Final presidential debates have traditionally centered on national security, but the October 22 showdown between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was almost entirely devoid of any substantive foreign policy discussion. Instead, Biden launched a fusillade of attacks on Trump about Russia that represented a seamless continuity with the calumnies that many Democrats have directed at the president ever since he was first elected.
Some of this was the fault of the moderator Kristen Welker. The candidates were not asked about, nor did they take the initiative in invoking, U.S. policy toward the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh war, the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in an era of renewed great power competition, or the uncertain fate of key arms control talks between Washington and Moscow. Welker did, however, raise the issue of “foreign entanglements” of both candidates.
Not surprisingly, Trump focused on recent reports of Hunter Biden’s unsavory financial relationships with Ukrainian and Chinese actors. Tellingly, Biden didn’t defend what Hunter did. Rather, he said that “nothing was unethical” about his business dealings with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and insisted that his son “made no money from China,” waving away recent allegations of Hunter’s various influence-peddling schemes.
The matter did not end here. Biden later dismissed Hunter’s laptop scandal as a Russian plot to sabotage his campaign on the eve of the election. Here he tried to resuscitate the old canard that Trump is in effect a Russian agent of influence: “Look, there are 50 former National Intelligence folks who said that what this he’s accusing me of is a Russian plan. They have said that this has all the characteristics—four-five former heads of the CIA, both parties, say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage. Nobody believes it except him, his, and his good friend Rudy Giuliani.”
Biden was referencing an open letter to Politico, signed by fifty former intelligence officials, alleging that the Hunter Biden email scandal “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” But how did they know? The one-and-a-half page letter, by its own admission, offers no direct proof of Russian involvement, nor can its authors confirm that any of the Hunter Biden emails published by the New York Post are forged. Relying entirely on open source media reports that they admit could be inaccurate, the authors base their argument on nebulous precedent, circumstantial details, and unverified allegations. If this is how America’s top former intelligence officials operate, it’s no wonder that they’ve presided over debacles such as claiming there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Russia was also invoked earlier in the debate, when Biden reanimated an old line of attack chiding Trump for failing to confront Putin: “I don’t understand why this President is unwilling to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, when he’s engaged in activities that are trying to destabilize all of NATO.” Biden added, “I don’t know why he doesn’t do it but it’s worth asking the question. Why isn’t that being done?” The first part of Biden’s statement refers to an older New York Times story alleging that Russian military intelligence offered the Taliban bounties in exchange for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. One answer to Biden’s question may be that, after four months, the U.S. military has been unable to find the faintest bit of evidence corroborating the assertion. Biden’s bounty talking point was recycled from the September 30 Presidential Debate and, now for a second time, Trump let the flimsy accusation go unrebuked.
No doubt the debate was widely commended for its more measured tone; at times, that certainly seemed to be the case. If nothing else, Trump’s rhetorical restraint may have served to reassure some Republicans who were unsettled by his September debate performance. But the debate’s Russia policy component was a rushed rendition of the same shallow, politically expedient tropes that have plagued disputes about dealing with Moscow. In questioning Trump’s patriotism, Biden ensured that mudslinging and innuendo substituted for a discussion of what America’s actual national interests are towards Russia.
Mark Episkopos is a doctoral candidate at American University in history.