Debate fact-check: Trump and Biden face off in final debate

Jane C. Timm and Adam Edelman
·25 min read

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off Thursday in their final presidential debate, which took place at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Over 90 minutes, they covered a wide range of topics in a more substantive way than in their first debate — thanks in part to fewer interruptions because each opponent's microphone was muted during initial responses.

Thursday's debate was moderated by the NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, who co-anchored a Democratic debate in 2019 with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell.

See below to learn which of their claims were true and which were false.

For complete coverage and analysis, visit the live blog.

Did Biden call Trump's China travel restrictions 'xenophobic'?

Trump, portraying his decision to restrict some travel to the U.S. from China earlier in the pandemic as a life-saving move he made in the face of Democratic opposition, said Biden had called it "xenophobic."

"When I closed, he said I shouldn’t have closed, and that went on for months. Nancy Pelosi said the same thing — she was dancing on the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco. But when I closed, he said, 'This is a terrible thing, this is xenophobic.' I think he called me racist even, because I was closing it to China," Trump said.

Biden has not directly called the president's travel restriction xenophobic or racist, but he did denounce Trump's coronavirus response as "xenophobic" a day after the travel restriction was announced — responding to a tweet in which Trump used a racist term to describe the virus — and in another tweet in March. He's also called the president racist.

After the president defended ending racial sensitivity training for federal workers during the first debate, Biden said, “He's just, he’s racist."

Meanwhile, Trump's assertion that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was "dancing in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco" is a mischaracterization.

In February, Pelosi paid a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown to promote its businesses, which took a hit as reports of coronavirus cases emerged from China. There isn't any evidence she was "dancing." Rather, she got dim sum, according to reports.

Did Trump say people should inject bleach to fight COVID-19?

During the debate, Biden referred to Trump's suggestion earlier this year that people inject bleach to help stave off the coronavirus.

"He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to go away … maybe inject bleach.’ He said he was kidding when he said that. A lot of people thought it was serious," Biden said.

Trump did indeed speculate that an injection of the sort could have a curative effect.

During a news conference at the White House in April, a Homeland Security official described the ability of disinfectants like bleach to kill the coronavirus on surfaces.

Trump said at the time: "And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

"Because, you see, it gets on the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it'd be interesting to check that. So that you're going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds — it sounds interesting to me."

He repeatedly said afterward that he was kidding about the suggestion.

Did Trump make the deficit with China go up?

Biden on Thursday said Trump had "caused the deficit with China to go up, not down, with China."

NBC News fact-checked this claim during the first presidential debate. It is false.

According to government data, the trade deficit — simply put, the net difference in the monetary value of a nation’s exports and imports with another nation — with China has fallen considerably since Trump has been in office.

In 2016, Trump ran in part on a message that was aggressively critical of the trade deals the U.S. had entered in the past. As president, he negotiated a new free trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and, following a trade war, a preliminary “phase one” deal with China.

Are opportunity zones boosting Black and Hispanic communities?

Trump said his “opportunity zones” program was “one of the most successful programs."

“Tremendous investment is being made. Biggest beneficiary, the Black and Hispanic communities,” the president claimed during the debate.

NBC News took a deep look at opportunity zones last month and found that claims of massive job growth are impossible to prove, and that the bulk of the investments to date have gone to real estate deals that do not produce long-term jobs. Investors are not required to report the number of jobs created or housing units developed.

The vast majority of the billions earmarked for opportunity zones has gone to real estate deals. The New York Times also reported that many of the early beneficiaries of the program were the wealthy, including president’s own family members and advisers.

Does wind power kill 'all the birds'?

“I know more about wind than you do. It's extremely expensive, kills all the birds, it's very intermittent, got a lot of problems,” Trump told Biden during an exchange about energy independence.

Trump frequently criticizes windmills for the threat they pose to birds. Wind turbines do kill birds, though cats and cell towers kill significantly more winged creatures.

What's more, glass towers — like the kind Trump lived in until he moved into the White House — actually kill way more birds than wind turbines.

Did Biden sell Ukraine 'pillows and sheets'?

“I sold, while he was selling pillows and sheets, I sold tank busters to Ukraine. There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” Trump claimed.

This claim perplexed many. Biden’s former chief of staff tweeted he’d be open to buying Biden bedding.

Trump appears to be referring to the fact that under his administration, Ukraine has been approved to purchase lethal weapons from the U.S..The Obama administration offered Ukraine nonlethal aid when the country's conflict with Russia broke out in 2014. At the time, then-Arizona Sen. John McCain said, “the Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we’re sending them blankets and meals. Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks.”

But Trump is downplaying the security assistance Ukraine received under Obama and Biden, which included hundreds of vehicles, drones, counter-mortar radars and medical supplies.

Did Biden called Black Americans 'superpredators'?

Trump on Thursday claimed that Biden, in 1994, referred to Black Americans as "superpredators."

"He's been in government 47 years. He never did a thing, except in 1994, when he did such harm to the Black community and they were called and he called them superpredators, and he said that, superpredators," Trump said. "And they can never live that down: 1994, your crime bill. The superpredators."

This is mostly false. It was Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, who used the word "superpredator" to advocate for the 1994 crime bill that Biden co-wrote more than 30 years ago.

Biden did warn of "predators" in a floor speech in support of his bill, however.

The 1994 crime bill earmarked billions for new prisons and encouraged states to keep criminals behind bars for years by offering special grants. It also instituted a federal "three-strikes" life sentence mandate, among other things. After the bill was enacted, crime dropped and incarceration rates skyrocketed.

"The crime bill, however, was just the most high-profile legislation to increase the number of people behind bars," New York University's Brennan Center for Justice concluded in a 2016 analysis. "On their own, states passed three-strikes laws, enacted mandatory minimums, eliminated parole, and removed judicial discretion in sentencing. By dangling bonus dollars, the crime bill encouraged states to remain on their tough-on-crime course."

Was Trump given a ‘cure’ for COVID-19?

The president claimed that he was given a treatment and “some people would say it’s a cure.”

There is still no cure for COVID-19. When Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19, he received Regeneron’s antibody cocktail. In a video posted to Twitter when he left the hospital, he said it was “a cure. For me, I walked in, I didn’t feel good, a short 24 hours later, I was feeling great.”

While it’s likely the treatment helped Trump, he’s overstating its benefit.

It is impossible to know which, if any, of the multiple drugs the president received while hospitalized with COVID-19 helped. Doctors also gave Trump the antiviral drug remdesivir and a steroid called dexamethasone.

No drugs for COVID-19, however, have been proven to be a cure for the disease. Clinical trials of the treatment Trump received are still ongoing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said there is a "reasonably good chance" that the Regeneron drug made a significant difference in the president's course of the illness. But, he added, it's impossible to extrapolate one person's apparent success to the general population.

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Who's to blame for the separation of children from their parents at the border?

Biden and Trump sparred over immigration and Trump's policy of separating children from their parents at the border. The president was asked how he'd reunite the reportedly more than 500 children whose parents cannot be located.

“A lot of these kids come out without the parents,” Trump said, claiming that they were brought by "coyotes" or brought to the U.S. by cartels.

Biden countered that those children "came here with parents. They [the Trump administration] separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come here to begin with."

Biden is accurate here. While some teenagers do come across the border unaccompanied, the children in question were separated from their parents. Those separations were discussed by the Trump administration as a way to deter people from crossing the border.

Trump's “zero tolerance” policy aimed to prosecute every single illegal border crossing, including asylum-seekers. To do so, the administration separated children, including babies, from their parents or legal guardians because the adults were being detained and prosecuted.

Who built the 'cages' that held children separated from their parents at the border?

The president also claimed that the "cages" his administration has been criticized for holding those children in were built by the Obama-Biden administration.

“Let me tell you, they built cages,” Trump said.

That's true, though there was no widespread Obama-era policy of separating parents and children. Trump and his administration have previously tried to justify its family separation policy and defend against accusations from Democrats that the president put "kids in cages" by saying Obama started it.

The Obama administration separated migrant children in limited cases, primarily around questions of safety or potential child trafficking, but “not as a matter of policy or practice,” according to former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

After a 2014 surge in unaccompanied children and women at the border, the Obama administration did detain families in “cages,” or chain link structures, where children were generally kept for the mandated guideline of several days. It also built emergency shelters for children and a detention center for families, some of which have been used to house children during the Trump administration.

Will the stock market 'crash' if Biden wins?

Trump said on Thursday that if Biden wins the 2020 election, the stock market will crash.

"If he is elected, the stock market will crash," Trump said.

No evidence exists to support this claim. Financial experts and analysts have repeatedly pointed out that no market dip will occur specifically because Biden wins, and some have even said the market is likely to rise under whomever wins.

Ruchir Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, wrote a column in The New York Times last month that his own investment research, dating back to the 1860s showed that the stock market "has no clear bias in favor of either party and that market volatility in the run-up to an election is perfectly normal."

He added that investors widely believe that Biden would, if elected "govern more moderately when in office, raising taxes and regulation while decreasing tensions over immigration, global trade and China," which would have "little effect on the market’s overall direction."

On the contrary, some finance experts have predicted that if Biden wins and can wrangle control of the COVID-19 pandemic, the stock market could rise considerably.

Could Trump could deplete Social Security by 2023?

Biden suggested Thursday that Trump's policies could bankrupt Social Security. This point needs context.

The president is "the guy that the actuary of Medicare said, of Social Security, that if in fact he continues to withhold, his plan to withhold the tax on Social Security, Social Security will be bankrupt in 2023, with no way to make up for it," Biden said.

The Biden campaign has cited a letter by the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary that said that permanently eliminating all payroll taxes without a replacement would deplete the Social Security trust fund by 2023. But this is not Trump’s current position and the same letter noted that if Congress mandated the cost of the tax cuts come out of the general fund, as Trump has suggested, then benefits would be “essentially unaffected.”

On Aug. 8, President Trump said he wanted to “make permanent cuts to the payroll tax” if re-elected. On Aug. 12, he said his administration “will be terminating the payroll tax.”

The Biden campaign immediately alleged that Trump was arguing for a de facto gutting of Social Security, since it is funded by payroll taxes.

But the White House quickly clarified that Trump doesn’t actually want to eliminate payroll taxes entirely, only to permanently forgive a four-month payroll tax holiday he issued via executive order during the coronavirus crisis. On Aug. 13, for example, press secretary Kaleigh McEnany told reporters: “What he was meaning yesterday is that he wants permanent forgiveness of the deferral.”

Trump has also said he’d use deficit spending to fund his tax holiday plan, which would not affect Social Security.

Another important thing to keep in mind: There’s no scenario in which Trump could make any permanent changes to the tax system without the OK of Congress.

Was U.S. the first country to shut down travel from China after COVID-19 emerged?

Biden on Thursday said Trump only "shut down" travel from China at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic "late, after 40 countries had already done that."

This is true.

Starting on Feb. 2, the U.S. barred entry by foreigners who had traveled in China in the past two weeks, with some exceptions.

According to a list kept by the Council on Foreign Relations of countries that shut down travel from China because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and when they did it — at least 42 did so before the United States.

Does Biden want a fracking ban?

Trump claimed that Biden wants to ban fracking.

"Just like he went at it with fracking," Trump said. If Biden wins, he said, “We’re not gonna have fracking. We’re gonna stop fracking, we’re gonna stop fracking.”

"Then he goes to Pennsylvania after he gets the nomination, and he got very lucky to get it, and he goes to Pennsylvania, and he says, 'Oh, we’re gonna have fracking,'" Trump added.

This well-worn attack against Biden is not true, although Biden’s position on the issue is complicated.

Biden has repeatedly said he will not ban fracking; the policies he has released only call for no new fracking on federal lands. His policy also allows for existing fracking on federal lands to continue, and existing and new fracking on privately owned land to continue.

Biden, however, has also called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a plan that would include a systematic departure from the use of fossil fuels, which has implications for fracking. He hasn’t explicitly said how or when that move away from fossil fuels would affect fracking, but Trump has used the proposal to tell audiences, inaccurately, that his opponent wants to ban fracking now.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a practice used to tap into natural gas reserves deep below the earth's surface. It’s a critical issue in states like the battleground of Pennsylvania, where the practice has brought economic prosperity to several once-impoverished areas. It is controversial because many of the chemicals used in the process are toxic to humans and have been known to cause serious health problems in populations near fracking fields.

Will 180 million people lose health care if Biden wins?

Trump said Thursday, "We have 180 million people out there that have great private health care — far more than what we’re talking about with Obamacare."

"Joe Biden is going to terminate all of those policies," he added.

"Under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine, he won’t even have a choice, they want to terminate 180 million plans," Trump added.

Trump has made this claim repeatedly, and NBC News has fact checked it repeatedly. This claim is false. It conflates Biden's plan with those of other Democrats pushing "Medicare for All."

While estimates vary about how many Americans have private insurance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that 180 million people have private insurance.

But Biden's plan wouldn't end private insurance, though that was part of some of Biden's Democratic primary opponents proposals. Instead, Biden's health care plan would create a public option for those who want to get government health insurance while allowing those with private insurance to stay on their plans.

Many Republicans have sought to tie the proposals for "Medicare for All" to all Democrats — and it is true that many Democratic members of Congress are sponsoring the bill (118 in the House and 14 in the Senate). But Biden has criticized "Medicare for All" throughout his campaign.

Who pays tariffs? China or taxpayers?

Trump, responding to a question about confronting China, said the country is “paying billions and billions of dollars" to the U.S. and suggested this was money his administration has used to bail out American farmers.

Biden interjected to say that was “taxpayer money” going to the farmers.

So, who is paying for tariffs?

We’ve fact checked this before, and Biden’s right. Tariffs are taxes on goods coming in to the U.S., paid by the importer; those taxes are largely tacked onto the purchase price paid by American consumers.

Tariffs are designed to make foreign-made goods more expensive, boosting domestic producers or, sometimes, forcing international exporters to slash prices to stay competitive. But there's no evidence China has been cutting prices to accommodate Trump’s tariffs, and there’s clear evidence that American families are picking up the tab.

Where does Kamala Harris stand on health care?

Trump on Thursday claimed that Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., supports "socialized medicine."

"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," Trump said.

Harris’ position on health care — at least when she was a presidential candidate — was, in fact, difficult to pin down. In January 2019, she appeared to call for abolishing all private insurance, only to walk it back in May.

Then, during a Democratic primary debate in June 2019, she raised her hand when candidates were asked if they would get rid of private health insurance. The next day, she said she misunderstood the question and that she wouldn’t abolish private health insurance in favor of “Medicare for All” if elected — but then struggled to clarify her position about the role those private insurers had to play.

Then, in July 2019, she released a plan that sought to stake out a territory somewhere between "Medicare for All" and the Affordable Care Act, with private insurers allowed to compete in a controlled marketplace dominated by government insurance options. So charges that she's flip-flopped on the issue largely ring true.

But that's mostly irrelevant: As vice president, Harris would be charged with helping to implement Biden’s vision on health care — not her own.

Biden’s health care plan involves improving Obamacare and creating a public option for those who want to get government health insurance while allowing those with private insurance to stay on their plan.

Do 99.9 percent of young people and '99 percent of people recover' from COVID-19?

Trump said Thursday that "99.9 [percent] of young people recover" from COVID-19 and that "99 percent of people recover" from the virus.

Neither statistic is true.

Last month, a research paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that among more than 3,200 adults ages 18 to 34 who were hospitalized with the disease, 21 percent required intensive care, 10 percent required mechanical ventilation and nearly 3 percent died.

Of those who survived, 3 percent — 99 patients — had to be discharged to another health care facility to continue their recoveries.

The claim that 99 percent of people infected with COVID-19 recovered is also false. There have been 8.4 million confirmed COVID-19 infections in the U.S. and more than 224,000 deaths from the virus.

A cursory calculation of the U.S. death rate, based on those numbers, would mean that 2.6 percent of all people with confirmed infections have died of the virus.

Experts have explained that the exact death rate is far more difficult to identify, because there could be a far greater number of people who were infected but were never tested because they were asymptomatic.

Separately, Trump's claim that so many "recover," as well as the figures above, don't take into consideration people who were infected who have suffered from symptoms that have lingered for months, and in some cases have been debilitating.

Did Biden get $3.5 million from Russia?

Trump, as part of a lengthy string of unverified allegations about Biden and his family's financial interests, claimed that Biden received millions "through Russia."

"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!” he said.

The president’s claims appear to be rooted in far-right conspiracy theories that the business dealings of the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, were somehow funneling foreign dollars to the vice president and the rest of his family. There’s no evidence of wrongdoing on either Biden's part, and Biden strenuously denied any foreign revenue streams from the debate stage.

Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security Committee released a report resurfacing allegations that Hunter Biden had foreign business deals that posed “potential conflicts of interests” with Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings considering his father was the sitting vice president.

Largely focusing on those optics, the report doesn’t say that Hunter Biden’s work changed U.S. policy. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates slammed the report as an “attack founded on a long-disproven hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory” that Johnson “has now explicitly stated he is attempting to exploit to bail out Donald Trump's re-election campaign."

One of the main claims about Hunter Biden raised in the GOP report is that he received $3.5 million from a Russian businesswoman.

The GOP report says the Russian wired $3.5 million to a firm associated with Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, told Politico that it was “false” to say the younger Biden received that money because he has no “interest in” the firm.

Read the GOP’s summary of the report here and the Biden campaign’s criticism of the probe here.

Is a vaccine announcement coming 'within weeks'?

Trump on Thursday again offered an overly optimistic assessment of when a vaccine for COVID-19 will be made available.

"We have a vaccine that's coming, it's ready, it's going to be announced within weeks, and it's going to be delivered," Trump said Thursday.

The Food and Drug Administration released guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine makers, stating that the companies would need to track tens of thousands of study participants for at least two months to look for any possible safety issues before the agency would consider authorization.

Given the timeline of when phase 3 clinical trials began, the new guidance indicates that the earliest a COVID-19 vaccine could possibly apply for an emergency use authorization (EUA) would be the end of November.

Last week, Pfizer said it was on track to have that data by the third week of November, and that it would not apply for an EUA before that point. However, the FDA would still need to review the data before granting an EUA.

Kristen Welker, the debate moderator, asked if the president's statement was a guarantee.

"Yes, no, it's not a guarantee. It will be distributed by the end of the year," Trump said.

Is the coronavirus 'going away?'

"It will go away and as I say, we are rounding the turn, we are rounding the corner, it's going away," Trump said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic that's killed more than 224,000 Americans.

There’s no evidence of this. The U.S. has an uncontrolled outbreak, reporting more than 69,000 new COVID-19 cases today. Cases are climbing in most states, and the U.S. has more cases than any country, with more than 8.3 million, and more deaths than any country, recently surpassing 220,000.

Is Trump 'immune' after COVID-19 infection?

Trump has said this before, and it requires more context.

"Now they say I am immune. Whether it's for a month or lifetime, nobody has been able to say that but I'm immune," Trump said Thursday.

There is some evidence that coronavirus infection may confer immunity that lasts for a few months after a person has recovered from a COVID-19 infection, though research is ongoing.

Some infections result in lifelong immunity (think chicken pox) while other infections will produce short-term immunity in recovered patients. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he believes the coronavirus confers at least some short-term immunity.

Was Biden's managing of the swine flu epidemic a 'disaster'?

Trump has frequently called the Obama-Biden administration's handling of the swine flu a "disaster"

"Frankly, he ran the H1N1, swine flu, and it was a total disaster. It was less lethal, but it was a total disaster. Had that had this kind of numbers, 700,000 people would be dead right now. But it was a far less lethal disease," Trump said Thursday.

This is not true and requires additional context. Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, has credited luck — and not the Obama administration response — with the fact that the swine flu did not kill more people. (Klain did not head up the response to the H1N1 virus, he was working for Biden at the time. He was, however, the administration’s Ebola czar.)

“We did every possible thing wrong — 60 million Americans got H1N1,” he said at a biosecurity summit in May 2019. “It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck.”

The swine flu is estimated to have killed 12,000 in the U.S., far fewer than the more than 200,000 who have died of COVID-19 to date.

Klain later told Politico his comments referred to the administration’s difficulties producing enough of the vaccine they developed, and argued the Obama team quickly adapted to the pandemic — quickly responding and distributing supplies from the federal stockpile, for example — and made very different choices than the Trump administration.

It’s also worth noting that the Obama administration received generally high marks for its response to the swine flu. While government reports after the fact identified room for growth they also highlighted successes, like rapid research and development of a vaccine that arrived in less than six months. There’s little contemporaneous reporting on the Obama administration response that portrays the kind of unmitigated disaster Trump is suggesting occurred.

Were 2.2 million people projected to die from COVID-19?

Trump, defending his administration's pandemic response, claimed Thursday that "2.2 million people — modeled out — were expected to die" from the coronavirus.

Trump has made this claim previously — that original projections for coronavirus deaths in America said the country would lose 2.2 million people to the virus.

This is misleading. Trump is referring to a model published on March 17 by Imperial College London, which did predict that 2.2 million people in America could die from the virus, but only if no mitigation efforts whatsoever were in place.

In late March, White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told NBC's "TODAY" that the projection of 1.6 million to 2.2 million deaths referred to what could happen if America did "nothing" to stop the spread of the virus.

"If we do things together, well, almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities," Birx said at the time.

As of Thursday evening, there have been 223,262 deaths attributed to the virus in America, according to NBC News data.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.