraham Lincoln for African-Americans, and he called himself the “least racist person in this room.” (Never mind that the moderator of the debate, Kristen Welker, is a Black woman.)
But he has limited achievements to back up the ludicrous claims he regularly makes as part of his stump speech. He typically points to criminal justice reform and his support for historically Black colleges and universities as the twin backbones of his support for Black Americans. On Thursday night, he also talked about creating opportunity zones.
It’s all been part of an effort to shave off a few points of Mr. Biden’s support among Black voters. Mr. Trump won just 8 percent of Black voters in 2016 and his campaign wants to increase his margin by a few points.
Mr. Biden, however, appeared to take him by surprise by mocking the claims. “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Mr. Biden said. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
Mr. Trump has refused to denounce white supremacists and in recent days even reverted to calling President Barack Obama by his middle name, “Hussein,” a callback to the racist birther conspiracy theory that helped launch Mr. Trump into the national political discourse.
Mr. Trump has never apologized for spending tens of thousands of dollars on full-page newspaper ads calling for the return of the death penalty to punish the Black and Latino teenagers, known as the Central Park Five, who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Instead, he doubled down.
And since taking office, he has frequently stoked racial tensions, elevating the voices of white nationalists when he appeared to defend their actions after a deadly confrontation with liberal protesters in Charlottesville, Va.
Onstage, Mr. Biden said, “this guy is a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn,” noting that at the previous debate he had told the Proud Boys to “stand by.”
“I said not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the Black community,” Mr. Trump said, correcting him. “I didn’t say ‘I’m Abraham Lincoln.’ I said not since Abraham Lincoln has anybody done what I’ve done for the Black community.”
He also hit Mr. Biden for supporting the 1994 crime bill, which “put tens of thousands of Black men, mostly, in jail.”
Mr. Biden conceded that his support for that bill was “a mistake.”
Four years ago, Donald J. Trump ran for and won the presidency by arguing that he wasn’t like any other politician — and he wasn’t.
Now trailing badly with less than two weeks to go before Americans will decide whether he will be re-elected, Mr. Trump used the final debate with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to try to paint Mr. Biden as an incumbent-type figure, a regular politician while describing himself, after nearly four years in the White House, as the outsider.
“Just a typical politician,” Mr. Trump sneered at Mr. Biden early in the debate. When Mr. Biden described how he’d deal with criminal justice reform, Mr. Trump snapped, “Why didn’t you do it” while in office. “You had eight years with Obama. You know why, Joe? Because you’re all talk and no action.”
Describing himself as the outsider, while not consistent with his status as the sitting president, is perhaps Mr. Trump’s last best card to play in the 2020 campaign. The coalition that elected him four years ago wanted a president who would shake up the old ways of Washington, and Mr. Trump has used the final debate to argue, again, that he would do that while Mr. Biden would not.
The only problem with this argument is that Mr. Trump is, at least for now, the president of the United States.
Kristen Welker, the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate on her own, asked the candidates directly on Thursday about an experience that Black families have every day, but that is rarely discussed on a national debate stage: The Talk, the conversation that Black parents must have with their children, telling them how to behave so police officers will not shoot them. Mr. Biden responded by talking about his daughter, who is a social worker.
“I never had to tell my daughter, if she’s pulled over, make sure she puts — for a traffic stop — put both hands on top of the wheel and don’t reach for the glove box, because someone may shoot you,” he said. “But a Black parent, no matter how wealthy or how poor they are, has to teach their child: When you are walking down the street, don’t have a hoodie on when you go across the street. Making sure that you in fact, if you get pulled over, just ‘Yes sir,' ‘no sir,’ hands on top of the wheel.”
He continued: “The fact of the matter is, there is institutional racism in America.”
President Trump responded with one of his favorite claims: that he has done more for Black people than any president in American history, “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception.” His actions do not remotely back up this claim.
Mr. Trump pointed, as he often does, to the criminal justice reform bill he signed, and to the 1994 crime bill that Mr. Biden signed. But, while he said he understood Black parents’ fear, his administration has repeatedly attacked racial justice movements, and he has refused to directly condemn white supremacists.
Just two weeks ago, in the vice-presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence claimed it was offensive to say there is systemic racism in the United States.
President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. sparred over each other’s history on criminal justice, with each accusing the other of being too tough on crime.
Mr. Trump, who has campaigned on his fealty to America’s police departments, played up his commutations and signing of a criminal justice reform law while slamming Mr. Biden for pushing the 1994 crime bill.
“Your crime bill, the super predators,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump. And if you look, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception, but the exception of Abraham Lincoln, nobody has done what I’ve done.”
Mr. Biden returned the rhetorical fire, citing Mr. Trump’s long history of incendiary and racist remarks about Black men whom he has said were responsible for plagues of crime in American cities.
“He talked about marauding gangs, young gangs and the people who are going to marauding our cities,” Mr. Biden said. “This is a guy, who in the Central Park Five, five innocent Black kids, he continued to push for making sure they got the death penalty. None of them were guilty of the crimes that were suggested.”
President Trump has tried to rattle Joseph R. Biden Jr. by attacking his family — and trotting out a former business associate of his son Hunter Biden before the debate.
But the former vice president has so far delivered a disciplined debate performance consistently targeting issues that voters care most about: wages, the coronavirus and health care.
“You know who I am, you know who he is,” Mr. Biden said.
While Mr. Trump repeatedly tried to steer the conversation back to the younger Mr. Biden’s overseas dealings, the former vice president — known for his dogged debate preparations — showed his conversance in a detailed policy response.
The contrast with Mr. Trump’s more visceral approach, which veered into personal attacks and featured familiar talking points from his interviews, tweets and rallies, was starker than in the first debate — simply because the new rules, with microphones muted for each candidate at times, allowed both to finish their sentences.
Mr. Biden’s approach was especially apparent when the two jousted over the Affordable Care Act, with Mr. Trump suggesting, as he has done repeatedly without providing concrete details, that he would create some kind of a replacement for the program if he succeeds in repealing it.
“Vice President Biden, yes, this is for you: Your health plan calls for building on Obamacare,” asked the moderator, Kristen Welker. “So my question is, what is your plan if the law is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?”
“What I’m going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option,” Mr. Biden said. “It will become Bidencare. The public option is an option that says that, if you qualify for Medicaid you and do not have the wherewithal in your state to get Medicaid, you automatically are enrolled, providing competition for insurance companies. That’s what’s going to happen. Secondly, we’re going to make sure we reduce the premiums and reduce drug prices by making sure that there’s competition that does not exist now, by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the insurance companies.”
When the president diverted a question about China policy into an attack on Hunter Biden, the elder Mr. Biden shot back: “There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all of this malarkey. There’s a reason for it. He does not want to talk about the substantive issues.”
Biden Says Family Separations Have Made U.S. a ‘Laughingstock’
Joseph R. Biden criticized President Trump for separating families at the southern border, while the president said he had a plan to reunite them.
“Do have a plan to reunite the kids?” “Yes, we’re working on it very, we’re trying very hard. But a lot of these kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.” “Five hundred-plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with. Big, real tough. We’re really strong. And guess what? They cannot — it’s not, coyotes didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump sparred over family separations at the southern border, after an explosive report this week revealed the United States cannot locate the parents of more than 500 migrant children.
Asked repeatedly if he had a plan to reunite the children with their parents, Mr. Trump initially dodged the question before misleadingly saying his administration was “working on it.”
“We’re trying very hard. But a lot of these kids come out without the parents,” Mr. Trump then claimed. “They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.”
In fact, the Trump administration resisted providing information to court-appointed lawyers.
Mr. Trump also falsely insisted that the separated children were “so well taken care of” — an assertion that flies in the face of images and recordings that are widely available.
Mr. Biden accused Mr. Trump of separating children at the border to discourage migrants from trying to cross the border.
“Coyotes didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents,” Mr. Biden said, dismissing Mr. Trump’s claim. “And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
Mr. Biden also referred to family separations as “criminal,” as Mr. Trump repeatedly asked Mr. Biden, “Who built the cages?”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly tried to cast former President Barack Obama as instigating the practice of family separations, but the Obama administration only broke up families under rare circumstances. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, on the other hand, called for criminal prosecution of everyone who entered the country illegally.
Mr. Trump signed an executive order that tried to end the practice of family separation after widespread condemnation from lawmakers in both parties, immigration activists and the United Nations.
$15 Minimum Wage Spurs Dissent Between Trump and Biden
Joe Biden cited emergency responders as among those who “deserve a minimum wage of $15” an hour, while President Trump said states should decide the rate.
“I want to get your reaction.” “He said we have to help our small businesses by raising the minimum wage? That’s not helping. I think it should be a state option. Alabama is different than New York. New York is different from Vermont. Some places, $15 is not so bad. In other places, other states, $15 would be — ” “OK, President Trump, thank you. Quick response, Vice President Biden. “No one should work two jobs, one job and be below poverty. People are making six, seven, eight bucks an hour. These first responders we all clap for as they come down the street because they’ve allowed us to make it. What’s happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15, anything below that puts you below the poverty level. And there is no evidence that when you raise the minimum wage, businesses go out of business. That is simply not true.”
The two candidates laid out vastly differing positions on the federal minimum wage, with Joseph R. Biden Jr. advocating for a $15 minimum, including for first responders across the country, and President Trump arguing that states should decide.
“These first responders, we clap for as they come down the street because they allowed us to make it,” Mr. Biden said. “What is happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15.”
Mr. Trump said that raising the minimum wage “should be a state option. Alabama is different from New York. New York is different from Vermont. Every state is different. It should be a state option. We have to help our small businesses.”
Reminded that Mr. Trump recently said he would consider raising the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour, Mr. Trump seemed to wiggle out of his previous statement. “I would consider it to an extent,” he said. “But not to a level that is going to put all these businesses out of business. It should be a state option.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. made explicit in two lines on Thursday what has been a theme of the entire general election campaign: President Trump has been trying to run not against Mr. Biden’s positions, but against the positions of other Democrats whom Mr. Biden beat in the primary.
“He thinks he is running against someone else,” Mr. Biden said. “I beat all those people because I disagreed with them.”
“Joe Biden he is running against,” he said, enunciating his name and pointing at himself.
Throughout a segment focused on health care, Mr. Trump claimed repeatedly that Mr. Biden supported “socialized medicine” à la Senator Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for all” plan.
Mr. Biden does not support Medicare for all or any other single-payer plan; rather, he supports a government-run public option alongside private insurance. This was one of the biggest dividing lines in the Democratic primary.
As other Republicans have done, Mr. Trump also tried to cast Mr. Biden as beholden to the left-wing policy views of his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, even though Ms. Harris was herself one of the more moderate candidates in the primary.
“He wants socialized medicine, and it’s not that he wants it — his vice president, I mean, she is more liberal than Bernie Sanders and wants it even more,” Mr. Trump said.
Ms. Harris is not to the left of Mr. Sanders on health care.
President Trump said there had not been a federal deal on economic relief to help businesses and local governments struggling with an economy warped by the coronavirus because Speaker Nancy Pelosi would not agree to one — a proposition that does not comport with recent history.
“Nancy Pelosi does not want to approve it,” Mr. Trump said. “We are ready, willing, and able to do something. Don’t forget, we have already approved three plans, and it’s gone through — including the Democrats, in all fairness. This one she does not want, it’s near the election, because she thinks it helps her politically. I think it hurts her politically.”
Ms. Pelosi has been negotiating for weeks to try to reach a deal with Steven Mnuchin, Mr. Trump’s Treasury secretary, but Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has said he does not have the votes to pass any deal through the Republican-controlled Senate. There is no evidence Mr. Trump has called recalcitrant Republican senators to push them to approve a deal.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion aid package in May, legislation that has never gotten a hearing in the Senate.
Mr. Biden said such relief was urgently needed to help governments recover from the economic slowdown.
“The states have to balance their budgets, so they have to fire firefighters, teachers, first responders, law enforcement officers, so they can keep their cities and counties running,” Mr. Biden said. “He will not support that. They have not done a thing for them. And Mitch McConnell said, let them go bankrupt. Let them go bankrupt. Come on, what’s the matter with these guys?”
Trump and Biden Differ on Health Care Plans
President Trump and Joe Biden took different tacks on a health care plan to deal with pre-existing conditions.
“Pre-existing conditions will always stay. What I would like to do is a much better health care, much better. We’ll always protect people with pre-existing. So I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful health care.” “He’s been talking about this for a long time. There is no — he’s never come up with a plan. I guess we’re going to get the pre-existing condition plan the same time we get the infrastructure plan that we’ve been waiting for since ’17, ’18, ’19 and ’20.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the issue of health care to the debate stage on Thursday, elevating his pitch to expand the Affordable Care Act as he swatted aside President Trump’s claim that he supported “socialized medicine.”
Asked what he would do if the Supreme Court overturned the Affordable Care Act as Mr. Trump has promised, Mr. Biden said he would “pass Obamacare with a public option,” using the health care law’s familiar moniker, and then he coined a fresh one for his plan: “Bidencare.”
Mr. Biden also took aim at Mr. Trump’s health care plan, which the president has yet to unveil.
“He’s been talking about this for a long time,” Mr. Biden said. “He’s never come up with a plan. I guess we’re going to get the pre-existing condition plan the same time we get the infrastructure plan.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, repeated a familiar line of attack, accusing Mr. Biden of supporting “socialized medicine.”
“He wants socialized medicine,” Mr. Trump said, then pivoted to accuse Mr. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, of being “more liberal than Bernie Sanders” on health care.
“Bernie Sanders wants it. The Democrats want it,” Mr. Trump said, an apparent reference to the single-payer, universal health care plan championed by Mr. Sanders known as “Medicare for all.”
Biden rebuffed Mr. Trump’s barb. “He’s a very confused guy,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Trump. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.”
Biden Denounces Trump’s Relationship with Kim Jong-un
Joseph R. Biden Jr. criticized President Trump for his ties to North Korea’s leader, whom he called a “thug” and compared to Adolf Hitler.
“North Korea recently rolled out its biggest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile and continues to develop its nuclear arsenal. Do you see that as a betrayal of the relationship you forged?” “No. I have a very good relationship with him. Different kind of a guy, but he probably thinks the same thing about me. We have a different kind of a relationship. We have a very good relationship. And there’s no war.” “Vice President Biden, to you: North Korea conducted four nuclear tests under the Obama administration. Why do you think you would be able to rein in this persistent threat?” “Because I’d make it clear, which we were making clear to China — they had to be part of the deal. Because here’s the route. I made it clear, and as a spokesperson in the administration, when I went to China, they said: Why are you moving your missile defense up so close? Why are you moving more forces here? Why do you continue to do military maneuvers with South Korea? I said, because North Korea is a problem, and we’re going to continue to do it so we can control them. We’re going to make sure we can control them and make sure they cannot hurt us. And so if you want to do something about it, step up and help. If not, it’s going to continue. What has he done? He’s legitimized North Korea. He’s talked about his good buddy who’s a thug, a thug, and he talks about how we’re better off. And they are, have much more capable missiles able to reach U.S. territory much more easily than they ever did before.” “Let me follow up with you, Vice President Biden. You’ve said you wouldn’t meet with Kim Jong-un without preconditions. Are there any conditions under which you would meet with him?” “On the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity, to get — the Korean peninsula should be a nuclear-free zone.” “They tried to meet with him. He wouldn’t do it. He didn’t like Obama. He didn’t like him. He wouldn’t do it.” “OK, got to give him a chance to respond to that —” “I know for a fact, they tried. He wouldn’t do it. And that’s OK. You know what? North Korea, we’re not in a war. We have a good relationship. You know, people don’t understand: Having a good relationship — ” “President Trump, we have to move on.” “— with leaders of other countries is a good thing.” “We have a lot of questions to get to.” “Yes.” “That’s like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded Europe, the rest of Europe — come on. The reason he would not meet with President Obama is because President Obama said, we’re going to talk about denuclearization. We’re not going to legitimize you. We’re going to continue to push stronger and stronger sanctions on you. That’s why he wouldn’t meet with us.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. shot down President Trump’s boast that he had defused a dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula by cultivating a good relationship with Kim Jong-un, likening Mr. Trump’s actions to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War II.
The moderator of Thursday’s debate, Kristen Welker, asked Mr. Biden, referring to the North Korean leader: “Are there any conditions under which you would meet with him?”
“On the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity, to get the Korean Peninsula to be a nuclear-free zone,” Mr. Biden responded.
“He didn’t like Obama,” Mr. Trump shot back. “He didn’t like him. He wouldn’t do it. I know for a fact. They tried. He wouldn’t do it. And that’s OK. You know what, North Korea? We’re not in a war. We have a good relationship. People don’t understand — having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing.”
Mr. Biden pounced:
“We had a great relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded Europe, the rest of Europe,” he said.
After several rounds of back-and-forth over President Trump’s tax returns and the Biden family’s business practices, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made the same pivot that was successful in the first debate: He tried to make the debate about which man would be a better president for American families struggling with the coronavirus or the economy.
“There’s a reason he’s bringing up all of this malarkey,” Mr. Biden said, using his signature description for nonsense.
“It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family is hurting badly,” he added. “If you are a middle-class family, you are getting hurt badly right now. You’re sitting at the kitchen table this morning deciding, well we cannot get new tires, they are bald, because we have to wait another month or so. Or are we going to be able to pay the mortgage? Or, who is going to tell her she cannot go back to community college?”
He went on: “ Middle-class families like the one I grew up with are in trouble. We should be talking about you, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.”
If Mr. Biden was trying to set a trap for the president, Mr. Trump walked right into it, dismissing the concerns of families coping with economic stress.
“Let’s get off this China thing, then he looks to family, around the table, and everything, just your typical politician,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s why I got elected. Let’s get off the subject of China. Let’s talk sitting around the table. Come on, Joe, you can do better.”
About 30 minutes into the debate, President Trump pulled out his “in case of emergency” hit on Joseph R. Biden Jr.: unloading a series of personal and baseless attacks at Mr. Biden over his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
He brought it up via a relatively new character in the plot, Tony Bobulinski.
Mr. Bobulinski is a former associate of the younger Mr. Biden who says he was included on emails from 2017 with him that have emerged in conservative news outlets in recent days. In one of them, Hunter Biden reportedly described a financial agreement in which portions of an investment with a Chinese company would be reserved for “the big guy.”
Mr. Bobulinski sent an email to several news outlets on Wednesday night, saying that “the big guy” referred to the former vice president.
On Thursday night, Mr. Trump pressed Mr. Biden from the debate stage to address the story he has wanted to elevate in the news media in order to paint his opponent as corrupt. “Russia was paying you a lot of money, and they probably still are,” he claimed. “What came out today is worse, all of the emails, the horrible emails of the money you were raking in, you and your family. I think you owe an explanation to the American people.”
Trump’s behavior marked another low point for presidential debates, as he targeted the family of his rival with insinuations meant to throw Mr. Biden off balance. Mr. Biden responded by bringing up the tax returns Mr. Trump has refused to release since his 2016 campaign.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life,” Mr. Biden said. “We learned that this president paid 50 times the tax in China, has a secret bank account with China, does business in China, and in fact is talking about me taking money?”
He added: “China is building a new road to a golf course you have overseas, so what’s going on? Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption.”
Mr. Biden also accused Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as someone who was “being used as a Russian pawn, he is being fed information that is not true.”
Later, he tried to pivot away from the personal attacks altogether, and bring the conversation back to the voters. “It’s not about his family and my family,” he said. “It’s about your family.”
Mr. Trump dismissed the pivot as that of a “typical politician.”
President Trump returned in Thursday night’s debate to two old falsehoods: that the Obama administration spied on his 2016 campaign and that Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation cleared him on accusations of collusion with Russia.
“I was put through a phony witch hunt for three years,” Mr. Trump said. “It started before I even got elected. They spied on my campaign. No president should ever have to go through what I went through. Let me just say this — Mueller and 18 angry Democrats and F.B.I. agents all over the place spent $48 million. They went through everything I had, including my tax returns, and they found absolutely no collusion and nothing wrong.”
The spying accusations are baseless, and Mr. Mueller’s report was not the “exoneration” Mr. Trump has claimed. Mr. Mueller has said that charging the president with a crime was not an option because of guidance that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
President Trump refused to condemn Russia and Iran for interfering in the presidential election, as he sparred with Joseph R. Biden Jr. about efforts by foreign countries to sway the election results a day after top American security officials said the two countries had both obtained American voter registration data.
“There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” Mr. Trump said, referring to himself in the third person in response to a question from Kristen Welker, the debate moderator, about what he would do in a second term to combat election interference from foreign adversaries.
His remarks came after Mr. Biden’s response to a similar question about election interference, during which he criticized Mr. Trump for declining to denounce President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“I don’t understand why this president is unwilling to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, when he’s engaged in activities that are trying to destabilize all of NATO,” Mr. Biden said.
Drawing a stark contrast to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden vowed to ensure that any country that tried to influence American elections would “pay a price if I’m elected.”
“Any country that interferes with us will in fact pay a price because they’re affecting our sovereignty,” he said.
Mr. Biden also briefly attacked Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and a former mayor of New York, accusing him of “being used as a Russian pawn” — apparently alluding to recent reports that the White House was warned last year that Russian intelligence officers were using Mr. Giuliani to convey Russian disinformation aimed at undermining Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.
President Trump — under fire from Joseph R. Biden Jr. over his low tax payments — again vaguely promised to release his tax returns once a federal audit was completed.
“I released all my tax returns. Twenty-two years — go look at them,” Mr. Biden said. “You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling? The foreign countries are paying you a lot. Russia is paying you a lot. China is paying you a lot. And your hotels, your businesses all around the country, all around the world. China is building a new road to a golf course you have overseas, so what’s going on? Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption.”
Mr. Trump, who had been trying to bait the former vice president over his son’s business activities, responded by claiming he would soon release his taxes.
“First of all, I called my accountants under audit,” he said. “I’m going to release them as soon as we can. I want to do it. And it will show how successful, how great this company is. But much more importantly than that, people were saying $750. I asked them a week ago. I said, what did I pay? They said sir, you prepaid tens of millions of dollars. I prepaid my tax.”