Give Kristen Welker her due. The NBC White House correspondent tried to give foreign policy its fifteen minutes (literally) of fame at last night’s debate. However, the exchanges she induced between Joe Biden and Donald Trump only occasionally touched on America’s many challenges overseas.
Welker opened the debate’s foreign-policy segment by asking what each candidate would do to end foreign interference in U.S. elections. Biden went first. He vowed to make such countries “pay a price,” though he avoided saying what that price might be. He then pivoted to asking why Trump “is unwilling to take on Putin.” Pretty standard stuff, all in all.
Trump’s response wasn’t to argue that his administration had prevented foreign interference or to use Welker’s question to pivot to extolling his own foreign policy successes. He instead alleged, without evidence, that “Joe got three and half million dollars from Russia.” That triggered a back-and-forth about Trump’s secret Chinese bank account, his failure to release his tax returns, the unsubstantiated allegation (again) of Biden getting money from Russia, Hunter Biden’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, and the discredited claim that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign in 2016. The bickering might have made for good television. But it wasn’t quite the Lincoln-Douglas debate.
Welker tried to get the conversation back to foreign policy twelve minutes into the segment by asking what each candidate would do about China. Biden offered his standard call for making China “play by the international rules” and suggesting that his main tool for curbing Chinese ambitions would “be having the rest of our friends with us, saying to China, these are the rules.” That discussion offered Trump the opportunity to tout his Phase 1 trade deal with China and possibly his plans for future trade deals. But he didn’t take it. He instead insisted, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Hunter Biden had “walked out with a billion and a half dollars from China.” The president then bragged that China had paid $28 billion to American farmers. As Biden pointed out, that’s not true. U.S. taxpayers are the ones footing the bill for farm subsidies because they are the ones paying Trump’s tariffs, not the Chinese.
Welker made a final stab at generating a substantive exchange by asking about U.S. policy toward North Korea. Trump took credit for preventing a war with North Korea, though without acknowledging that it was his own rhetoric that had fueled tensions with Pyongyang or saying anything about what he is doing to prevent North Korea from expanding its existing nuclear arsenal. Biden argued that he would push China to help rein in North Korea. He didn’t offer any reasons, however, to believe that China would join forces with the United States, or that Pyongyang would bend to pressure from Beijing.
And with that the debate was off to other topics. Viewers who stuck through the foreign policy discussion probably didn’t come away any smarter about the challenges the United States faces overseas or with a deeper understanding of whether the policies Biden and Trump favor are sufficient for the moment. And that’s a shame because whoever takes the oath of office on the west front of the United States Capitol on January 20 will have to address a foreign-policy inbox overflowing with problems.
The Candidates in Their Own Words
Trump held rallies in Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina over the last week. At each of them he repeated his standard attacks on Biden for supporting free-trade deals, being soft on illegal immigration, and being weak on China. At the North Carolina rally, Trump predicted that if he is reelected, “the first call I'll get will be from Iran saying let's make a deal.” There are good reasons to doubt that prediction.
Trump made news on Monday when he announced that the United States would remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism:
GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 19, 2020
The expectation is that Sudan will now formally recognize Israel, thereby continuing the momentum created by the Abraham Accords.
While Trump was busy crisscrossing the country, Biden took a break from the campaign trail to prepare for last night’s debate. The Biden campaign did release a statement on the protests in Lagos, urging “President Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths” and insisting that “the United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.”
What the Pundits Are Saying
Carrie A. Lee, an assistant professor at the U.S. Air War College, wrote that Trump’s elevation of military influence means “civilian authority over the armed forces is weaker now than at any point in living memory, and the Trump administration is increasingly engaging with the world in ways that mirror military preferences.”
Tom McTague and Peter Nicholas argued that Trump’s “naïveté” has allowed him to speak “the uncomfortable truth: American foreign policy was failing, and had been for decades.”
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, released a report prepared by the Democratic minority staff criticizing the “extensive damage President Trump’s foreign policy has exacted on the United States’ international interests and global security.”
Bruce Stokes, executive director of a German Marshall Fund task force on the future of transatlantic relations, sketched his vision of how a “less Euro-phobic Trump administration” might repair strained relations with Europe. Stokes identified China as “the most immediate and promising area for transatlantic cooperation.”
Van Jackson and Hunter Marston responded to James Crabtree’s argument that “Biden has a serious credibility problem in Asia” by arguing that “it’s Trump, not Biden, who’s destroyed American standing in Asia, needlessly increased the risks of war in the region, and put the United States in a weaker position to defend American interests as a Pacific power.”
Scott Wolford and Cathy X. Wu explained how “the prospect of impending leadership change can affect international politics even before a leadership transition is confirmed.”
RealClearPolitics’ average of national election polls has Biden leading Trump by 7.9 percentage points, 50.7 percent to 42.8 percent. Biden’s lead is down from 8.9 points last week. FiveThirtyEight estimates that Biden has an 87 percent chance of winning based on current trends, the same as last week.
The U.S Supreme Court split 4-4 on Monday over whether to stay a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extending Pennsylvania’s deadline for mail-in ballots by three days. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the three remaining Democratic appointees on the Court, Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, meaning the lower court’s extension remains in place. The request for the stay had been made by Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. Then on Wednesday, Roberts switched sides as the Court ruled 5-3 in favor of a request by Alabama’s Republican secretary of state to stay a lower court order that would have permitted counties in Alabama to offer curbside voting to voters concerned about the pandemic. The majority did not offer a rationale for its decision.
Four states—Connecticut, Montana, Nevada, and New Hampshire—and Washington, D.C., have voter registrations deadlines next week. Coloradans must register by October 26 if voting by mail, though they can register in-person on Election Day.
If you live in any of these twenty-three states—Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot is coming up in the next week.
Forty-nine states plus Washington, D.C., are now reporting more than fifty-two million ballots have already been cast. That’s 38 percent of the total number of ballots cast in the 2016 election. In case you are wondering, thirty-six million of the votes cast so far were by mail, and sixteen million were in person. And all of these numbers will be higher by the time you read this.
Election Day is just eleven days away.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.