Halfway through the second and final debate of the 2020 presidential campaign on Thursday night, Donald Trump and Joe Biden engaged in a remarkable exchange: The two men went back and forth, each accusing the other of blatant financial corruption, mostly having to do with shady dealings in foreign countries.
Without any fact checker on site to hold Trump or Biden accountable for their statements, any unwitting viewer—say, your average, undecided, non-ideological swing state voter—could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing a debate between the two most corrupt candidates in American political history, such was the incendiary nature of the allegations being flung across the stage.
But all it would take is a little digging to recognize that most of Biden’s claims against Trump were based in factual reporting and raise serious questions about the integrity of a President who has violated numerous ethical norms during his time in office.
Trump’s accusations against Biden, meanwhile, bore the hallmarks of a politician whose relationship to the truth has proven tenuous at best: more hot air than smoking gun and characteristic of the propagandized, right-wing news environment that envelops the President and huge swaths of his base.
It all kicked off when Biden slammed Trump for his soft stance against foreign governments who are “interfering with American sovereignty”—namely, efforts by Russia and Iran to interfere with the U.S. election, as well as Russia’s bounty program against American troops in Afghanistan. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think the President has said anything to Putin about it,” Biden said of the Russian president who Trump has been reluctant to criticize. “Any country that interferes with us will, in fact, pay a price.”
That set Trump off on a line of attack against Biden and his son, Hunter, who has recently been the subject of New York Post reports alleging unsavory dealings with foreign entities in Ukraine and China—articles based on evidence so dubious that at least one journalist at the Post refused to put his name on them.
The President repeated an unsubstantiated claim that Biden “got $3.5 million from Russia”—referring to unproven allegations that a firm co-founded by Hunter Biden once received a payment in that amount from Russian businesswoman Yelena Baturina as part of a “consultancy agreement.” Trump also brought up Hunter’s well-documented ties to Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company whose board he once sat on, despite no evidence of wrongdoing involving Hunter Biden or his father. (It was Trump’s urging of Ukrainian authorities to investigate the Bidens’ ties to Burisma that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment late last year.)
Such is the Trump campaign’s infatuation with Hunter Biden and his business dealings that, before the debate, it organized a press conference for Anthony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden’s who alleges that the former vice president was involved with his son’s Chinese ventures. On Thursday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that it had reviewed corporate records that show no involvement by Joe Biden in any such dealings.
On the debate stage, Biden was quick to brush off the President’s attacks, declaring in no uncertain terms that he has “not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life.” And he was happy to return fire—bringing up the President’s “secret bank account in China,” which was revealed for the first time this week in a New York Times report.
Unlike Trump, Biden’s allegations against the President have their basis in fact—specifically, vetted claims, made by a publication of record, which were confirmed by the President’s own attorney. And Biden was also right to note that his own financial dealings are significantly more transparent than Trump’s, as he has released “22 years of my tax returns” to the public while Trump has yet to voluntarily disclose “a single, solitary year.”
“Release your tax returns, or stop talking about corruption,” Biden shot at the President.
Trump, for his part, professed he has “many bank accounts, and they’re all over the place”—not the most convincing defense for any public servant attempting to dispel allegations of financial conflicts. More importantly, Trump lied in declaring that the Chinese bank account in question “was closed in 2015”; in fact, the Times’ reporting indicates that the account is still open, as confirmed by Trump’s own lawyer.
Still, the President was happy to act as though his opponent was the truly corrupt one on the stage Thursday night. Alluding to special counsel Robert Mueller’s costly investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016, Trump insisted to Biden: “I guarantee if I spend $1 million on you, I could find plenty wrong.”
But Biden, speaking from a position of fact, would not be moved. “The guy who got in trouble with Ukraine was this guy, trying to bribe the Ukrainian government to say something bad about me,” Biden said of the President. “The only guy who’s made money in China is this guy.”
More politics coverage from Fortune:
- What business needs from the 2020 election
- How to bet on the presidential election—and why prediction markets might be better than polls
- Elijah Cummings has a message for voters “from beyond the grave”
- Facts aren’t the most powerful tool in the event of a contested election
- What the Democrats could prioritize if they win the presidency and both chambers of Congress
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