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September Democratic Debate: Live updates from Houston

NBC News' live blog with the top coverage of the third democratic primary debate for the 2020 presidential election hosted by ABC in Texas on September 12, 2019.
Image: Democratic Debate Live Blog
Adrian Lam / NBC News

The 10 leading Democratic candidates faced off on the same stage for the first time in Houston Thursday night. Health care, education, trade, racial inequality, immigration and gun control were once again front and center. Read on for the biggest moments, fact-checks and analysis.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the third Democratic debate.

Live Blog

Fact check: Biden says Obama didn't put people in cages

"Comparing [Obama] to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families, we didn’t do all of those things,” Biden said, defending the Obama administration’s record on immigration after a question about deportations. 

Biden is half right. The Obama administration did detain people in cage-like structures, earning criticism from activists. Last year, Democratic activists circulated photos of children inside chain link fenced spaces in an attack on President Donald Trump, only for onlookers to later realize the photos were from 2014.

Biden is correct to say that the Obama administration did not separate families as a policy. The Obama administration detained whole families together, while the Trump administration made it a policy last year to detain children, including babies and toddlers, without their parents, leaving other children to tend to them and sometimes losing track of their parents. 

Harris jabs Trump with 'Oz' reference

Harris came out with a jab at Trump that drew some laughs and applause. 

"He reminds me of 'The Wizard of Oz' — when you pull back the curtain and it’s a really small dude?" she said

Moderator George Stephanopoulos, known in part for his slight stature, offers a chuckle and responds, "I’m not going to take the bait."

Buttigieg touts South Bend ID program

Buttigieg talked up an immigration-related accomplishment Thursday night he once shied away from mentioning on the campaign trail.

“The only reason that South Bend is growing right now, after years of shrinking, is immigration. It’s one of the reasons we acted, not waiting for Washington, to create city-issued municipal IDs, so that people regardless of immigration status in our city had the opportunity to have the benefits of identification,” the South Bend mayor said. 

NBC News reported on Buttigieg’s program back in June. South Bend’s “Community Resident Card” program was the result of Buttigieg's desire to coax the city’s 4,500 undocumented immigrants out of the shadows without jeopardizing their well being. Read more about the unique program here.

Dems go after Trump on China policies, say they would use tariffs in combating China

Candidates were asked about how they would handle the ongoing China trade war, which Trump has ratcheted up. Yang was the first to go, saying he would not remove tariffs right away but come up with a plan to deal with intellectual property theft.

Buttigieg said Trump mocked him, suggesting it was impossible to conceive of him making a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Buttigieg shot back that he would love to see Trump make a deal with China, adding he thought that was supposed to happen months ago.

The moderators moved on to Klobuchar, Castro, Warren and Harris, who hit Trump’s strategy but insisted on taking China to task.


Trump reacts to Democratic debate

As the third Democratic debate got underway in Houston Thursday night, President Donald Trump took aim at several of the candidates taking the stage there, including Warren and Biden.

"I hit Pocahontas way too early. I thought she was gone. She's emerged from the ashes and now it looks like she could beat Sleepy Joe, he's falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he's doing or saying," Trump said in remarks before House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore Thursday night.

Trump brought out another favored trail nickname for a Democratic rival, calling Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., "Crazy Bernie" and mocked the pronunciation of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg's name, repeatedly saying, "Boot-edge-edge."

The president then brought up Chinese President Xi Jinping. "Whoa boy. He’s a furious kind of a guy. Great guy. He’s dying to see ... he wants Sleepy Joe."

If Yang can’t fulfill cash giveaway, then Alexis Ohanian will

After Yang’s pledge to give $1,000 a month to 10 random American families raised questions about possible campaign finance violations, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian tweeted that “I like this idea so much,” he’ll personally step in if Yang can’t. 

Fact check: Would Biden's health care plan leave 10 million uncovered?

“The problem with your plan is that it leaves 10 million people uncovered,” Castro said during Thursday’s debate, criticizing Biden's health care proposal.

This is mostly true, according to the text of Biden's own plan. His plan estimates that his expansion of the Affordable Care Act would insure "more than an estimated 97 percent of Americans."

There’s an estimated 327 million people living in America; 3 percent of the population is approximately 10 million. Estimates on the number of non-citizens vary and it's unclear how Biden's proposal would affect immigrant communities in practice, which could change these numbers. Still, Biden has said he wants to give everyone a chance to be covered.

Gun restrictions have broad support

As Democrats debate some new gun restrictions, some of their proposals will fall on receptive ears among Democratic primary voters — and among many voters who aren't Democrats as well. 

An August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that:

  • Eighty-nine percent of all Americans and 97 percent of Democratic primary voters support expanding background checks to all firearm sales and transfers.
  • Sixty-two percent of all Americans and 87 percent of Democratic primary voters support banning the sale of selected semi-automatic firearms referred to as assault weapons.
  • And three quarters of all Americans and 89 percent of Democratic primary voters support a voluntary program where the government would buy back firearms that people no longer want.

What's not popular: Only a quarter of Americans back a ban on the sale of all handguns. 

Vice deporter-in-chief?

The Obama administration deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous administration, earning Obama the moniker "deporter in chief" among some immigrant rights groups.

Asked during the debate if the Obama administration made a mistake deporting so many people, Biden distanced himself from the results of Obama-era immigration policy. Biden also described the administration’s deportation and detention practices as the work of a former president doing his best, and described Obama’s immigration policy as entirely different from that of the Trump administration’s practice of separating families and placing detainees in cages. 

During the Obama years, unaccompanied child migrants and entire families with children were housed in facilities that included cages.

NOGALES, Ariz. - Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, center-left, visits the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Nogales Placement Center with Governor Jan Brewer and Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino in Nogales, Ariz. on June 25, 2014.Barry Bahler / DHS

However, one major difference between the Obama and Trump administrations, recognized by most human rights advocates, is that the Trump administration has held individuals, including children, in detention for longer periods of time. 

The Trump administration has also taken legal steps to eliminate court orders restricting the period of time a child can be held in detention and what health or sanitary supplies the government is obligated to provide to those in immigrant detention.

The pack shines

Democratic presidential hopefuls New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gesture during the third Democratic primary debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.ROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

A lot of the hype coming into tonight was in having Biden, Warren and Sanders — the three front-runners — on the same stage. But the seven other candidates have been solid, at times taking up major chunks of the debate without a word from the top three.

Fact check: Klobuchar says three gun control bills are waiting 'on Mitch McConnell’s desk'

Klobuchar poked at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for inaction on gun control measures, saying that the Kentucky Republican has three bills on his desk right now: "Universal background checks, closing the Charleston loophole, and passing my bill to make sure domestic abusers don’t get AK-47s.”

This is true — but all three bills face an unclear, if not flat-out bleak, fate in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In February, the Democratic-controlled House passed a law closing the “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a firearm if a background check is not completed within three days. It’s a loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain the weapon he used to murder nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. 

In March, the House passed a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include buys made at gun shows, online and other private sales. And in April, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new language that would close the so-called boyfriend loophole. Under current law, it is illegal for spouses or ex-spouses who have been convicted of abuse or who are under a restraining order to buy a gun. But the law doesn’t apply to romantic partners who aren’t legally married.