A cheat sheet for the debate topics that separated Trump and Biden

Or the veneer of one, since Trump lobbed lies and distortions aplenty that Biden was often unable to convincingly answer.

The candidates squared off at Belmont University in Tennessee about health care, policing, foreign policy, trade policy, climate change, energy policy and more. There were key moments where Trump defended separating kids from their parents at the border and Biden struggled to explain the 1994 crime bill.

But their disputes and distinctions were often so technical that Americans just tuning in to the election might have needed a coded key card to follow the conversation.

So here’s that key card, for some of the top issues:


Trump continued to downplay the severity of the virus and defend his early reaction — restricting travel from China — and promising, despite the facts, that a vaccine will be ready shortly. Biden, pointing to the death toll from the virus, repeatedly held up a mask and said he’d push common-sense advice to states to encourage mask-wearing, social-distancing and restrictions on things like dining in restaurants if there are outbreaks in a state.

Trump continues to argue he should be judged for the pre-Covid economy and the pre-Covid reality. He said millions could have died from Covid, as if that absolves him from having to deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands have died on his watch.

Health care

Trump still thinks that Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — should be invalidated. He has spent years promising a plan to replace it. But there is no plan, as of yet. Biden, on the other hand, wants to one-up the Affordable Care Act by adding the public health care option Democrats were unable to add to Obamacare 10 years ago.

There’s a fundamental disagreement here about whether a public option equals socialized medicine. Trump says yes and Biden says no.


Somehow Trump was accusing Biden of inhumanity on immigration, arguing that the Obama administration began the policy of family separation. There’s a kernel of truth there, but the Trump administration had institutionalized it before the outcry made them stop. There are still more than 500 kids whose parents can’t be found and, in a major moment, Trump said at the debate, “They are so well taken care of.”

Biden’s family

Trump lobbed lies and distortions on many issues, but the extended portion where he attacked Biden’s son and accused the former vice president of making money from China and other countries was unmatched in the rest of the debate.

Trump was more specific about these attack lines than he was about any other subject in the debate.

“I have not taken a penny from any foreign government,” Biden said, and repeatedly pointed out that Trump has a bank account in China, according to The New York Times.

It was the most direct way in which the former vice president addressed his son’s overseas business ties, which Trump and his allies have sought to use to portray Biden as connected to shady foreign money.

Policing, justice and racism

Biden called Trump the most racist president. Trump said he’s done more for Black Americans than any other president. What’s the truth? Trump did sign a sentencing reform bill. But it didn’t solve the problem of over-incarceration, no matter what he says.

Biden did certainly mastermind the 1994 crime bill that helped create over-incarceration. The difference now is Trump wants to demonize protesters for racial justice and paint himself as the law and order President.

Energy policy

Either you believe climate change is an existential threat or you don’t. Biden wants to move away from an oil-based economy — and he wants to do it more slowly than other Democrats. He says he wants to gradually move away from things like fracking, which helped the US become the top producer of oil and natural gas. Trump, who denies there’s anything to be done about climate change, wants to double down on the oil and natural gas economy.

There was also an interesting moment where Biden spoke about living on the fence line of an oil refinery after moderator Kristen Welker pointed out that people of color are more likely to live near oil refineries.

Foreign policy

Trump had to explain his relationship with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean despot he met and then failed to get to abandon nuclear ambitions. Biden said he’d never meet with a “thug” like Kim without a guarantee he’d abandon nuclear ambitions. Which likely means a President Biden would never meet with Kim.

On the issue of American adversaries interfering in the US election, as Russia continues to do and China and Iran have attempted, Biden said they would pay a price. Trump has routinely resisted making Russia pay a price for meddling in the election that made him President in 2016.

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