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News Brief: Presidential Debate, Russian Hackers


President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated for a final time last night.



And it was a far more substantive exchange of ideas compared to the first debate where President Trump continually badgered and interrupted Joe Biden. This time, the candidates answered policy questions, and they were able to convey their own messages.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was a very big spike in Texas. It's now gone. There was a very big spike in Arizona. It's now gone. And there were some spikes and surges in other places. They will soon be gone.

JOE BIDEN: And we're in a circumstance where the president thus far and still has no plan, no comprehensive plan. What I would do is make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time. I would make sure we move in the direction of rapid testing, investing in rapid testing.

TRUMP: Children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they're brought here and they used to use them to get into our country. We now have as strong a border as we've ever had.


BIDEN: These 500-plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid and Tamara Keith were watching the debate last night. Good morning, ladies.


ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So, Tam, there was always going to be a comparison with the first debate - right? - because of the outrageousness. The headline from last night seems to be President Trump acted with some degree of restraint.

KEITH: Yeah. You know, he had taken a lot of heat after the last debate for all of the interrupting. And his allies kept saying, you know, if you just let Biden speak, maybe he'll slip up. So Trump was more restrained this time. He resisted interrupting at times. You know, the mute button was in effect for their opening answers on each topic, which probably benefited the president. In terms of his message, he hit themes that I've heard in his stump speech - the economy was great before the coronavirus pandemic, and it will be again, Biden won't be as good for the economy as I will - these are his points - and that he's done more in 47 months than Biden has done in 47 years, the idea of Biden as a career politician. Trump came back to these ideas and attacks frequently.

KING: Asma, you cover the Biden campaign, and you have talked to us about, as Tam said, Biden really needed to not slip up last night. And a lot of people wanted to hear policy specifics from him. Did he accomplish that?

KHALID: You know, Noel, it felt to me like a very status quo debate for Joe Biden. It didn't really seem to change anything about the overall trajectory of this race. His closing argument was that, you know, I am going to be a president for people who didn't vote for me, a president for all Americans. And that is a consistent arc we have heard from him, frankly, even during the primary cycle where it might not have been as popular as a message to speak about bipartisanship. But last night, you know, he was able to speak at length about policy much more than in the first debate, in part due to those, you know, less frequent interruptions that Tam referenced, which meant that he was able to keep his focus. And I thought this was particularly salient when it came to the pandemic. At the outset in his first response, he made his pitch very clearly on COVID.


BIDEN: Two hundred twenty thousand Americans dead. You hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this - anyone who is responsible for not taking control - in fact, not saying I'm - I take no responsibility, initially - anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.

KING: Tam, the pandemic has been haunting Trump in these debates. Of course, he's struggled to show he has a plan. He is often not told the truth. How did he address it last night?

KEITH: Yeah. So Trump did say, I take responsibility, I blame China. You know, in many ways, his answers haven't changed since April. He shut down the border. He says it could have been worse. He says a vaccine is coming soon, though he also admitted in this debate that there's no guarantee it will be ready in the matter of weeks timeline that he's been boasting about. And he insisted, as he has so many times, that the cure can't be worse than the disease.


TRUMP: We're learning to live with it. We have no choice. We can't lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does.

KEITH: Biden was ready with a response that spoke to all of the Americans that have been killed by the virus.


BIDEN: You folks home who have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning, that man or wife going to bed tonight and reaching over to try to touch their - out of habit, where their wife or husband was - is gone. Learning to live with it - come on. We're dying with it.

KEITH: And Trump said that he wanted schools to open. Biden said he did, too, and that they needed resources, though. And dare I say, they actually got into an exchange of ideas about how to handle this pandemic.

KING: OK. There was another thing that we were expecting in the debate. We expected that President Trump would make personal attacks against Joe Biden and his family. Did that end up happening?

KEITH: It did. The campaign had built up this idea that Trump would go after Biden for his son Hunter's foreign business dealings, including with a Ukrainian company and a Chinese company. The president definitely did get into all of that, but he didn't lay it out in a clear and cogent way that someone who hasn't been watching Fox News or reading conservative blogs would be able to follow. It was almost like he was speaking in a shorthand. Biden said that you can see that he didn't get any money from overseas because he's released his tax returns and went after Trump for not releasing them. But his main response was to say that this race for the White House shouldn't be about the Biden family or the Trump family.


TRUMP: Excuse me, just for one second, please.

KRISTEN WELKER: I do want to turn to - 10 seconds, Mr. President, 10 seconds.

TRUMP: That's a typical political statement. Let's get off this China thing and then he looks - the family around the table, everything - just a typical politician when I see that.

WELKER: Let's talk about North Korea now.

TRUMP: I'm not a typical politician.

WELKER: OK, President Trump.

TRUMP: That's why I got elected.

KEITH: And it's notable that after the debate, the Trump campaign held a call, and they were talking more about the career politician stuff than they were about Biden's family business deals.

KING: Asma, Biden is a career politician. He has a long record. Some of it last night he was called upon to defend.

KHALID: That's right. And, you know, Noel, throughout this campaign, Biden has run on President Obama's legacy. He's referred to his buddy Barack. So I was struck that on two big issues, health care and immigration, he tried to draw some distinctions from the Obama legacy. When he was asked why people should trust him now on immigration reform, given the record number of deportations under President Obama, he essentially said, I'll be the president, not the vice president. And on health care, you know, Biden emphasized that his vision would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act. It's a plan that he dubbed Bidencare (ph). President Trump, though, you know, he tried to refer to Biden's ideas as socialized medicine. And he repeatedly cited Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, to which Biden quipped...


BIDEN: He thinks he's running against somebody else. He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them. Joe Biden he's running against.

KEITH: And this is Tam just jumping in. President Trump did get something that he wanted in this debate, something that he and his people are talking about now. It came in an exchange about climate change and energy. He was looking for Biden to say something that he could use to paint him as too far to the left. And Biden talked about a slow transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels.


TRUMP: Would you close down the oil industry?

BIDEN: I would transition from the oil industry, yes. I would transition.

TRUMP: Oh, that's a big statement...

BIDEN: It is a big statement...

TRUMP: That's a big statement.

BIDEN: ...Because I would stop...

WELKER: Why would you do that?

BIDEN: Because the oil industry pollutes significantly.

TRUMP: Oh, I see.

BIDEN: Here's the deal...

TRUMP: That's a big statement.

BIDEN: Well, if you let me finish the statement - because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I'd stop giving - to the oil industry, I'd stop giving them federal subsidies.

KEITH: Trump immediately jumped in and was like, hey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, are you listening? Though, actually, a poll from August found that a narrow majority of voters in Pennsylvania oppose fracking. And Biden, for his part, is looking for a big turnout from young voters who care a lot about climate change. That said, the Biden campaign quickly said, no, no, no. He's not saying we're going away from fossil fuel entirely. He just wants to end the subsidies to the industry.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid and Tamara Keith, thanks to you both for your reporting.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome.


KING: All right. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning yesterday.

MARTIN: Yeah. They said Russian hackers have infiltrated U.S. state and local computer networks, which in some cases gave them access to voting and election data. Remember earlier this week, the intelligence community said Iran is trying to mess around in the election, too, sending threatening emails to voters. Now, to be clear, there is no evidence that either government has actually changed people's votes.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and is back for a second day. Good morning, Miles.


KING: What do intelligence agencies say Russian hackers did?

PARKS: They say they've broken into the county servers of at least two U.S. counties. And in one case, they used that access to take some - what seems to be publicly available voter information. Now, the hacks were formally announced yesterday, but as is usual in these sorts of cases, officials did not say where they occurred. But The Washington Post reported last night that they occurred in California and Indiana.

KING: OK. So notable here that it is publicly available information, compelling us to ask, what could hackers actually do with access to publicly available information?

PARKS: Yeah. As was mentioned, I think the most important thing is to think about what they couldn't do in this instance. The head of the Department of Homeland Security's cyber arm said yesterday the hackers did not get anywhere near anyone's vote or the systems that tally those votes. Basically, these hackers, which are from a Russian hacking group, a notable one, sometimes known as Energetic Bear or FireFly, they broke into these county government systems. And the networks were such that they could then laterally move within different county government offices, which gave them access to some of this voting data. But it's not clear at this point that the intention of these hacks was actually to gain access to that sort of data, considering the targeting was so much broader. They tried a lot of different networks in the government and aviation sectors. Now, this is really different than what we saw in 2016, for instance, when there were targeted attacks specifically of voter registration systems in a number of states. We have not heard about that sort of targeting yet in this election, although these attacks are still really worrisome for these officials who fear what Russia could do around the election if they do have access to these sorts of county systems.

KING: So what's the federal government doing about it?

PARKS: The biggest thing is just talking to voters about it this time. So that way, if these hacking groups do use this access to, say, deface an elections website or mess with a results display page in the time after the election to show a different winner than actually won on election night, voters know how to differentiate between that and actually affecting election results, the underlying numbers. That kind of interference is aimed at Americans' confidence in the legitimacy of the election, with the hope of making some voters doubt that the results are legit, basically. Officials are trying to avoid that by getting out in front and disclosing the breaches now telling voters what to expect.

KING: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks again for your reporting, Miles. We appreciate it.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.