Fact-checking the final Trump-Biden debate

Sonam Sheth,John Haltiwanger
·17 min read
Trump Biden
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden took the debate stage for the final time Thursday night ahead of the 2020 general election.

  • The debate was moderated by NBC News' Kristen Welker and focused on six main topics: COVID-19, race, climate change, national security, leadership, and American families.

  • The debate came as Biden holds a hefty lead over Trump in a number of national and state polls, and as the Trump campaign levels new allegations of corruption against Biden based on unverified and unsubstantiated information that Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has circulated in conservative media.

  • Scroll down to follow Business Insider's fact-check of the debate.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took the stage for the final time Thursday night in what was a contentious and fiery debate ahead of the November general election.

NBC's Kristen Welker moderated the debate, and the evening focused on six key topics: COVID-19, race, climate change, national security, leadership, and American families. The debate began at 9 p.m. ET, and Welker allotted 15 minutes of discussion for each topic.

Thursday's event came just weeks after the first Trump-Biden debate, in which the president drew widespread backlash for repeatedly interrupting Biden. In the wake of that debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to allow a third party to mute the candidates' microphones to give each contender two minutes of uninterrupted speaking time at the start of each topic. The commission said it was implementing the rule change to "ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues."

With fewer than two weeks left to go until Election Day on November 3, Thursday was Trump and Biden's last chance to appeal to a broad group of potential voters. Biden currently holds a hefty lead over Trump; according to FiveThirtyEight's latest forecast, the president currently has a 12% chance of winning a second term, while Biden has a 88% chance. The data website's national poll tracker also shows that Biden has nearly a 10-point lead over Trump.

Scroll down to follow Business Insider's fact-check of Thursday's debate.

COVID-19

Trump: "We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease that came from China. The mortality rate is down 85%, the excess mortality rate is way down and much lower than almost any other country. There are some spikes and surges in other places, they will soon be gone. We have a vaccine ... it's going to be announced within weeks. Now they say I'm immune, whether it's four months or a lifetime, nobody's been able to say that, but I'm immune. I've been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we've been able to do. We're rounding the turn, we're rounding the corner. It's going away."

Fact check: Trump's statement that the US's mortality rate is "way down and much lower than almost any other country" is inaccurate. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, more than 223,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the number of US deaths as a proportion of the population is higher than many other countries.

Trump has also repeatedly said a new COVID-19 vaccine will be released within weeks, but CDC Director Robert Redfield recently told Congress: "If you're asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021."

The president's claim that he is "immune" from COVID-19 is also misleading. As Business Insider previously reported, scientists say there is no reliable indicator of immunity from the novel coronavirus.

On Trump's contention that the US is "rounding the corner," Forbes reported that as of last week, Trump made the same statement on 28 out of the last 46 days. The majority of US states are continuing to see sharp increases in new cases and hospitalizations.

Trump: The president repeatedly attacked Biden over the handling of the swine flu, known as H1N1.

Fact-check: Biden wasn't president when the H1N1 pandemic struck the US in 2009, and he wasn't spearheading the federal response to it; President Barack Obama was. H1N1 also killed far fewer Americans — 14,000 — than COVID-19 has.

National security

Biden: "His own national security adviser told him that what is happening with his buddy, Rudy Giuliani, he's being used as a Russian pawn, he's being fed information that is Russian — that is not true. And then what happens? Nothing happens. And then you find out that everything that's going on here about Russia is wanting to make sure that I do not get elected the next president of the United States because they know I know them and they know me."

Fact check: Biden was referring to a recent Washington Post report that said US officials warned the White House last year that Russian operatives were using Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to funnel disinformation to Trump.

One source told The Post that the message to Trump was, "Do what you want to do, but your friend Rudy has been worked by Russian assets in Ukraine."

According to the report, Trump responded by shrugging and saying, "That's Rudy."

Trump: "Joe got $3.5 million from Russia and it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow. Your family got $3.5 million. I never got any money from Russia. I don't get money from Russia."

Fact check: Trump's claim Biden received $3.5 million from Moscow refers to uncorroborated allegations from a Republican Senate report last month that said an investment firm linked to Hunter Biden took in $3.5 million from Yelena Baturina, the widow of the late Mayor Yury Luzhkov of Moscow.

Biden's lawyer, George Mesires, told Politico in a statement that the Senate report held no merit because Hunter Biden did not have any "interest in" and was not the "cofounder" of the investment firm, Rosemont Seneca Thornton, "so the claim that he was paid $3.5 million is false."

Trump's claim that he does not "get money from Russia" has been contradicted by his son, Donald Trump Jr., who said in 2008 that a lot of the Trump family's assets come from Russia.

"In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," Trump Jr. said at a real-estate conference that year. "Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

Trump: "I was put through a phony witch hunt for three years. They spied on my campaign. [The special counsel Robert] Mueller and 18 angry Democrats and FBI agents all over the place spent $48 million, they went through everything I had, including my tax returns. And they found absolutely nothing: no collusion and nothing wrong."

Fact check: The Justice Department inspector general concluded after an internal investigation last year that there is no evidence the FBI "spied" on Trump's campaign, as he has repeatedly alleged. Mueller also did not obtain Trump's tax returns, and he did not conclude that there was "no collusion and nothing wrong" related to the Trump campaign.

Mueller's team determined that it did not have sufficient evidence to charge anyone on the campaign with conspiracy connected to Russia's interference in the 2016 election. But prosecutors prefaced that statement with a significant caveat, that "the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

The special counsel also declined to make a "traditional prosecutorial judgment" on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing a 1973 Justice Department memo that said a sitting president cannot be indicted. However, his team emphasized that "if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state." The team continued: "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment."

Biden: "With regard to Ukraine, we had this whole question about whether or not because he was on the board" of Burisma Holdings, "that somehow I had done something wrong. Yet every single, solitary person when he was going through his impeachment ... said I did my job impeccably. I carried out US policy. Not one single, solitary thing was out of line. Number two, the guy who got in trouble was this guy trying to bribe the Ukrainian government into saying something negative about me. My son has not made money in terms of this thing about ... China. The only guy who made money from China is this guy. He's the only one."

Fact check: Biden was alluding to Trump and his allies' claim that when Biden was vice president, he inappropriately leveraged his position to force the ouster of the Ukrainian prosecutor general in order to shut down a criminal investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company whose board Hunter Biden was serving on at the time.

As Business Insider has previously reported, there are a number of holes in this claim. For one, the Burisma investigation was largely dormant at the time that the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, was fired. Also, government officials and Ukrainian anticorruption advocates said Shokin had hampered the investigation into Burisma long before Joe Biden even stepped into the picture, The Wall Street Journal reported. In other words, Biden was doing the opposite of what Trump and Giuliani have implied: He was trying to oust a prosecutor who was slow-walking the investigation into Burisma, rather than actively targeting the company.

Most important, Biden represented the US's official position on the matter, one that was shared by many other Western governments and anticorruption activists in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.

Trump: "His son didn't have a job for a long time. As soon as [Biden] became vice president, Burisma ... I hear they paid him $183,000 a month. And they gave him a $3 million upfront payment."

Fact check: Hunter Biden was paid $83,000, not $183,000, per month while working at Burisma. And although multiple current and former career officials have said that the former vice president did not engage in wrongdoing connected to his son's work, they also say the ethics of Hunter Biden working for Burisma given his father's policy work in Ukraine may have blurred ethical lines.

Biden: "I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life. We learned that this president paid 50 times the tax in China [that he paid to the US government], has a secret bank account with China, does business in China, and in fact is talking about me taking money? I have not taken a single penny from any country whatsoever."

Fact check: Biden was referring to a recent New York Times report which found that Trump had a previously undisclosed account at a Chinese bank. It also said Trump ran an office in China and was partnered with a government-controlled company in the country. It added that Trump paid $188,561 in taxes to the Chinese government from 2013 to 2015. Meanwhile, he paid just $750 in taxes to the US in 2016 and 2017.

Biden: Trump "has legitimized North Korea. He talks about his good buddy who's a thug. A thug. And he talks about how we're better off. And they have much more capable missiles able to reach US territory much more easily than they ever did before."

Fact check: Trump has repeatedly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Kim has sent the US president multiple "love letters," according to the veteran journalist Bob Woodward's latest book, "Rage."

Trump, meanwhile, has boasted about his relationship with Kim on multiple occasions, once stating that he and the North Korean letter "fell in love" over Kim's "beautiful letters."

Trump and Kim have had two formal summits as well as an impromptu meeting at the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. The meetings were meant to foster the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but that hasn't yet occurred. On the contrary, Pyongyang has continued escalating its aggression in the region and recently created an ICBM that could target the US.

American families

Trump: "We have 180 million people out there that have great private healthcare. Joe Biden is going to terminate all of those policies. They have 180 million plans, 180 million people — families. Under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine ... they want to terminate 180 million plans."

Fact check: It's not true that Biden's healthcare plan would kick 180 million people off their insurance. Biden has proposed a "public option," which would allow people to voluntarily join a government-run healthcare program similar to Medicare. But if they want to keep their current insurance, under Biden's plan, they would be able to.

Trump: "They did it. We changed the policy. They built the cages."

Fact check: Trump made these remarks in response to questions about his administration's "zero tolerance policy," which separated thousands of migrant families at the US-Mexico border. As The New York Times reported, the Obama administration rarely separated families at the border and only did so if the relationship between a child and the adult accompanying them was not immediately clear.

By contrast, the Trump administration's "zero tolerance policy" was explicitly articulated, and The Times reported that then Attorney General Jeff Sessions specifically told prosecutors who expressed opposition to the policy, "We have to take away the children."

Trump's claim that the Obama administration built cages for migrant children is true.

Biden: "What did the president say? He said [of coronavirus], 'Don't worry, it's going to go away. Be gone by Easter. Don't worry. Maybe inject bleach.' He said he was kidding when he said that, but a lot of people thought it was serious." Trump replied that he was, in fact, "kidding."

Fact check: Here's what the president said during the April task-force briefing, according to a transcript and video recording of his remarks:

"So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said, that hasn't been checked but you're going to test it. And then I said, supposing it brought the light inside the body, which you can either do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you're going to test that too, sounds interesting. And I then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it'd be interesting to check that. So you're going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we'll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it goes in one minute, that's pretty powerful."

Race

Trump: The president said that Biden called Black Americans "superpredators" in connection to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Fact check: This is untrue. Hillary Clinton made the remark in 1996, not Biden.

Trump: The president went after Biden over his support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which Trump said "put tens of thousands of Black men, mostly, in jail."

Fact check: This claim is largely true. Biden has drawn significant scrutiny because of his support for the measure, which devastated the Black community and exacerbated mass incarceration. The former vice president apologized at the debate and in previous instances for his support of the bill and his hardline stance on criminal justice reform.

Trump: "You know, Joe, I ran because of you. I ran because of Barack Obama. Because you did a poor job. If I thought you did a good job, I would have never run."

Fact check: As several current and former Trump associates have pointed out, he did run because of Obama but it didn't have to do with Obama's record. Instead, they said, it was because Obama made fun of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.

"I think that is the night he resolves to run for president," the longtime GOP operative Roger Stone told PBS' Frontline. "I think that he is kind of motivated by it: 'Maybe I'll just run. Maybe I'll show them all.'"

"I thought, 'Oh, Barack Obama is starting something that I don't know if he'll be able to finish,'" Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former White House aide and Trump confidant, told PBS.

Trump: "Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump. If you look, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception, nobody has done what I've done."

Fact check: "This may well be the president's most audacious claim ever," Michael Fauntroy, a professor of political science at Howard University, told The New York Times in June. "Not only has he not done more than anybody else, he's done close to the least."

The majority of historians and experts believe Lincoln and former President Lyndon B. Johnson have had the most legislative achievements in advancing civil rights, according to The Times. Johnson, in particular, advocated for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

Other presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton also took action to protect and enforce the constitutional rights of Black Americans, as well as diversify the federal government and the judiciary, the report said.

Climate change

Trump: "We have the best carbon emission numbers that we've had in 35 years."

Fact check: The Times reported that this is a misleading claim because although the US pollutes less now than it did when Trump came into office, that's largely because of lower natural gas prices and Obama administration policies.

Also, as Business Insider reported, "the Environmental Performance Index, a metric from environmental scientists at Yale and Columbia that ranks 180 countries around the world, puts the US in 10th place when it comes to overall air quality (Australia is first)."

Moreover, contrary to Trump's claims, "air in the country is actually getting dirtier and more dangerous to breathe under his administration," the report said.

Trump: The president repeated a common allegation that Republicans make about Biden, alleging that he supports the Green New Deal and wants to ban fracking.

Fact check: The former vice president has explicitly said that he would not ban fracking and that he does not support the Green New Deal, though his climate plan features some similarities to the plan. In fact, Biden's lack of support for the Green New Deal was one of the main reasons progressive lawmakers including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were hesitant to throw their support behind the former vice president.

Leadership

Trump: Biden "wants to raise everybody's taxes, and he wants to put new regulations on everything. He will kill it. If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you've never seen, your 401ks will go to hell, and it'll be a very, very sad day for this country."

Fact check: Biden's tax plan would raise taxes only on Americans making more than $400,000 a year.

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