The 90-minute debate, moderated by NBC's Kristen Welker, took place at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, covered a wide range of topics, including Covid-19, race, immigration and climate change.
This live coverage has ended. Continue reading election news from October 23, 2020.
Read highlights, fact checks and takeaway below:
Fact check: Biden's managing of the swine flu epidemic was 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 Thursday.
This is not true and requires additional context. Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, has credited luck — and not the Obama administration response — with the fact that the swine flu did not kill more people. (Klain did not 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,” he 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 in the U.S., far fewer than the more than 200,000 who have died of Covid-19 to date.
Klain later told Politico his comments referred to the administration’s difficulties producing enough of the vaccine they developed, and argued the Obama team quickly adapted to the pandemic — quickly responding and distributing supplies from the federal stockpile, for example — and made very different choices than the Trump administration.
It’s also worth noting that the Obama administration received 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 on the Obama administration response that portrays the kind of unmitigated disaster Trump is suggesting occurred.
Few interruptions in the first 20 minutes — partly because of mic cuts
Both Biden and Trump have attacked each other more than a dozen times in the first 20 minutes of the debate, but surprisingly there have been limited interruptions. Mic cuts appear to be working.
The quiet before the storm? Mute button prompts calmer debate so far
The mute button — so far — has resulted in a calmer debate as Trump and Biden debate the response to Covid-19.
The candidates are criticizing each other without crosstalk, and the moderator has control over the debate as a result. Trump also appears to be taking notes, which he has not done in previous debates. He has also been clearer and more coherent than in past debates.
Fact check: Is Trump 'immune' after Covid-19 infection? Needs context.
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," Trump said Thursday.
There is some evidence that coronavirus infection may confer immunity that lasts for a few months after a person has recovered from a Covid-19 infection, though research is ongoing.
Some infections result in lifelong immunity (think chicken pox) while other infections will produce short-term immunity in recovered patients. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he believes the coronavirus confers at least some short-term immunity.
Biden brings up New England Journal of Medicine editorial
In his response to Trump's answer on the pandemic, Biden refers to a scathing editorial that The New England Journal of Medicine published earlier this month.
The 35 editors who signed the editorial did not call out President Trump by name, the article is filled with references to his actions.
"The response of our nation’s leaders has been consistently inadequate," they wrote. "The federal government has largely abandoned disease control to the states. Governors have varied in their responses, not so much by party as by competence. But whatever their competence, governors do not have the tools that Washington controls."
Fact check: Trump says 2.2 million people were projected to die from Covid-19
Trump, defending his administration's pandemic response, claimed Thursday that "2.2 million people — modeled out — were expected to die" from the coronavirus.
Trump has made this claim previously — that original projections for coronavirus deaths in America said the country would lose 2.2 million people to the virus.
This is misleading. Trump is referring to a model published on March 17 by Imperial College London, which did predict 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, White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told NBC's "Today" that 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," Birx said at the time.
As of Thursday evening, there have been 223,262 deaths attributed to the virus in America, according to NBC News data.
First question on Covid-19
The candidates squared off on the pandemic to start off Thursday’s debate, with Trump saying that if he hadn’t acted as he did, way more people would have died, and Biden saying the president’s incompetence needlessly cost thousands of additional lives.
With cases and hospitalizations on the rise, Welker asked both candidates how they will fight the upcoming stage of the pandemic.
“As you know, 2.2 million people modeled out were expected to die,” Trump said. “We closed up the greatest economy in the world.”
The president said the vaccine will come soon. He did not elaborate on anything different he would do in combating the virus, though he did point to his recovery from Covid-19 as proof that conditions are improving.
“We rounding the corner,” Trump claimed. “It’s going away.”
Biden pointed to the 220,000 Americans who have died.
“Anyone who’s responsible for not taking control — in fact saying, 'I take no responsibility' — anyone who [has that] response to that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America.”
Biden said Trump “still has no plan, no comprehensive plan.”
Biden added he would work toward national standards on reopening businesses and a ramping up the testing strategy.
“I will make sure we have a plan,” he said.
Welker fact-checks Trump in real time
Candidates arrive on stage. One in a mask, one without.
Debate commission co-chair goes over changes to final debate
Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, went over the rules of the debate ahead of the 9 p.m. start time, reminding participants that they agreed weeks ago that they would respect the two-minute response time allotted to each candidate per question before diving into a back-and-forth debate.
“Unfortunately, if you happened to watch the first debate, those rules were not necessarily followed," he said. "The commission felt that we could not put in a new rule, and what we thought we would do was put in a way to enforce what they had agreed to, the original rule: no interruption.”
Fahrenkopf explained that at the start of each of the six subject areas, the candidate who is not giving his two-minute opening response will have his mic muted. Once they have both delivered their 2-min opener, their mics will both be hot for debate.