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From taxes to court-packing: Outstanding questions that will haunt Trump and Biden in final debate

11 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/10/22/presidential-debate-questions-left-trump-and-biden-answer/3712214001/

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Joe Biden will face tens of millions of voters on the debate stage Thursday for the last time before Election Day, marking the last opportunity for both candidates to build momentum to catapult them into the final two weeks of the race. 

Trump and Biden will face off at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., for just the second time after a bruising first debate last month that did little to answer pressing questions facing both candidates. The pair were scheduled for a town hall-style debate on Oct. 15 but it was scrapped after the president balked at the debates commission’s decision to move it to a virtual event out of concern of the president’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis. The president refused to participate and both campaigns scheduled separate town halls instead. 

Thursday will be voters’ last chance to hear from Trump and Biden on a range of questions from the president’s tax records to the former vice president’s stance on expanding the Supreme Court. Here are seven outstanding questions the two will likely face heading into the debate:

Will Trump challenge the moderator?

Trump criticized the moderator of the first debate Sept. 29, Chris Wallace of Fox News, as “a total joke.”

Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, said after an NBC News town hall Oct. 15 that the president “soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate.”

The open question is whether Trump will attack the moderator during the final debate, Kristen Welker of NBC News. He criticized her Saturday, saying in a tweet “she’s always been terrible & unfair.” 

Trump renewed the criticism Monday after arriving in Arizona for two campaign rallies. He called Welker “a dyed-in-the-wool, radical-left Democrat.”

“It’s so unfair,” Trump told Fox and Friends on Tuesday. “It’s a stacked deck.”

Welker hasn’t commented. But a competitor on the White House beat, Kathryn Watson of CBS News, tweeted Saturday that “Kristen is one of the toughest, fairest reporters you’ll ever meet.”

Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor, tweeted Tuesday that “she’s not radical, she’s not a Democrat, she didn’t delete her entire account, she doesn’t scream her questions, and she’s a good journalist and a good person.”

Trump’s recent criticism came after the president complimented Welker while calling on her during a January news conference in Switzerland.

“They made a very wise decision,” Trump said.

What will Trump say about his tax returns?

A bombshell New York Times investigation into the president’s personal taxes showed he paid just $750 for the years 2016 and 2017 and nothing for several other years. The report showed that he is personally responsible for $400 million in loans that will come due within the next four years, raising questions about who he owes money to and whether it will conflict with his presidential duties. 

During last week’s town hall the president dismissed the report, saying “the numbers are all wrong” without offering specific details about what he found to be incorrect.

Trump, however, confirmed that he does owe $400 million but argued that it was a fraction of what he owns in property around the world.

“The amount of money – $400 million, is a peanut,” Trump said, arguing that his company is underleveraged. “What I’m saying is that it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth.”

The president has declined to release his tax returns, breaking with decades of tradition for presidential candidates. He cited an ongoing IRS review of his taxes as the reason, but there is no rule that prohibits him from doing so during an IRS investigation. He instead points to less detailed annual financial summaries required by law.

Trump has made more than $200 million from his myriad business interests in foreign countries since 2016, according to his two most recent personal financial disclosures on file with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics that were analyzed by OpenSecrets, a Washington, D.C. group that researches the influence of money in politics.

Given that the president’s various businesses have continued to operate normally while he has been in office this is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing. However, reporting from the New York Times on Trump’s taxes as well as from The Washington Post on the millions Trump has made from licensing his name to foreign real estate projects, suggests Trump has extensive ties to foreign business dealings unprecedented for a serving U.S. president.

OpenSecrets says Trump’s personal financial disclosures along with his refusal to release his tax returns raises questions, including ethical ones, about whether Trump’s foreign business empire has, directly and indirectly, profited from his White House role.

What will Biden say about son Hunter?

A story Oct. 14 in the New York Post accused Biden’s son, Hunter, of corruption based on his work as an adviser to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

But the story – based on material from a laptop that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, discovered – has come under fire for relying on questionable sources and documents.

A central point of the article refers to an email from Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, who thanked Hunter Biden for “giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent (sic) some time together.” If true, the claim would undercut Joe Biden’s repeated claims that he never spoke to his son about business dealings in Ukraine.

But the Biden campaign categorically denied a meeting ever happened. “They never had a meeting,” Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesman, told USA TODAY. “I’ve literally never heard of this guy in my life,” Amos Hochstein, a former Biden staffer, told Politico.

The FBI is investigating whether the story was Russian disinformation. But the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, told Fox Business on Monday that the emails weren’t connected to Russian disinformation.

The federal intelligence community determined Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a “clear preference” for Trump and to “denigrate” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“This whole smear on Joe Biden comes from the Kremlin,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the head of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN. “Giuliani is doing the president’s bidding.”

Two Republican-led Senate committees unveiled a report in September that found no evidence of wrongdoing or corrupt actions by the former vice president in connection with Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine.

But Trump called for Attorney General William Barr to appoint someone to investigate. “We’ve got to get the attorney general to act,” Trump told Fox and Friends on Tuesday.

Trump taunted Biden repeatedly about the laptop and the potential consequences for the campaign. “Joe Biden is a corrupt politician, and everybody knows it,” Trump said Sunday. “Laptop is devastating!” Trump said Monday.

Biden told reporters Friday he had no response to the New York Post story.

“I have no response,” Biden said. “Another smear campaign. Right up your alley.”

At the first presidential debate on Fox News, Trump charged that Hunter Biden was thrown out of the military for cocaine use and later paid millions in Ukraine and China without working. But Biden said his son wasn’t dishonorably discharged and that accusations against him had been debunked.

“My son like a lot of people at home had a drug problem,” Joe Biden said. “He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden on Jan. 6, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

Will Biden expand Supreme Court?

Trump moved quickly to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the Sept. 18 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Senate is expected to vote before the election on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination.

While Democrats have argued that whoever is elected Nov. 3 should choose the next justice, Republicans have accused Democrats of wanting to expand the nine-member court to dilute the influence of conservatives.

“They’re going to pack the Supreme Court,” Trump told a rally in Fort Myers, Fla., on Friday. “How important is it? Because he’s going to put on radical-left, crazy judges that will destroy your lives.”

Biden has refused to answer questions on the subject. He argued that his position would become the headline to distract from how Republicans are filling the seat.

At an ABC News town hall Oct. 15, Biden said he wasn’t a fan of expanding the court, but that he wanted to see how the process played out. He said he would announce his position before the Nov. 3 election.

“I’m not a fan,” Biden said. “I’m open to considering what happens from that point on.”

Republicans have seized on the refusal to answer the question from both Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Vice President Mike Pence said Harris never answered during their debate Oct. 8.

“If you haven’t figured it out yet, the straight answer is, they are going to pack the Supreme Court,” Pence said.

Vice presidential debate: Kamala Harris and Mike Pence spar over healthcare

Will Trump commit to a peaceful transfer of power? 

After repeatedly refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, Trump conceded to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that he would do so if it was an “honest election.”

But the president has continued to sow doubt on the election process as he trails Biden in polling nationally and in key battleground states, raising speculation that he would refuse to accept the results should he lose in November. 

“The answer is yes, I will. But I want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else,” Trump said before pointing to unsubstantiated claims that ballots were thrown out. 

Trump has repeatedly argued both in interviews and at rallies that the results will likely be sullied by an expected surge of absentee ballots that he claims – without evidence – could lead to widespread voter fraud. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray has said his agency has not seen evidence of widespread voting fraud while election experts have pushed back on the president’s unfounded claims and misleading statements about mail-in voting.

The president dismissed claims that he’s laying the groundwork to question the election results, telling Guthrie that he “absolutely” wants a peaceful transfer of power but that he wants the results to be “clean.” 

“But ideally, I don’t want to transfer because I want to win,” he said. 

More:We analyzed a conservative foundation’s catalog of absentee ballot fraud: It’s not a 2020 election threat

Amanda Renteria, the former political director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, said the debate is a chance for the president to offer guidance on what to do if he loses. 

“You’re beginning to see him shift into this narrative about what’s going to happen if this doesn’t go his way, and from an American standpoint, that’s a little bit scary that he’ll use this debate to tell them what to do post-Election Day,” she said. 

The question also extends to Biden and whether he will accept the results if he loses or what his leadership would look like in trying to unite a highly polarized country should he win in November, Renteria added. 

Will Biden settle the debate on fracking?

Hydraulic fracking, a technique in which water, sand or chemicals are injected into the earth to fracture formations and loosen up oil, has been a sore spot for Biden throughout his campaign. 

Trump continues to insist that Biden has proposed to abolish fracking – a politically sensitive topic in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania – even as the former vice president has repeatedly pledged not to do so. 

The president, looking to shore up support in the Keystone State as well as Texas, went as far as to play a video that distorted Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris’ stance on fracking. The video, which Trump showed at a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, spliced together clips of Biden and Harris discussing fracking during the Democratic primary race. 

“This is an original Donald Trump Broadway play,” Trump said before playing the video. “First time I have ever pulled it out. I had it done specifically for the people of Erie because you guys like energy. You like being energy independent.”

Biden has proposed banning new gas and oil permits only on federal lands. The majority of oil and gas does not come from federal lands. 

During his town hall with ABC News last week, Biden again vowed not to ban fracking but said  “it has to be managed very, very well.” He added the country would eventually have to wean itself off fossil fuels in part by ending billions in federal subsidies on oil and gas operations.

Instead, he pitched the virtues of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and electric cars and the millions of jobs he believes it would create. And he criticized Trump for his embrace of fossil fuels and repeated claims that human-caused climate change is a “hoax.”

Vice President Mike Pence also pushed Harris on the issue during the vice presidential debate by pointing out that she pledged to abolish fracking during her presidential bid.

“Joe Biden will not end fracking, he has been very clear about that,” Harris said.

Will Trump address the recent spike in COVID-19? 

In recent rallies and interviews, President Donald Trump has continued to claim the nation is “rounding the corner” in its battle with COVID-19. The president often points to his own speedy recovery from the virus as a sign the pandemic is waning and he has pressed states where he campaigns to relax social distancing mandates and reopen schools. 

But Trump has not directly addressed a spike in infections slamming vast swaths of the USA since his three-night stay at Walter Reed National Medical Center this month. The latest surge in cases, which coincides with cooler weather, has hit parts of the west particularly hard. A USA TODAY analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University shows 15 states set records for new COVID-19 cases over the past week while two states – Montana and South Dakota – set a record for number of deaths in a week.

Hospitals are again reaching capacity in states like Indiana, Utah and Wisconsin.

NBC’s Savannah Guthrie questioned Trump at length during an Oct. 15 televised town hall about his own fight with coronavirus, his personal mask-wearing and whether he was tested on the day of the last debate with Biden – another question Trump has been fuzzy on (“I probably did,” he told Guthrie). But Trump has not directly addressed the latest increase in cases or how he squares that increase with his assertion that “you can’t let this continue to go on with the lockdowns.”

“We are heading into a phase of exponential, explosive spread. We know this because we’ve been there before,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who was previously Baltimore’s Health Commissioner. “It’s a very reasonable question to be asking the president: Why are you saying that we’re rounding the corner…it’s this irresponsible?”

Wen said she would have questions for Biden as well, including how he would bring the country together – and bring governors on board – with maintaining mask requirements and other efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic when the nation is so polarized over basic public health science.

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