For the US media, the mute button was the star of the Trump v Biden clash

Verity Bowman
·8 min read
US President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate  - AFP
US President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate - AFP

​The threat of a mute button was all it took for Thursday’s debate to avoid descending into the mud throwing of the first round.

For at least 30 minutes Donald Trump remained mainly disciplined. The candidates allowed each other to speak. They often gave well-informed answers. Perhaps the president’s coronavirus scare has mellowed him, many have speculated. 

It is a low bar, but one commentators have come to not expect. 

“President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden held an actual debate on Thursday night,” said Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large. 

After a vicious first debate, in which Mr Trump’s constant barrage of interruptions likely cost him key supporters, the press was given the chance to truly assess each candidate’s approach to the future of America. 

The front page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday
The front page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday

Mute button a 'godsend'

The mellowed tone was down to the mute button, introduced after the president interrupted Democratic nominee Joe Biden a total of 73 times, or around once every minute and a half, in the first round.

“Muting helped foster a muted tone, a much better result for voters seeking to judge the candidates," said USA Today’s Bill Keveney.

Under the new guidelines both candidates received two minutes uninterrupted to answer the first question in each category - and overall both complied. 

"The mute button was a godsend," said Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large for the Washington Post. 

With the candidates unable to create drama with fiery outbursts, the debate often came down to facial expressions. 

"Instead of a constant stream of interruptions there was a mime’s display of emotion: head-nodding, smirking, eye-rolling and wide-eyed grimaces," Ms Givhan added. 

‘Trump bounces back’

“Trump bounces back in final debate,” the front page of the New York Post read on Friday morning. 

The president seemed to be aware that this moment was one of the last times he could appeal to his voters before the election.

“It was astonishing to see a completely different Trump on the stage, patiently waiting for Biden to finish answers and teeing up his own policy ideas and attacks,” said Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor. 

Compared to the first debate, there were far fewer vicious personal attacks against Mr Biden. 

Despite Mr Trump’s early condemnation of the new debate format, it worked directly in his favour. 

“Trump was on such a short leash that he didn’t even bring gusto to his usual scattershot attacks on Joe Biden,” Virginia Heffernan wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

‘New’ Trump never lasts more than 40 minutes’

Yet Ms Heffernan was more critical of the nuances of Mr Trump’s performance. 

“Never does Trump engage with the question at hand,” she said. “He doesn’t even defend his position on immigration or the border wall. 

“His brain just fires out syllables meant to parry questions he experiences as attacks, meaning all questions.” 

In 2016, Mr Trump’s hard line on immigration spurred him into the White House. But on Thursday, he attempted to downplay his approach since taking office. 

The front page of the Washington Post on Friday
The front page of the Washington Post on Friday

Mr Biden came through stronger. “It makes us a laughingstock, and violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” he said, referring to the 545 children now lost from their parents after being separated at the border.

“Mr Trump did little to lay out an affirmative case for his own re-election,” responded the New York Times

By the end of the debate, the president had returned to sweeping statements - often based on little fact. 

“Trump wasn't able to hold the quasi-presidential tone together for the entire debate. By the end he was talking about how he was the "least racist person" in the building and insisting that he knew more about wind than Biden,” said Mr Cillizza.

Tim Miller, a Republican strategist who is supporting Mr. Biden, added: “I’ve watched more Trump debates than any human. The “new” Trump never lasts more than 40 minutes.”

‘Trump failed Covid test’

Battle lines were drawn - on an issue that the election was always going to be decided by. 

A blazing difference of opinion between Mr Biden and Mr Trump emerged on the coronavirus pandemic. 

“President Trump and Joe Biden offered starkly differing views of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” said the front page of the Wall Street Journal. 

Whilst Mr Biden believes the economy should be closed until a cure is found, Mr Trump is under the opinion that America must "learn to live with it".

"People are learning to live with it?" Mr Biden pounced. "People are learning to die with it."

Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, concluded: “Trump failed the Covid test.

“During the debate Trump did not lay out any kind of real plan to mitigate the worst public health crisis in the United States in a century.”

Donald Trump speaks during the final 2020 US presidential campaign debate - REUTERS
Donald Trump speaks during the final 2020 US presidential campaign debate - REUTERS

‘Most effective moderator of this debate season’

Nonetheless, a measure of the ‘new’ Mr Trump was his response to this debate’s moderator. 

“By the way, so far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say,” the president told NBC’s Kristen Welker. 

Ms Welker was the first black woman to moderate a general-election presidential debate since 1992, when Carole Simpson of ABC assumed the role. 

NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell said her colleague has been "total pro. She is thoughtful, tough and in charge. A master class where voters were clearly well served”. 

"I have been waiting for months to watch a woman of color moderate one of these presidential debates and, boy, @kwelkernbc did not disappoint," added the Washington Post's Marissa Lang.

Others drew easy comparisons between Ms Welker and the first round’s moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. 

The former “succeeded where Mr. Wallace was walloped,” said the New York Times. 

“First of all, I’m jealous,” Mr Wallace said during Fox News' post-debate coverage. "I would have liked to have been able to moderate that debate and to get a real exchange of views instead of hundreds of interruptions.”

Friday's front page of the New York Times
Friday's front page of the New York Times

‘Biden will never be a great debater’

Much debate coverage was consumed by analysis of Mr Trump’s performance, with Mr Biden fading into the periphery - often like his performance on stage. 

Mr Biden again played the role of the only option to remove the president from the Oval Office. His execution was solid, yet uninspiring for many. 

“Biden will never be a great debater, and he wasn't *on* on Thursday night,” Mr Cillizza said. 

“Anyone hoping that former Vice President Joe Biden would complete his thoughts or effectively call Trump to task for his many failures as chief executive” would be disappointed, read USA Today’s editorial comment. 

Yet perhaps all Mr Biden had to do was remain steady. After all, his role as the only other option to Mr Trump has not damaged his chances thus far. 

“Mr. Biden made no serious error of the sort that could haunt him in the final days of a race in which he’s leading,” said the New York Times. 

“Biden did not do a face plant. That is all he needed to do,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

‘Chance of a real impact is slim’

The debate could hardly be described as game changing, and it will be the first round that goes down in history books. 

“Trump attacks, Biden parries, the race remains the same,” said the front page of the Washington Post. 

According to a CNN Instant Poll, Joe Biden still did a better job than Mr Trump.

A total of 53 per cent of voters who watched said that Mr Biden was victorious, whilst 39 per cent believed Mr Trump was. 

“Nothing changed,” Matthew Dowd, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, said on ABC News. “He wasn’t a bull in a china shop. That doesn’t mean he won the debate.”

Before the debate favourable views of Mr Biden were at 55 per cent, remaining largely unchanged at 56 per cent afterwards. 

Mr Trump’s numbers also endured. A total of 42 per cent said they had a favourable view of him in interviews before, compared to 41 per cent afterwards. 

Mr Cillizza concluded: “Chance of a real impact is slim.”