Fact checks from the final debate between Trump and Biden

Jane C. Timm and Adam Edelman and Sara G. Miller and Erika Edwards and Ben Kamisar and Sahil Kapur and Suzanne Gamboa and Elizabeth Janowski
·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.

Read 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 early in the pandemic as a lifesaving 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 hasn't 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 has 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 that 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 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.

Did Trump make the deficit with China go up?

Biden 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 country'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," he claimed.

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 have gone to real estate deals that don't produce long-term jobs. Investors aren't required to report the number of jobs created or housing units developed.

The vast majority of the billions of dollars 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 Trump'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, although 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 — kill far more birds than wind turbines do.

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 said.

The claim perplexed many. Biden's former chief of staff tweeted that 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, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 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 during the Obama administration, which included hundreds of vehicles, drones, counter-mortar radar systems and medical supplies.

Did Biden called Black Americans 'superpredators'?

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

"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, which 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 of dollars 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 that "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," he said.

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

It's impossible to know which, if any, of the multiple drugs Trump received while in the hospital 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 continue.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there is a "reasonably good chance" that the Regeneron drug made a significant difference in the course of Trump's 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 separating 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. Trump was asked how he would reunite the reportedly more than 500 children whose parents can't be located.

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

Biden countered that the 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," he said.

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

Trump's "zero tolerance" policy aimed to prosecute every illegal border crosser, including asylum-seekers. To do that, 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?

Trump 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, although there was no widespread Obama-era policy of separating parents and children. Trump and his administration have previously tried to justify the family separation policy and defend against accusations from Democrats that Trump 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," former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.

After a surge in unaccompanied children and women at the border in 2014, 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 that if Biden wins, "the stock market will crash."

There is no evidence 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 whoever wins.

Ruchir Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, wrote in a column in The New York Times last month that his own investment research, dating 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 "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."

Other 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 deplete Social Security by 2023?

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

Trump 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, which said permanently eliminating all payroll taxes without a replacement would deplete the Social Security trust fund by 2023. But that isn't Trump's current position, and the letter noted that benefits would be "essentially unaffected" if Congress mandated that the cost of the tax cuts come out of the general fund, as Trump has suggested.

On Aug. 8, Trump said he wanted to "make permanent cuts to the payroll tax" if he is 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, because 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 in an executive order during the coronavirus crisis. On Aug. 13, for example, press secretary Kayleigh 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 wouldn't 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 said Trump "shut down" travel from China only at the outset of the pandemic, "late, after 40 countries had already done that."

This is true.

Starting Feb. 2, the U.S. barred entry by foreigners who had traveled in China in the previous 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 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 hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process that taps into natural gas reserves deep below the Earth's surface, which critics say is dangerous.

"Just like he went at it with fracking," Trump said. If Biden wins, he said, "we're not going to have fracking. We're going to stop fracking. We're going to 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 going to have fracking,'" Trump added.

This well-worn attack against Biden isn't true, but Biden's position is complicated.

Biden has repeatedly said he wouldn't ban fracking; the policies he has released call only for no new fracking on federal lands. His policy would also allow for existing fracking on federal lands to continue and for 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 the 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.

Fracking is 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.

Would 180 million people lose health care if Biden wins?

Trump said, "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 has made this claim repeatedly, and NBC News has fact-checked it repeatedly. It 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 — that was a part of the proposals of some of Biden's Democratic primary opponents. 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 (HR 118 in the House and S 1129 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 that it was money his administration has used to bail out American farmers.

Biden interjected to say it was "taxpayer money" going to the farmers.

So who's 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 that 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 claimed that Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, 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 whether they would get rid of private health insurance. The next day, she said that she had misunderstood the question and that she wouldn't abolish private health insurance in favor of "Medicare for All" if elected — but she then struggled to clarify her position about the role private insurers would have.

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 allegations that she has flip-flopped 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 plans.

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

Trump said that "99.9 [percent] of young people recover" from Covid-19 and that "99 percent of people recover" from the coronavirus.

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 other health care facilities 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," like the figures above, doesn'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 of dollars "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," Trump 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 Biden's son Hunter were somehow funneling foreign dollars to Biden and the rest of his family. There's no evidence of wrongdoing on either Biden's part, and Joe 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 his foreign business dealings, considering that his father was the vice president at the time.

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 Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, "has now explicitly stated he is attempting to exploit to bail out Donald Trump's re-election campaign."

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

The report says the Russian wired $3.5 million to a firm associated with Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden's attorney, 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 Republican summary of the report here and the Biden campaign's criticism of the inquiry here.

Is a vaccine announcement coming 'within weeks'?

Trump again offered an overly optimistic assessment of when a vaccine for Covid-19 would 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," he said.

The Food and Drug Administration's guidelines for Covid-19 vaccine makers say 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, or EUA, would be the end of November.

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

Welker, the moderator, asked Trump whether his 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 pandemic.

There's no evidence of this. The U.S. has an uncontrolled outbreak, having reported more than 69,000 new Covid-19 cases Thursday. Case numbers are climbing in most states, and the U.S. has more cases than any other country, with more than 8.3 million, and more deaths, 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," he said.

There is some evidence that coronavirus infection may confer immunity that lasts for a few months after a person has recovered from an infection, although research continues.

Some infections result in lifelong immunity (think chickenpox), while other infections produce short-term immunity in recovered patients. Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, 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.

This is not true, and it requires additional context. Ron Klain, Biden's former chief of staff, has credited luck — not the Obama administration response — with the fact that the swine flu didn't kill more people. (Klain didn't 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," Klain 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 people in the U.S., far fewer than the more than 220,000 who have died of Covid-19 to date.

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

It's also worth noting that the Obama administration got 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 about the Obama administration's 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 that "2.2 million people — modeled out — were expected to die."

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

This is misleading. Trump is referring to a model published March 17 by Imperial College London, which did project 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, the response coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, said 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," she said at the time.

As of Thursday evening, 223,262 deaths had been attributed to the virus in the U.S., according to NBC News data.