Donald Trump gave his least belligerent debate performance of the campaign on Thursday, keeping a mostly measured tone relative to his first in-person faceoff with Joe Biden (in which he repeatedly shouted over everybody) as well as to his second one (which didn’t happen because he refused to participate). It was not, however, an evening defined by respectful, clarifying discourse. Again and again, Trump attempted to make bruising attacks on Biden’s policies, background, and family—attempted because you’d need to have spent the year pumping nothing but Fox News, Breitbart, and Dan Bongino’s Facebook page into your brain to make sense of what the president of the United States was talking about. We, however, are paid to understand exactly that. Here’s a rundown, and we’re sorry.
“You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know. Maybe you’re not.”
While answering a question about foreign election interference, Trump told Biden he might be the “big man.” This is a reference to Hunter Biden’s laptop. A quick recap: Last week, the New York Post began running a series of articles based on emails, texts, and pictures that the paper claims were found on a hard drive from a laptop that was abandoned at a Delaware computer repair shop. Journalists and national security officials have pointed to a number of red flags in the Post’s reporting, questioning whether the material is real and noting that it has many of the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign. (Trump also referenced the “laptop from hell” in the debate.)
In one of the supposed emails found on the laptop, one of Hunter’s business associates outlined an equity split from a business deal with a Chinese energy company, with 10 percent going to someone identified as “the big man.” Conservatives have speculated that “the big man” is Joe Biden, though no solid evidence has surfaced, and the Biden campaign has denied that he received any stock.
“Joe got $3.5 million from Russia and it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow. And it was the mayor of Moscow’s wife.”
Trump said this in response to Biden’s accusation that he’s been soft on Russia. But the actual allegation here was levied against Hunter Biden, not Joe, by the Republican majority on the Senate Finance and Homeland Security committees in a report citing undisclosed documents. The report claimed that Elena Baturina, the widow of Moscow’s former mayor, had wired the money to an investment firm co-founded by Hunter Biden. Hunter’s lawyer has denied that he was a co-founder or had any interest in the firm, or that he received the money, and Republicans have not furnished any evidence to support the claim.
$3 Million From Burisma
“As soon as he [Joe Biden] became vice president, Burisma—not the best reputation in the world—I hear they paid [Hunter] $183,000 a month and they gave him a $3 million upfront payment.”
Trump said this in the debate section about the candidates’ foreign entanglements. He was making a reference to Hunter’s role on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Trump has changed his story over time about how much Hunter was making, with figures ranging from $50,000 to $83,000 to $183,000. The amount is actually closer to $50,000. It’s unclear where the $3 million figure came from, though it could be a reference to the fact that Hunter may have been able to accrue $3 million in total during his five years on the board based on this monthly salary.
The IRS and the Tea Party
“I get treated worse than the Tea Party got treated. Because I have a lot of people in there, deep down in the IRS, they treat me horribly.”
This quip, made when Trump was dodging questions about his own taxes, was in reference to an Obama-era episode in which the IRS was accused of targeting Tea Party groups with additional screening and scrutiny during the process of applying for tax-exempt status. The scandal began in 2013 when a report from the Treasury inspector general for tax administration concluded that the agency had delayed conservative groups with burdensome additional requirements. The scandal snowballed to include a number of investigations and hearings (including ones about “missing emails” Republicans believed would explain things), but the Obama Justice Department didn’t prosecute any people at the IRS. Ultimately, the Senate Finance Committee concluded in a report that the division responsible for the process was poorly managed and ill-equipped to handle the surge in right-wing populist applications, but that it hadn’t done anything criminal. After Trump’s election, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to reopen the case, and the Trump administration settled a class-action lawsuit from the Tea Party groups.
As for what Trump is referring to about his own treatment, this appears to relate to his ongoing audit. Trump, who only paid $750 in federal taxes in 2017, is part of a class of Americans who often minimize their taxes through creative accounting. For most of a decade, Trump has fought the IRS over a $73 million refund he received because of claimed losses. Trump has consistently complained that the IRS has treated him unfairly.
Biden’s Brother in Iraq
“I guarantee you if I spent one million on you, Joe, I could find plenty wrong. Because the kind of things that you’ve done and the kind of moneys your family has taken—your brother made money in Iraq. Millions of dollars. Your other brother made a fortune. And it’s all through you, Joe.”
As with the calls for investigations into Biden’s son Hunter, many conservatives have homed in on the apparent and ethically iffy perks of being the vice president’s brother. In 2010, James Biden was named the executive vice president of an international construction firm. According to Politico, that position became controversial when James’ firm, HillStone International, was awarded $1.5 billion to build homes in Iraq—while Joe Biden was leading the White House’s Iraq policy. HillStone has denied that Joe Biden had anything to do with the deal.
Joe Biden’s other brother, Frank Biden, is a real estate developer in Florida who has not been involved in any international scandal, though he has admitted that his name has helped him make connections and secure a contract to open charter schools in the state.
Pillows and Sheets
“Nobody tougher than me on Russia. … While he was selling pillows and sheets, I sold tank busters to Ukraine.”
This line of attack is a reference to the Obama administration’s decision not to provide lethal aid to Ukraine. In 2015, John McCain complained, “The Ukrainians are being slaughtered, and we’re sending blankets and meals. Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks.” But while “pillows and sheets” may have been part of the Obama administration’s aid to Ukraine, it also sent $100 million in security assistance as well as equipment viewed as essential for the functioning of the Ukrainian military. The Trump administration has supplied much of the same aid, as well as weapons.
Gretchen Whitmer’s Husband’s Boat Dock
“When you say ‘spike,’ take a look at what’s happening in Pennsylvania where they’ve had it closed. Take a look at what’s happening with your friend in Michigan where her husband’s the only one allowed to do anything.”
During his rant about cities and states with Democratic leaders, Trump called out a familiar figure of conservative scorn: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In May, Whitmer’s husband, Marc Mallory, had asked a boat dock company to move up the family’s installation. In that phone call, Mallory mentioned his connection to the governor. Whitmer said he had been joking, but she faced heavy criticism when the news broke. She had also faced criticism for strict coronavirus restrictions, and the report about her husband came as she asked Michiganders to stay home ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.