Donald Trump reverts to type in debate – and it isn't 'magnificently brilliant'

Richard Wolffe
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA</span>
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Normal presidents get their third debate right.

They flunk their first in a fit of presidential pique about standing on stage with their upstart rivals. They over-correct their second after a frantic period of long-delayed rehearsals. By the time the third comes along, they usually remember what got them elected in the first place.

Related: The final Biden-Trump presidential debate: our panelists' verdict

Donald Trump is not a normal president.

He whiffed his first debate by forcing himself down the throat of Joe Biden. He skipped his second debate because he was sick with the pandemic he failed to take seriously. And he never prepped for the third debate, on Thursday night.

It showed. After 25 minutes of failing to shout down his opponent, Trump couldn’t hold it in any longer.

As soon as Joe Biden mentioned how Wall Street was warned about the pandemic before the American people, Trump accused Biden of making money from Wall Street. Then he accused him of not making enough money from Wall Street.

“I would blow away every record, but I don’t do that,” Trump yelled. “I could blow away your records.”

If the Donald Trump who showed up at the final debate was the kinder, gentler version, he measured his kindness in stock market indices. As the candidates clashed over how to fix healthcare, in the middle of a pandemic, Trump retreated to his empathy-free comfort zone.

“They say the stock market will boom if I’m elected president,” he barked. “It will crash if he’s elected.”

There is a limit to how long Trump can pretend to care. Judging from his debate performance, it’s about as long as it takes for a goldfish to swim around a bowl.

When asked how he would reunite the more than 500 children his own officials have separated from their parents – and lost track of them – Trump berated Biden about building cages.

“Who built the cages, Joe?”

“The kids were ripped from their arms. Now the kids are alone,” Biden replied. “It’s criminal.”

“They are so well taken care of,” Trump insisted. “Who built the cages?”

Some people think the best form of defense is offense. Trump thinks the best form of empathy is being offensive.

As the conversation turned to racial justice, Trump insisted that he was the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln. He then proceeded to trash Black Lives Matter protesters for being offensive to the police.

“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in history,” Biden said. “This guy has a dog whistle as big as a bull horn.”

“I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump claimed, speaking to a nation he hoped had forgotten all about the very fine white supremacists he so admired in Charlottesville.

As with the rest of his presidency, debate night was not a moment for message consistency by Donald Trump.

He started the debate claiming that the first models predicted 2.2 million Americans would die, so things were looking pretty good with more than 220,000 dead. He said there were now “goggles and masks and gowns” so everything was obviously fine and dandy.

As campaign slogans go, “It could have been worse” is not exactly the perfect sequel to making America great again.

Then again, Trump’s closing arguments on the coronavirus were not exactly consistent – like the rest of his presidency. When asked if he took responsibility for the pandemic, Trump was definitively evasive.

“I take full responsibility,” he declared. “It’s not my fault it came here.”

When Donald Trump waddled on stage in the final debate of the 2020 election, he was already having a bad day.

Not by his own standards, of course. By his own impeccable judgment, it was a magnificent day. To be precise, it was a “magnificently brilliant” day, as Trump described his own performance in front of the CBS News cameras of 60 Minutes.

Not to put too a fine point on his presidency, this might just be the fatal flaw in the entire Trump project: the cosmic chasm between Donald’s self-regard and the way the rest of the sentient universe sees him.

Donald apparently sincerely believes he is an elite political athlete, while the majority of American voters keep telling pollsters that his gameplan isn’t working.

Trump is running 10 points behind his rival in national polls, and trailing by seven or eight points in the states – like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – that won him the election four years ago.

It is from this winning position that our winningest candidate is going after the least obvious targets. For some reason unknown to political strategists of all persuasions, Trump is closing this election by attacking 60 Minutes for being mean to him, and attacking Joe Biden’s son for business dealings with China.

This in the week we all learned that Trump has a secret bank account in China, where he has paid more taxes to the People’s Republic than he has to his own country.

Watching Trump’s interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, it’s hard to know why Trump feels so aggrieved – other than being the patron saint of the contrived grievances of old white men.

“I will soon be giving a first in television history full, unedited preview of the vicious attempted ‘takeout’ interview of me by Lesley Stahl of @60Minutes,” he tweeted. “Watch her constant interruptions & anger. Compare my full, flowing and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers to their ‘Q’s’.”

His campaign has somehow squandered vast sums of cash to the point where he is being outspent by 'Sleepy' Joe Biden

Stahl’s vicious approach amounted to her questioning Trump’s facts about sundry topics, including a certain pandemic you might have heard of. Her anger was so magnificently hidden, you might call it the brilliant disguise of a mildly surprised reporter.

These are trying times for Trump. In addition to trailing in the polls, his campaign has somehow squandered vast sums of cash to the point where he is being outspent by “Sleepy” Joe Biden and yet still has less than half the cash that Rip Van Winkle is slumbering on.

On top of all that, he can’t get no satisfaction from his laser-like focus on the son of the other candidate. This might have more resonance if the year was 2016, or if the supposed corruption involved Joe Biden himself.

Instead, the case against Hunter Biden is being prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani, who was just caught by Borat with his hand down his pants. His co-prosecutor is Steve Bannon, the former campaign guru currently indicted for fraud for bilking Trump fans who wanted to fund the infamous wall on the Mexican border.

Both men are working for an impeached president, whose own daughter works in his White House but somehow secured a fistful of new patents from China.

To the extent Trump had a consistent message at Thursday’s debate, it was about what he called “the laptop from hell” or what the moderator delicately called “foreign entanglements”.

In Trump’s retelling, Biden took millions from Russia and China, while he closed his accounts and never made a penny from either country.

There’s a reason why Donald Trump was impeached, and it wasn’t because he was trying to end corruption.

There’s a reason why he’s losing this election, and it’s not because of his magnificently brilliant approach to the pandemic, which hospitalized him between the last debate and this one.

With less than two weeks to the final day of this historic election, Donald Trump needed to change his flight path dramatically before this Trump Shuttle plunges into the Hudson River. Instead, the captain of this doomed vessel insists that the loss of both engines is a sign of his own aeronautical genius.

Political gravity pulls every leader down to earth eventually. In Trump’s case, the time for stunts is over. This president is in a tailspin; all that is left is the crash landing.

• Legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward will discuss the Trump presidency at a Guardian Live online event on Tuesday 27 October, 7pm GMT. Book tickets here