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Trump dials it back, Biden defends son Hunter: Takeaways from the final presidential debate

After a first debate that descended into chaos, the second and final debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden was less confrontational and more civilized, in part because of a new rule – microphone muting – that dramatically cut down on interruptions.

There were still plenty of flashes of anger and division during the 90-minute debate, especially in the second half, but the session included more substance and fewer insults.

Trump, in particular, was far more restrained than in the first debate, when he repeatedly talked over both Biden and the moderator, FOX News’ Chris Wallace. That performance led to a fresh dip in the polls for the president.

This time, Trump dialed back his attacks – though he and Biden still tangled plenty – and the president even complimented the moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, despite attacking her before the debate. 

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Jill Biden enters the Curb Event Center for the final Presidential Debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

The more subdued forum allowed for more give and take on the issues, which ranged from COVID-19 to racial justice to the minimum wage. On the latter,the Democratic candidate said an increase was needed to lift people out of poverty and the president argued it should be left for the states to decide.

Here are five top takeaways from the showdown.

Biden warns of ‘dark winter,” Trump predicts COVID is 'going away’

Trump and Biden sparred bitterly over the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump argued that his administration had saved lives and handled the crisis well. He dismissed questions about the current spike in cases raging across the country.

“We’re rounding the turn, We’re rounding the corner,” Trump said. “It’s going away.”

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22, 2020.

Biden blasted Trump for refusing to take responsibility for 220,000 Americans deaths and said that should disqualify him from being president. He said his administration would encourage everyone to wear masks, invest in COVID-19 rapid testing, and create national standards to reopen schools and other institutions.. 

“We’re about to go into a dark winter… but he has no clear plan,” Biden added, disputing Trump’s rosy predictions that a vaccine would be ready within weeks. 

Trump said he took “full responsibility,” but then quickly added: “It's not my fault that it came here. It's China's fault.”

Candidates talk about race, Black Lives Matter

Welker turned the conversation to race relations, asking both candidates about how African American parents have to warn their children about encounters with law enforcement.

In answering, Biden and Trump attacked each others' records and touted themselves as the better candidate for Black and Hispanic voters.   

Biden mentioned his daughter, a social worker, andsaid his children have never had to worry about being mistreated by police because they are white.

"I never had to tell my daughter if she's pulled over to put both hands on top of the wheel and don't reach for the glove box because someone may shoot you,” he said.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.

Trump attacked Biden by mentioning how the then-senator supported the 1994 crime bill that many blame for increasing stringent sentencing laws. Trump said he is the “least racist person in the room” and that he has done more for Black communities than any president since Abraham Lincoln, mentioning his administration’s successful efforts to pass criminal-justice reform.

“You put tens of thousands of Black men in prison,” Trump said.

The Trump campaign has put some effort into courting Black male voters, some of whom have felt ignored by the Democratic Party. About 13% of African American men supported Trump when he first ran in 2016.

Biden apologized for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill and said racial discrimination persists in the criminal justice system. He said he wants to focus on closing the wealth gap along lines of race, but took exception to Trump’s description of himself as the least racist person in the room.

“Abraham Lincoln over here is the most racist president we’ve ever had," Biden said sarcastically of Trump's self-comparison to the president who helped end slavery.

The moderator pressed Trump on his relationship with African Americans, pointing out his criticism of Black athletes who speak out against systemic racism; his description of the Black Lives Matters movement a “symbol of hate”; and his sharing white supremacist chants online.

Trump said his criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement were based on anti-police chants he heard on TV.

Biden responds to Trump’s attacks on Hunter: ‘Nothing was unethical’

Trump and Biden were both put on the spot over how they would handle election interference, which in turn sparked a testy exchange over their foreign entanglements.

Biden raised the issue first when he responded to a question about election interference by saying Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was being used as “a Russian pawn” and being fed misinformation about Biden’s son, Hunter, to sway the election in Trump’s favor.

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden answers a question during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said.

“Nothing was unethical,” Biden said of Hunter Biden’s role on the board of the energy company Burisma. “My son has not made money from China. The only guy who has made money from China was this guy,” he said, directing his comments at Trump.

He said Russia, Iran and other countries would “pay a price” for interfering in American elections if he wins the presidency. “I don’t know why this president is unwilling to take on Putin,” Biden said.

Biden also tried to turn the tables on Trump by pointing out his hotels and other businesses are raking in money from foreign interests and noting a New York Times report that Trump has an undisclosed bank account in China.

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Trump did not dispute that he had a bank account in China.

“I have many banks accounts, and they’re all listed and they’re all over the place,” he said.

He said he’s been very tough on Russia, noting his administration has imposed a series of sanctions on Moscow – though many of those were mandated by Congress.

He also made a series of unsubstantiated claims about Biden’s family taking money from Russia and China.  

A calmer Trump — at first

The first debate between Trump and Biden descended into a chaotic jumble as Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. But this debate had a different tone initially, with the president showing less combativeness. 

In the first 30 minutes, Trump pressed his argument that small business owners and the economy cannot afford to shelter in place. But he still laced his remarks with derision.

“We can't lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” he said. “He has the ability to lock himself up. I don’t know, he’s obviously made a lot of money someplace but he has this thing about living in a basement.”

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At one point Trump thanked NBC News’ Kristen Welker – who he previously criticized as “terrible and unfair” – for her questions and handling of the debate. He also surprised many observers when he said he took “full responsibility” for COVID-19’s handling.

(From L) Daughter and Senior Advisor to the US President Ivanka Trump, daughter of the US President Tiffany Trump, campaign adviser to the US President and Eric Trump's wife Lara Trump wear facemasks as they arrive to attend the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.

“I take full responsibility,” Trump said. “It's not my fault that it came here. It's China's fault. You know what, it's not Joe's fault that it came here, either. It's China's fault."

Trump did show impatience as the debate continued, however. After the 30-minute mark the president fought for time whenever Biden made a comment criticizing his administration.

The former vice president tried at various times to goad Trump into interrupting, saying out one point the president was about to interrupt him while explaining his health care plan.Trump held his tongue,though he did not look pleased.

Trump dodges question on family separations

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a court filing that they are unable to locate the parents of 545 children who were among the families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 and 2018.

When asked how he plans to reunite those families, Trump said: "We're trying very hard, but a lot of these kids come up without the parents. They come over through cartels and the coyotes," he said.

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About two-thirds of the more than 1,000 parents who were separated from their children were deported back to Central America, according to the filing.

The president then insisted the Obama administration instituted the policy and his administration carried it out. But the Trump administration implemented the "zero tolerance" policy in 2018 that separated migrant children and parents at the southern border. The administration later admitted that it actually began separating families under a pilot program in 2017.

Clash over North Korea 

The debate dipped briefly into foreign policy, most notably in an exchange on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

Biden blasted Trump for meeting three times with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – high-profile sessions that have not yielded any concrete steps toward denuclearization.

“He’s legitimized North Korea,” Biden said. “He's talked about his good buddy who's a thug, a thug.”

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Biden said North Korea has “much more capable missiles, able to reach US territory much more easily than ever.”

Trump defended his meetings with Kim, saying “I have a very good relationship with him … We have a different kind of relationship.”

The president seemed to suggest he’s succeeded in dealing with North Korea by avoiding a nuclear war that would have killed millions of people.

“We have a very good relationship, and there's no war,” he said.