Review: The final Trump-Biden debate was an exercise in exasperation

Former Vice President Joe Biden on stage with President Trump in the final presidential debate at Belmont University.
Former Vice President Joe Biden on stage with President Trump in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville.
(Getty Images)

Melania wore a mask. Donald (mostly) followed the rules. Joe spoke uninterrupted.

The second and final debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden was an orderly affair compared to the last time the men shared a stage to argue their case for the presidency.

The relative calm was in itself a surprise since Thursday’s showdown was poised to be a real humdinger, as Biden might say. The taunts and bullying started well before the president and the former vice president met Thursday in Nashville for a live telecast that lasted 90 minutes.


Trump used every opportunity possible — his “super-spreader” rallies, Fox News, social media — to discredit and debase his “extraordinarily unfair,” “no good” and “radical left Democrat” opponent. And he wasn’t referring to Biden.

The target of his attacks, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, may as well have been wielding Wonder Woman’s protective shield when she finally faced off with her tormentor. The seasoned Washington reporter appeared unscathed by his attacks. A picture of composure and professionalism, she clearly had no intention of being anyone’s scapegoat and Trump got the message.

Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC mostly kept the debate on track.
(NBC News)

It was a drastic change of tone for the president who during the first debate bellowed over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace for 90 ear-bending minutes. This time around he’d perhaps been chastened by the scathing reviews of his performance or the poor ratings and poll numbers that followed.

By allowing President Trump to call the shots that unraveled the second debate, NBC and the debate commission were left as most enablers are: holding the bag.

The comparative order meant Biden was finally free to talk policy and character, while Trump delivered the usual whoppers — we’ve been rounding the corner on COVID-19 for so long we’re going in circles — and at least one head-scratcher to most viewers when he accused Biden of growing rich off “pillows and sheets.” (It was a sideway accusation that the Obama administration didn’t send Ukraine lethal weapons.)

But for those of us who’d hoped to witness the almighty power of a new onstage referee, The Mute Button, the regulated proceedings were a bit of a letdown. We’d been primed to expect something tantamount to a cone of silence, or the sonic equivalent of a trapdoor, when Trump shouted over the other folks on stage.

Chris Wallace tried pleading, placating, interrupting back. Nothing stopped President Trump from ignoring all the rules in his first debate with Joe Biden.

The silencing measure was implemented by the Commission on Presidential Debates after the last disastrous show, but it was rarely used during the six segments discussed on the Belmont University debate stage.

Each candidate was allotted two minutes of uninterrupted time at the beginning of each 15-minute segment. After they answered, both microphones were open for a two-way discussion, or a 30-second follow-up.

Trump did interrupt, but rather than flip the switch, Welker cut through the noise as best she could.

“We are going to move on.”

“Let me move on.”

“We have to move on.”

Her efforts were for the most part effective against a toned-down Trump. One can only imagine how infuriated Wallace must have been watching her steer the sort of debate he never had a chance to moderate.

President Trump was more restrained than in his first debate with Joe Biden, but all the Democrat had to do was not mess up.

In television terms, it was less of a show and more of a political event, which again was unexpected given the erratic behavior of the president earlier in the day. He’d posted his own raw footage of a “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl that is scheduled to air Sunday. He wrote: “Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse!”

Welker was likely worse for Trump than Wallace. She opened up the space for Biden to go after the president on his tax returns — “What are you hiding?” he asked — and for his immigration policies that caused children to be separated from their parents at the border. It was recently reported that more than 500 kids are still in custody and authorities have lost track of where their parents are.

Some ‘facts’ just aren’t so. That much was certain, especially for President Trump, as he and former Vice President Joe Biden met Thursday for a final debate.

Trump may have fared better than during the last debate, but then again, the bar is pretty low. Biden also outperformed himself, but at times appeared exasperated by the whole charade of a lifelong public servant debating a showman. When Trump proclaimed no one had done more for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln than him, Biden dropped his head, shaking it side to side, and muttered, “Oh God.”

When both men were asked about the realities of the coronavirus, their answers were the most telling of the night. Trump said, “We’re learning to live with it.”

“Learning to live with it? Come on,” Biden responded. “We’re dying with it.”

Rukmini Callimachi’s New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ relied on stereotypes and lazy tropes to attract listeners. In post-9/11 America, it was an easy sell.