Candidates Skirt Military and Veterans Issues in Debate Focused on COVID-19, Ethics

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate
President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden gave only glimpses Thursday night of how they would take on the role of commander in chief over the next four years as they leveled personal attacks at each other in a final debate focused on domestic issues.

They did not comment upon, nor were they asked about, how they would improve health care and benefits for the nation's veterans, in what turned out to be a far less contentious debate than their combative first encounter in September.

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In a brief reference to the military at the start of the debate, Trump hailed the role of Gen. Gus Perna, head of the Army's Materiel Command, as chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed in preparing for the speedy delivery of COVID-19 vaccines once they are developed.

"This is a very easy distribution for him," he said of Perna. "As soon as we have the vaccine, he's ready to go."

Trump said safe and effective vaccines could be available "within weeks," but later amended that to say it is more likely they will be ready by the end of the year.

Biden responded that a vaccine would likely not be ready for all Americans until the middle of next year and charged that Trump had failed the nation in letting the virus spread.

He cited the U.S. death toll of more than 220,000, adding, "Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president."

In the extended back-and-forth between the candidates on other issues, moderator Kristen Welker, NBC's White House correspondent, never got to the "national security" topic that had been on the agenda, but Trump and Biden traded barbs on North Korea, Russia and foreign influence on U.S. elections.

Trump charged that Biden and the Obama administration "left me a mess" on North Korea, but said he had avoided war by developing a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Biden said Trump had nothing to show after three meetings with Kim.

Trump insisted that he had avoided a war with North Korea that could have killed "millions" if nuclear weapons were used. "We have a good relationship," he added.

Biden shot back: "That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded [Europe]. Come on."

He called Kim an international "thug" who recently unveiled a new and larger intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.

Biden bristled at Trump's charges that he and his family had profited from his son Hunter's dealings with China.

"They were paying you a lot of money, and they probably still are," Trump said in seeking to set up a new line of attack against his rival.

Biden responded that he "had not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life," and called on Trump to "release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption."

When asked about attempts by Russia and Iran to influence the upcoming election, Biden said that as president he would "make it clear that they will pay a price. They're interfering with our sovereignty. I don't know why [Trump] hasn't said a word" to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump suggested that Putin wants Biden to win "because there's been nobody tougher than me [on Russia]."

The 90-minute debate at the Curb Event Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, had the candidates at lecterns separated by 12 feet and competing under an unprecedented rule imposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Over Trump's objections, the commission ordered each candidate's microphone put on mute for the first two minutes of his opponent's response to opening questions posed by Welker.

The rule was put in place after the first debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29 descended into personal attacks as Trump battled with the moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace, who unsuccessfully tried to rein in the president's constant overtalk and interruptions.

Two days after the first debate, Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, and the second debate was canceled by the commission after Trump objected to the proposed virtual format.

During the first debate, Trump guests in the audience mostly did not wear face masks. However, the Nashville event had a rule that those who refused to wear a face mask would not be allowed in the arena.

The first lady, who has not campaigned with her husband since testing positive, was in the audience Thursday night wearing a mask.

The six topics for the final debate were: Fighting COVID-19, American Families, Race in America, Climate Change, National Security and Leadership, but both candidates veered off the format to score points and go on the attack.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

Related: First Presidential Debate Heavy on Insults, Light on Veteran and Military Issues

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