Thursday night’s debate only touched on foreign policy for a few minutes, and when it did, President Donald Trump answered the questions by hauling out the latest baseless charges—peddled by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani—that Joe Biden and his son Hunter “sucked up” millions of dollars from shady business deals with Russia and China.
Trump was asked what he would do in a second term about Russian interference in American elections. Trump replied, “Joe got $3.5 million from Russia.” Asked what he would do to make China more transparent in its trade policies, Trump said that Biden “walked out with $1.5 billion from China.”
Biden denied these charges and noted that Trump’s own national security advisers had warned the president that Giuliani was being used as a pawn in a Russian disinformation campaign. Biden then gave at least vaguely substantive replies to the questions on the table. “Any country that interferes with our elections will pay a price,” he said. “I’d make China play by the international rules,” he added later. It might have been interesting to have a debate on precisely what those promises mean, but Trump wasn’t interested in discussing policy.
Trump did address a question about his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker (who did an excellent job of keeping things under control), asked Trump if he regarded Kim’s new intercontinental ballistic missile—and his continued nuclear program—as a betrayal of what he has painted as a warm, trusting relationship. Trump said he had no problem with it. “I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un,” he said, as if it were a boast. He also said that President Barack Obama had tried to meet with Kim, but Kim wouldn’t do it because “he didn’t like Obama,” as if that was a grave indictment against Obama and his vice president. Trump then added, “Having a good relationship is a good thing.”
Biden responded, “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe. Come on!” He then noted that Kim didn’t meet with Obama because Obama wanted to put nuclear disarmament on the agenda and that, after Kim demurred, Obama stepped up sanctions against North Korea.
The most puzzling moment in the debate came when Ukraine was mentioned. “While he was selling pillows and sheets,” Trump said, pointing to Biden, “I was selling tank busters to Ukraine.”
Here is what Trump meant: After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Obama and his aides discussed how to respond. Obama rejected offensive military options, reasoning that Russia would escalate and we would have a problem keeping upright on Russia’s border. Instead, he ordered sanctions, persuaded most other European nations to do the same, gave Ukraine defensive weapons such as night goggles, and shared intelligence data with Ukraine’s armed forces. Trump has long ridiculed these measures as paltry (“pillows and sheets” is a new one, but it’s consistent with past characterizations). In fact, though, these measures—especially the intelligence sharing—strengthened Ukraine’s fighters.
It’s true that Trump sold tank busters Ukraine, but two things should be noted. First, he tried to hold up the delivery of these weapons until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to launch a public investigation of Hunter Biden (this was the famous phone call that led to Trump’s impeachment). Second, and much less known, Jim Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary at the time, agreed to provide the weapons only if Ukraine kept them locked up in storage bins in western Ukraine, far away from the battle zone. In this sense, Mattis came to the same conclusion as Obama: It made no sense to escalate a military conflict with Russia on Russia’s border.
One more foreign policy topic worth noting: Trump still doesn’t seem to know how tariffs work. Boasting of his trade war with China, Trump said, “China is paying billions and billions of dollars” to “our great farmers,” including a recent payment of $28 billion. Biden correctly noted that U.S. taxpayers made that payment. Trump disagreed. He seems to think that sanctions against China mean Americans are rewarded, when in fact they just mean the price of Chinese goods go up—and American consumers pay the price.
Last week, when Welker announced that this debate would cover several topics including national security, Trump objected, saying foreign policy should be the main theme. He should count himself lucky. After four years of being president, he still knows next to nothing about foreign policy.