The Morning Dispatch: Goodness Gracious, a Useful Debate!

Happy Friday! We will miss you, presidential debate season. Only 31 months (give or take) until the first ones of the 2024 cycle!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 74,040 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 6.5 percent of the 1,139,419 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,010 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 223,000. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 41,010 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

  • All 12 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Thursday to advance Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court; all 10 Democrats on the committee boycotted the vote in protest. The 12-0 vote sets the stage for a full Senate confirmation next week.

  • Initial unemployment claims fell by 55,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 787,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Slightly more than 23 million people claimed some form of unemployment benefits during the week ending October 3.

  • According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people have died in Nigeria over the past two weeks amid protests related to police brutality.

  • In a “60 Minutes” interview set to air Sunday, Joe Biden said he plans to create a “bipartisan commission of scholars” to provide him “recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it’s getting out of whack.” Demand Justice, a liberal group looking to make the judiciary more progressive, called Biden’s proposal a “punt” and said it “runs the risk of stalling momentum for serious reform.”

  • Following up on the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s ex-business partner Tony Bobulinski and a 2017 planned Chinese energy venture, the Wall Street Journal reports that Joe Biden himself had no role in the endeavor. “The venture—set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign—never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”

  • The antiviral drug remdesivir became the first therapeutic to receive full FDA approval for treating COVID-19 on Thursday. The antiviral had been authorized for use on an emergency basis since the spring.

  • Walmart preemptively sued the federal government on Thursday, in expectation of a legal challenge from the Justice Department alleging that the retail giant’s pharmacists have a track record for filling suspicious opioid prescriptions.

An Actual Debate!

Several weeks ago, only the fiercest of Trump loyalists were able to walk away from the first general election debate and say with a straight face that the president came out on top. That was not the case last night. 

It wasn’t a blowout by any means, and reasonable people can—and will—disagree about who “won,” but the president turned in a much stronger performance the second time around. Still, Joe Biden is nursing a 10-point lead in national polls with just 11 days of voting left. His campaign will treat anything even remotely resembling a draw as a job well done. Let’s break down a few of the developments that might actually matter.

  1. Hunter’s emails fell flat in primetime.

In the week since the New York Post published its first story about Hunter Biden’s purported hard drive, the Trump campaign had been building suspense over how the president would deploy his newfound information in the debate. Advisers signaled to media outlets all week that the president would bring up Hunter, and Team Trump even trotted out Anthony Bobulinski—ex-Hunter Biden business associate and “guy-nobody-had-ever-heard-of-26 hours-ago”—in Nashville as their guest of honor.

But when it came time to make the case—in front of tens of millions of people—Trump whiffed. 

“All of the emails, the emails, the horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family. And Joe, you were vice-president when some of this was happening, and it should have never happened. And I think you owe an explanation to the American people. Why is it—somebody just had a news conference a little while ago who was essentially supposed to work with you and your family, but what he said was damning.”

Debate moderator Kristen Welker asked Joe Biden to respond, and the former vice president denied the charges, pivoting to Trump’s tax returns. “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said. “I have released all of my tax returns, 22 years, go look at them. You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. … Release your tax return or stop talking about corruption.”

Trump tried to bring up the charges one or two more times throughout the night. “They’re calling it the laptop from hell,” he said, and called Biden “the big man” in reference to some of the alleged messages from the hard drive. But Trump provided no context or explanation for viewers who have not been following the saga as obsessively as he has been. “They even have a statement that we have to give 10 percent to the big man,” Trump said, looking at Biden. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not, but you’re the big man, I think.”

With eleven days left of voting, there’s always a possibility another shoe drops in this saga. But last night was Trump’s last best chance to get the story in front of tens of millions of Americans and drive down Biden’s favorability rating—and he failed to make a compelling case.   

  1. Biden didn’t escape the night gaffe-free.

For much of the summer, the Trump campaign focused its efforts on painting Joe Biden as a doddering tool of the radical left. “This guy doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t know where the hell he is,” Trump told a crowd of Pennsylvanians in September, referring to his opponent. “This guy doesn’t know he’s alive.”

The tactic was risky, and after two debates, we can pretty safely say it backfired. The upside was there: If Biden did have a momentary mental lapse or lose his train of thought during a debate, it would have played into a narrative the electorate was already primed to believe.

But he didn’t. Biden made it through 180 minutes of nationally televised questioning (270 if you count last week’s town hall) without any major mental hiccups (or, as Jonah might say, yelling “get the squirrels off of me!”). None of his debate performances were Churchillian, but Biden easily cleared the very, very low bar Trump and his media allies set for him.

One of the more memorable lines from the night came as the former vice president pushed back on the second insinuation: That he is a Trojan Horse for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the more progressive wing of his party. “He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said after Trump brought up Sanders. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.”

At one point, Biden even appeared to throw former President Obama under the bus. Asked by Welker why the Obama administration failed to deliver immigration reform over the course of eight years, Biden admitted “we made a mistake.”

“It took too long to get it right,” he said, before adding, “I’ll be President of the United States, not Vice President of the United States.”

Still, Biden was known for his gaffes even before he reached his late 70s, and he made a few of them last night, most notably in the climate change section of the debate. Pressed by Trump for his current stance on fracking—a crucial industry in Pennsylvania, the election’s potential tipping-point state—Biden asserted that “I never said I oppose fracking,” and challenged Trump to “show the tape” of him doing so. The Trump campaign was happy to oblige:

A few minutes later, Trump asked Biden if he would close down the oil industry, to which Biden responded he would “transition from the oil industry, yes.” He added that “it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time,” and that he’d “stop giving [the oil industry] federal subsidies.” 

Immediately after the debate, a handful of congressional Democrats representing oil-producing areas distanced themselves from the former vice president’s comments. Biden himself tried to clean up the remark speaking with reporters at the airport after the debate. “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he said, according to pool reports. “It will not be gone for (inaudible) probably 2050.”

  1. Kristen Welker’s moderation excelled.

Going into Thursday’s debate, avoiding a repeat performance of last time was a top priority for almost everyone involved. In the first debate, President Trump’s incessant interrupting and the name calling from both candidates was embarrassing for the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the campaigns, and the country—all at once. Moderator Chris Wallace said he “never been through anything like this” and called it a “missed opportunity.”

In the intervening weeks, the second debate was canceled after the CPD decreed it virtual and Trumped back out, the would-be moderator of that second debate was suspended by C-SPAN for lying about a tweet he sent to former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, and the CPD announced it was implementing a mute button for the final debate. Trump preemptively attacked Kristen Welker as a “dyed-in-the-wool radical-left Democrat” and “terrible & unfair.”

Well, lo and behold: Welker did a great job. Even Trump admitted as much: “By the way, so far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say.”

From the coronavirus, to national security, to immigration, to climate change, to race, Welker asked tough and smart questions, and, for the most part, got answers to them. Unlike the first debate, the two candidates’ policy differences—not just their stylistic differences—were on full display.

Trump made his case about needing to learn to live with COVID-19 and open up our schools and our nation. Biden argued for the need to bail out small businesses so they can afford to open safely. Trump touted his record of delivering for African Americans (“Nobody has done more for the black community than Donald Trump,” he said, “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception”) with criminal justice reform, prison reform, opportunity zones, and HBCU funding. Biden defended his record on the 1994 crime bill and criticized Trump’s harsh racial rhetoric. Trump derided Biden as a “typical politician.” Biden called Trump “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” saying he “pours fuel on every single racist fire” and “has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”

Polling shows there are remarkably few undecided voters out there—and that that’s been the case for months. A large chunk of debate viewers are high-information partisans whose minds have long been made up. But the remaining undecideds who watched last night’s affair should, one way or another, be undecided no more. The two candidates clearly laid out two competing paths for America. It’s in voters’ hands now which one we choose.

Trump’s Campaign Finance Woes

In last night’s debate, President Trump made a bold claim about the state of his campaign. “We don’t need money. We have plenty of money,” he said. “In fact, we beat Hillary Clinton with a tiny fraction of the money.” While it is true that Clinton’s 2016 campaign ended up costing about twice what Trump’s did, you wouldn’t get the sense Trump “doesn’t need money” if you were subscribed to his campaign’s email list.

“You’ve always been one of his strongest defenders, which is why we were surprised to see you didn’t step up to help us reach our End-of-Quarter Goal,” reads one email. “It’s going to take EVERY Patriot stepping up if we want to CRUSH Sleepy Joe and Phony Kamala’s dreams of turning America into a BIG GOVERNMENT SOCIALIST Nation. The stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines right now.”

“With the Election only 25 days away, the LIES from the Democrats and their Fake News friends are at a level we’ve never seen before,” another says, switching between all-caps, bold, underlined, and italic fonts. “They’re NEVER going to stop, which is why my father is counting on YOUR support.” The email promises a “LIMITED-TIME … 800%-MATCH.” But it’s only for “a few TOP supporters, like YOU, Friend. Do not share this.”

“My father invited you to become an Official 2020 Trump Diamond Member – are you going to accept?” asks a third. “My father will be reviewing the membership list soon and I know he’ll be looking for your name. Make sure he sees it by joining NOW.”

If you haven’t already guessed, these Trump campaign fundraising emails are coming—at least in name—from the president’s adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. The duo have combined to send supporters at least 35 different appeals this month alone. And nearly all of them involve hitting up Trump fans for campaign cash. “What you decide to do today will have an impact on our country for years to come,” Don Jr. wrote earlier this week. “Please contribute ANY AMOUNT IMMEDIATELY to become a Presidential Debate Member and have your name broadcast LIVE during the FINAL Presidential Debate.”

But the president’s sons haven’t demonstrated the same sense of urgency with their own pocketbooks. Based on publicly available Federal Election Commission (FEC) data as of September 30, Eric had not contributed to his father’s 2020 campaign. Don Jr. gave $5,000 to America First Action—an aligned super PAC—in October 2017, but has not donated any money to the re-election campaign itself. In-kind contributions to political campaigns are also required to be disclosed to the FEC, and nothing shows up for either Trump.

This thriftiness comes in sharp contrast with the 2012 cycle, when Eric and Don Jr. gave $75,000 and $72,500 to the Romney Victory PAC, respectively. In 2007 and 2008, they donated thousands of dollars to the Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain presidential campaigns.

Presented with this information yesterday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign declined to comment.

With less than two weeks until Election day, the Trump campaign is being considerably outraised and outspent by its Democratic counterpart. The Trump re-election campaign committee entered October with just $63.1 million cash on hand; the Biden campaign had $177.3 million in the bank.

This cash crunch has led the president’s campaign to pull television ads in key swing states to free up its budget, while Biden has extended his reach into longtime Republican strongholds like Texas. The former vice president also ran a national ad during the World Series on Tuesday costing an estimated $4 million.

Trump himself said in early September that he would cut a check to his own campaign if necessary. Bloomberg reported he was considering a $100 million infusion. “Like I did in the 2016 Primaries, if more money is needed,” Trump tweeted, “I will put it up!” 

His campaign would tell you it’s needed—but to date there’s been no cash from the president. After spending about $66 million of his own money during his 2016 bid for the presidency, Trump has—as of September 30—chipped in about $8,000 of his own money this time around. He raised $10 million at a Newport Beach fundraiser in California last weekend, and billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson ponied up $75 million this fall. But CNBC reports that many on Wall Street “no longer consider President Donald Trump a worthy investment,” noting that finance industry contributions to his campaign dropped from $20 million in 2016 to $13 million this year. 

Instead, CNBC adds, “records show that these GOP megadonors have put their money toward efforts to help Republican Senate or House candidates.”

Worth Your Time

  • Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the United States military was providing “limited support” to the Taliban, although the extent of that support remained unknown to the public. “In reality, even as its warplanes have struck the Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan,” writes Wesley Morgan in the Washington Post, “the U.S. military has been quietly helping the Taliban to weaken the Islamic State in its Konar stronghold and keep more of the country from falling into the hands of the group, which—unlike the Taliban—the United States views as an international terrorist organization with aspirations to strike America and Europe.” Read Morgan’s piece for more about the Joint Special Operations Command counterterrorism task force and its active efforts to help one US enemy in its battle against another.

  • Jane Coaston—friend of the pod—has new piece at Vox assessing the state of the race: “Trump’s presidential campaign is Too Online.” She starts by referencing President Trump waxing poetic before an Iowa crowd last week about former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, and how he finally resigned from the Department of Justice. But “Iowans are likely more concerned about rising numbers of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and a potential surge in unemployment,” Coaston writes. “After five years of claiming that Democrats took their cues from Twitter and were untethered from the realities of American life, the Trump campaign has spent significant time focusing on issues that are most of interest to conservatives who spend hours of each day on Twitter, and thus believe that the issues discussed on that platform (or even the machinations of the platform itself) are of critical importance to every American.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thanks to the nearly 4,000 of you who tuned in to our post-debate Dispatch Live last night! If you missed it—or want to relive it—you can watch a replay here. And stay tuned for details on our plans for election night.

  • What’s it like running for office? Check out Sarah’s Midweek Mop-Up (🔒) with Nevada’s 33rd Lt. Governor Brian Krolicki—a former investment banker turned public servant—for his insights on the best campaign tactics, the importance of endorsements, and the ideal relationship between a candidate and his general consultant or campaign manager. And if you think a candidate’s life is glamorous in the closing days of a campaign, the details of the grind here will disabuse you of that impression.

  • “The Trump administration attempted to convince Kim Jong-un, a murderous tyrant, to give up his nuclear aspirations,” writes Tom Joscelyn in Thursday’s Vital Interests (🔒). Why has this effort failed? “The simplest answer may be that there is nothing the U.S. or its allies can do to dissuade Kim.” Read Joscelyn’s newsletter for a playback of the Trump administration’s yearslong fight to curtail North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

Let Us Know

With Thursday’s debate out of the way, there are no more (planned) mass-media events between now and Election Day. If you haven’t voted already, is there anything that could happen in the next 11 days that would change which candidate you support?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo by Jim Bourg/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

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