With the 2020 presidential election just 15 days away, the Smoke Signal is covering the three debates of the election season — two presidential and one vice presidential, as well as the now-canceled second presidential debate — in a series of comprehensive recaps.
Click the links below to jump directly to each recap.
Important Takeaways from the First Presidential Debate
*Corrected Text October 19 at 11:50 p.m.*
Discussing hot topics such as the Supreme Court, race relations, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican nominee President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden took to the stage to appeal to voters on September 29.
The first presidential debate of 2020 boasted more than 7.3 million viewers, and was filled with constant interruptions, exaggerated facts, and immature insults — making it difficult to glean the candidates’ beliefs, ideas, or platforms. To make the debate more digestible, the Smoke Signal brings you a complete guide to the first presidential debate.
The debate commenced with a question from moderator and Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace about the candidates’ stances on the constitutionality and ethics of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Trump made it clear he believes it is both the right and responsibility of the Republican Party to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg quickly. In retort, Biden emphasized that the American people should be the ones to choose the next Supreme Court Justice and that the president-elect should make the appointment after the election.
Notably absent from Biden’s response was his stance on court-packing, when a president increases the number of justices on the Supreme Court to shift the majority to either liberal or conservative. While Biden attempted to point out the stakes of Barrett’s appointment, referring to her past comments on repealing Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, Trump interrupted repeatedly, asking “Will you pack the court?” — prompting the now viral reply from Biden: “Will you shut up, man?”
Both candidates chose to highlight their opponent’s inability to deal with a pandemic, rather than their own plans to solve this healthcare crisis.
Biden confronted Trump’s “It is what it is” statement, about the rate of deaths, as it demonstrated Trump’s illicit priorities. In rebuttal, Trump brought up the failures of the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, which although occurred during Biden’s vice presidency, wasn’t solely to be blamed on Biden.
As the conversation shifted to the nation’s economic state, Biden falsely claimed that Trump’s idea of the V-shaped economic recovery is resulting in only the top 1% getting richer, while causing middle-class citizens to suffer. Wallace concluded the discussion on economic recovery by bringing up the long-awaited rumors about the $750 Trump paid in federal income taxes. Opposing what the New York Times reported earlier that week, Trump claimed he paid millions and could prove it by showing his tax returns.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and social unrest across the nation in recent months, Wallace asked each candidate why voters should trust them to deal with race issues.
Trump claimed he had done more for Black Americans than any past president, not including Lincoln. However, later in the debate, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists, saying, “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.” When questioned about his decision to end racial sensitivity training, Trump said it was racist and taught people to hate their country. Despite these supposed claims to address racial issues, Biden reiterated that his decision to run for president was based off of Trump’s inadequate response to the racially motivated protests and rallies in Charlottesville three years ago.
Tackling their records in office, Biden accused Trump of being “Putin’s puppy,” for not taking enough action against the Russian administration for placing bounties on US soldiers’ heads in Afghanistan and for calling US soldiers “losers” and “suckers.” Meanwhile, Trump continued to interrupt with jabs at Hunter Biden, prompting Biden to say, “Well, it’s hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, this person.”
Pivoting to the topic of climate change, Trump emphasized forest management, his success in pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, and the Billion Tree Project launched in Pakistan. He defended disbanding the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, claiming it drove up energy prices. Biden discussed his plan to turn the federal fleet completely electric, weatherize buildings, and rejoin the Paris Agreement, also known as the Paris Climate Accords. He repeatedly tried to show that converting to a renewable energy infrastructure under his plan would not lead to job losses. Throughout the discussion, Trump synonymized Biden’s plan with the Green New Deal and said that Biden’s plan would remove airplanes, two-car systems, and “the cows.”
As the debate came to an end, Biden said, “Show up and vote,” staring straight into the camera. In his closing statements, he tried to instill confidence in the election process and the integrity of mail-in voting. Trump took a starkly different approach; he repeatedly insinuated that major voter fraud would exist, with mail-in ballots floating in rivers, dumped in trash cans, and sold by mail carriers. At the conclusion of the debate, Biden said that he would accept the results — no matter the winner. Trump did not make any such promise.
Key Moments from the Vice Presidential Debate
On October 7, incumbent Vice President Mike Pence and CA Sen. Kamala Harris faced off in the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 presidential election season.
Harris is former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate and the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee, while Pence is running alongside incumbent President Donald Trump on behalf of the Republican Party.
The debate was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was moderated by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page.
Following the news of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis on October 2, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) implemented stricter prevention protocols at the debate, including plexiglass shields between the candidates, who were seated 12 feet apart.
Along with subjects such as racial justice and climate change, the pandemic was a hot topic at the night’s debate with both candidates leveraging the opportunity to criticize the opposing party’s response to the coronavirus.
Harris pointedly accused the Trump administration of withholding crucial information on the virus from the American people, citing a recently-released interview between Trump and journalist Bob Woodward in which Trump admitted to downplaying the threat. “[This is] the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said.
In response, Pence defended Trump’s approach to the pandemic. “President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done … he suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world,” Pence said. This statement is not entirely true — although Trump placed several restrictions on travel between the US and China, he did not ban it outright.
Unlike during the first presidential debate on September 29, this vice presidential debate saw less cross-talk and personal insults — for the most part.
During one of Harris’ allotted two-minute responses, Pence tried to weigh in, but Harris pushed back, calling him out for interrupting her.
Harris, who would be the country’s first female, Black, or South Asian Vice President if elected, was later lauded on social media for this action by women who shared similar stories of being overlooked in professional settings.
Both candidates also dodged several questions, including the issue of presidential health. As both Biden and Trump are in their 70s, and in part due to Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, the moderator posed a question asking if either pair had discussed a plan in the event that the president became unfit to serve. However, neither candidate could provide a clear answer in their responses.
Harris also deflected a question from the moderator, and later Pence, on whether or not the Democratic party would “pack the [Supreme] Court” with more justices if Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was appointed, a question that Biden also avoided answering in the first presidential debate.
Overall, Pence’s strategy hinged largely on painting the Biden-Harris team as radical leftists and reiterating Trump’s previous statements, while Harris characterized the Trump administration as lacking in leadership and projected Biden as a candidate with a large backing. “We probably have one of the broadest coalitions of folks that you’ve ever seen in a presidential race. Of course, we have the support of Democrats, but also independents and Republicans,” Harris said.
Despite the successes and pitfalls of both candidates, a fly was crowned the night’s winner on social media after landing on Pence’s head during the debate. The unexpected guest arrived while he was answering a question on race and law enforcement.
Less than 10 minutes after the debate ended, the Biden campaign released custom merchandise on the campaign’s website for a flyswatter.
Reactions to the debate varied across party lines. Conservative pundit and Fox News host Sean Hannity eviscerated Harris’ debate performance. “At times, she could do a little more than make these awkward smiles and just shake her head and, clearly, she blatantly lied over and over again,” Hannity said in reference to Harris’ stance on not ending fracking.
On the other side of the spectrum, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, one of the four members of a progressive group of Democratic congresswomen nicknamed the “Squad,” attacked Pence for avoiding several questions during the debate on Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and a peaceful transfer of power. “Pence didn’t come to debate, he came to play dodgeball,” she said.
The public’s reaction mostly favored Harris. According to an October 8 study conducted by nonpartisan organizations FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, 69% of viewers surveyed thought Harris had a good performance, compared to 60% who thought that Pence had a good performance.
On October 9, the CPD announced the cancellation of the second presidential debate after the Trump campaign refused to agree to a virtual debate and the Biden campaign refused to consider adding another debate at a later date.
At the time of publication, the third and final presidential debate on October 22 in Nashville, TN, is still on as scheduled in person.
Candidates Replace Second Presidential Debate with Town Hall Meetings
On October 9, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced the cancellation of the second presidential debate scheduled to take place on October 15 in Miami, FL between Republican nominee President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump, the incumbent running in the 2020 presidential election, tested positive for COVID-19 on October 2, two days after the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio. However, the President and the First Lady had already begun their quarantine on October 1, when Hope Hicks, Senior Counselor to the President, tested positive after traveling with Trump to the first debate and multiple political rallies.
To circumvent problems caused by quarantine regulations, the CPD planned to host a virtual second presidential debate. However, Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual debate with Biden further complicated the execution of this historic political tradition. “That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate, it’s ridiculous,” Trump said.
After the CPD rejected his campaign’s advocacy for the second presidential debate to be delayed, it eventually announced a few days later that the debate was officially canceled. To make up for this, Biden hosted a ‘town hall’ meeting with ABC News on October 15 where voters could ask questions virtually with some at the venue to ask in person. Trump held one the same night with NBC News and was joined by a socially distanced group of people who asked him about his stances on a variety of topics.
Biden’s town hall meeting was moderated by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, who quickly opened the floor to questions from Pennsylvania voters whose concerns ranged from lax COVID-19 policies to the US law enforcement’s injustices against the Black population.
One voter, while questioning Biden on his plans for Black communities, raised the issue of Biden’s controversial “you ain’t Black” statement, which Biden had said in a May interview with The Breakfast Club to young Black voters who had not yet chosen between him and Trump. Biden responded with economic plans and educational reform that he claimed would provide Black communities with foundational support.
As the meeting progressed, Biden provided voters with a much-awaited explanation of his stance on fracking and the handling of Middle Eastern peace deals, even briefly praising Trump for orchestrating the Israel-UAE peace agreement. He concluded the town hall meeting by expressing his compliance with any rules that the CPD sets for the final presidential debate on October 22.
Over on NBC News in Miami, Trump kicked off his town hall by inviting voters to ask questions on his campaign. The moderator, NBC News’ Today Show co-host Savannah Guthrie, was quick to fact-check the President on his answers, including the statistic he cited of about 85% of mask-wearers contracting COVID-19.
She also brought up his irresponsibility when retweeting offensive tweets. “You’re the president, not someone’s crazy uncle” Guthrie said to him. Compared to the chaos of the first presidential debate, Trump’s town hall allowed him less freedom to avoid questions and evade commenting on controversial topics such as white supremacy and his taxes. However, the President did highlight the main points of his campaign near the end of the meeting, including how the economy has been increasingly stable under his guidance.
Although the idea of a virtual debate may seem unprecedented, the very first presidential debate — held in 1960 between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon — was conducted with Kennedy participating from New York and Nixon joining him from 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. This remote debate, which was recorded and televised by the ABC News broadcast network, allowed the candidates to interact with each in real-time. Audiences at home could view both nominees debating on a split-screen on their TVs.
The new format suggests that the third and final presidential debate, scheduled for October 22 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., will likely be the last opportunity for the candidates to debate each other before the November 3 general election.
Highlights of the Final Trump-Biden Presidential Debate
On October 22, Democratic Nominee former Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Nominee President Donald Trump took to the stage in a socially distanced manner for the second and final presidential debate of the 2020 election.
The debate, moderated by NBC News White House Correspondent Kristen Welker, took place in Nashville, TN. It also featured a much-anticipated mute button which was controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Although the button was used sparingly, the threat of the mute seemed to restrain the candidate’s speeches. This, coupled with Welker’s ability to control and steer the conversation, made for what viewers remarked was a more civil and intelligible debate.
Besides reiterating major topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate also delved deeper into the two candidates’ financial histories.
Trump dubbed Biden a “corrupt politician,” accusing Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, of accepting $3.5 million from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, Russia. Although this has been brought up repeatedly, it has yet to be definitively proven.
Biden shot back with reports that Trump had a bank account in China, a country that he has previously expressed disdain for, and that he still had yet to release his tax returns to the public. Trump claimed, as he has in the past, that he was unable to release them due to auditing by the Internal Revenue System .
Notably absent from both Trump and Biden’s arguments were their stances and policy plans for race relations. Although Welker asked both candidates to speak directly to the African Americans watching the debate, both squandered this opportunity, opting to focus on debating whether Trump had previously said that he was Abraham Lincoln or if he had achieved as much as Abraham Lincoln.
Trump also contradicted himself multiple times, first claiming that he was the least racist person in the room, then expressing his disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The debate also discussed the separation of immigrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border by the Trump administration, an act that Biden described as “criminal.” Trump defended the separation policy, asserting that children are often brought to the US by “coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels,” while offering no plans to reunite the 545 currently separated children back with their parents. Trump also pointed out that the metal cages that were holding children at the border were built during the Obama administration.
When the debate turned to the issue of climate, candidates spent more time on personal digs rather than substantial policy.
While Biden reiterated his plan to invest into green infrastructure, he mocked Trump’s previous statement in April at the National Republican Congressional Committee dinner where he said that wind power would cause cancer. This prompted an immediate response from Trump, who said, “I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds.”
In this debate, Trump was notably calmer with much fewer interruptions. At the time of airing, voting had already begun so many Americans had already cast their ballot, and this debate may not have been able to shift voters’ opinions of either candidate by very much. At the time of publication, Biden leads in the polls with 8.4 points over Trump, a trend that is historically unlikely to change in the remaining week of voting. After months of debates, campaigning, and speeches, the much-anticipated results will reveal themselves soon.
Cover Graphic by Web Editor Mahek Bhora