President Donald Trump used part of his limited time in the final presidential debate of the 2020 campaign to suggest Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden isn’t really from Scranton, Pennsylvania, even though Biden was born in the city and lived there until he was 10 years old.
It wasn’t just a throwaway lie. It was the latest move in a political strategy to cast doubt on Biden’s public image. And like most other parts of Trump’s effort, it was a dishonest reach that’s unlikely to give the Republican nominee what he wants.
“He doesn’t come from Scranton,” Trump said of his rival during the debate in Nashville, Tennessee. “He lived there for a short period of time, before he even knew it, and he left.”
Biden often describes his childhood in Scranton as one of the most influential periods in his life. He left not because of personal ambition ― Trump has previously said Biden “abandoned Scranton” ― but because his family had to. Biden’s father struggled to find steady work in the city, and the family spent years living with Biden’s maternal grandparents. Ultimately, the elder Biden moved the family to Delaware, where he felt he would be better able to support them. They lived for a while in a small apartment in Claymont and then moved to a house in Wilmington.
A fact-check by the Philadelphia Inquirer recently found that Biden “maintained close personal relationships and professional ties to Scranton in the more than six decades since he left.”
Soon after Trump’s comment, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) tweeted a photograph of the Scranton Times Tribune calling the former vice president a “native son” on its front page when he accepted the Democratic nomination in August.
Trump’s jab, almost certainly designed with an eye to crucial swing state Pennsylvania, is the latest in a series of attack lines that don’t land. Trump has criticized Biden’s son Hunter Biden, and his allies have mocked their close relationship. But these comments, like the one about Biden’s birthplace, wind up highlighting ways that the Democrat is relatable and sympathetic. Like many Americans, Biden’s family dealt with unsteady employment. Like many Americans, one of Biden’sloved ones struggled with addiction.
By deriding aspects of Biden’s personal life, Trump underscores how removed he is from the experiences of many people in the country he wants to continue to lead.
Amid a historic pandemic that continues to kill hundreds of Americans daily and cause a devastating economic crisis, Trump’s reelection campaign is currently focusing most of its energy on Hunter Biden. Trump repeatedly brought up alleged business malfeasance by Biden’s son during the debate, claiming — despite reporting showing otherwise and the Biden family’s rebuttals — that Hunter Biden had done business in foreign countries including China and had profited off his father’s political career.
“If this is true, then he’s a corrupt politician. So don’t give me this stuff about how you’re this innocent baby,” Trump said on Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, conservative commentator John Cardillo tweeted a picture of the two Biden men embracing with the caption: “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?”
These mentions bring public attention back to the fact that Hunter Biden is Biden’s only surviving child from his first marriage, that he lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident. Later, his other son died after battling cancer. They also question Biden’s affection for a son who is a recovering addict and has had a rocky adult life in the public eye.
Biden has defended Hunter in ways that can resonate with millions of people.
“My son, like a lot of people, like [a] lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” the Democratic nominee said during the first presidential debate. “He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Beyond questioning Hunter Biden’s alleged actions in business, Trump and his allies have consistently questioned his character, implying he is an embarrassment to his father. Trump has brought up Hunter Biden leaving the Navy, falsely suggested he was dishonorably discharged; he veered toward doing so on Thursday but then stopped himself.
Republicans have also pushed the idea that Biden is a wealthy, out-of-touch politician. Eric Trump, the president’s son, recently questioned how Biden could afford a large home ― a house that Biden no longer owns, and that he purchased relatively cheaply when it was in need of major repairs.
Meanwhile, many of the things Republicans suggest about Biden are true about Trump. His children profit off his presidency. He has worried that his children will embarrass him by being “losers.”
And Trump abandoned his own hometown: He changed his residency from New York to Florida last year. The president didn’t do that because his family needed to change jobs. He did it to avoid taxes.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.