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Trump, Biden clash over Michigan COVID-19 policies, auto jobs

Cleveland — President Donald Trump and Joe Biden put the spotlight on Michigan during a fierce Tuesday night debate as the two candidates dueled over COVID-19 restrictions and economic policies.

Between frequent interruptions and verbal clashes — including one in which the former vice president asked Trump to "shut up" — the two candidates talked about policies that could directly impact the state, such as fuel economy standards and how they'll handle the results of the Nov. 3 election.

The Republican president renewed his call for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democratic governors to lift economic restrictions during the ongoing pandemic. The Democratic nominee challenged Trump's claims on boosting the economy, touting his involvement in the 2008-2009 auto bailout.

"I’m the guy that brought back auto manufacturing,” Biden said at one point. “I was asked to bring back Chrysler and General Motors, and we brought them back right here in the state of Ohio and Michigan. He blew it. They’re gone."

President Donald Trump, left, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaking during the first presidential debate with moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, center, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and loaned them and their lending arms about $55 billion after President George W. Bush loaned them $25 billion near the end of 2008.

Trump interrupted Biden's claim during the debate, “Ohio had the best year it’s ever had last year. Michigan had the best year they’ve ever had.”

"It’s not true," Biden said.

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On one measure of the economy, the jobless rate in Michigan was down to 4.9% when former President Barack Obama and Biden left office, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the Trump administration, the state’s unemployment rate continued to drop, hitting 3.6% in February 2020. After COVID-19 hit, the rate jumped to 24% in April and has dropped to 8.7% for two straight months through August, according to the bureau.

Trump said he brought back 700,000 manufacturing jobs, and “they brought back nothing,” in reference to the Obama-Biden administration. Biden challenged the claim, referring to the auto rescue.

The manufacturing industry in Michigan grew to 623,700 jobs in February, up 1% from January 2017. 

At another point, Trump said, "Many car companies came in from Germany, went to Michigan and went to Ohio."

There are no German assembly plants in Michigan. But at least two German auto supplier announced plans in the past two years to expand. One is Webasto Roof Systems Inc. — a subsidiary of the Webasto Group, a sunroof, convertible top and heating systems manufacturer — planned to create 441 jobs after obtaining contracts from Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

"Take a look at what he’s actually done. He’s done very little. His trade deals are the same way,” Biden said during the debate. "He talks about these great trade deals. He talks about the art of the deal — China’s perfected the art of the steal. We have a higher deficit with China now than before.”

Candidates clash over COVID

At another point, Trump listed Michigan among the states led by Democratic governors that need to "open" their economies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Whitmer, a Democrat, has gradually lifted restrictions on the state's economy, Trump made the unproven claim that governors were waiting to reopen businesses until after the election.

"They think they’re hurting us by keeping them closed," Trump said. "They’re hurting people. People know what to do. They can social distance. They can wash their hands. They can wear masks."

Whitmer announced last week that she would allow movie theaters and other entertainment venues to reopen on Oct. 9, one of the last industries that she has reopened. 

Along with Michigan, Trump also listed North Carolina and Pennsylvania, two other battleground states with Democratic governors. He said the economic shutdowns were "almost like being in prison" and spurred increases in drug and alcohol use.

"It’s a very, very sad thing," Trump said.

Biden pushed back, saying the president needed to fix the COVID-19 crisis before fixing the economy.

The United States has reported more than 7.1 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 205,000 deaths linked to it.

The virus peaked in Michigan in April. The new rate of new cases has plateaued in recent weeks. But health officials remain concerned that cases could increase this fall as temperatures drop and people take more of their activities inside.

Fuel economy standards

At one point, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump why he’s relaxed fuel economy standards that allow for more pollution from cars and trucks.

The Trump administration is reducing the required annual fleetwide average mpg increases for automakers for model years 2021-26 — from the original 5% to a less-stringent 1.5%. Automakers will be required to achieve a fleetwide average of 40.4 miles per gallon by 2026 under the new requirements, down from an average of 46.7 mpg for cars and trucks by 2025 that was mandated in the existing regulations.

"Well, not really," Trump said about allowing for more pollution. "What's happening is the car is much less expensive and it's a much safer car, and you're talking about a tiny difference and then what would happen — because of the cost of the car — you would have at least double and triple the number of cars purchased.

"The car has gotten so expensive because they have computers all over the place for an extra little bit of gasoline,” he added.

Trump’s administration said when it unveiled its plan in March that it would result in the consumption of an additional 2 billion barrels of fuel and up to 923 additional million metric tons of carbon dioxide compared with the standards set under Obama in 2012.

But California has simply “ignored” Trump’s rollback, Wallace noted.

Trump insisted he is “OK with electric cars, too.”

"I'm all for electric cars. I've given big incentives for electric cars, but what they've done in California is just crazy," the president said.

Biden described his plan to convert the federal vehicle fleet into electric vehicles and build a network of 500,000 charging stations across the country.

"There’s so many things we can do now to create thousands and thousands of jobs,” Biden said.

Election integrity

Among many stark disagreements, one was the candidates' beliefs about the integrity of the upcoming election.

Trump appeared to indicate that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to weigh in on disputes involving absentee ballots ahead of the election. Michigan, a state he won by 10,704 votes in 2016, is one of the places where legal fights in state and federal courts are playing out over how absentee ballots will be counted and handled.

"I think I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely," Trump said of the Supreme Court, including his new nominee Amy Coney Barrett. "I hope we don’t need them in terms of the election itself."

Trump also reiterated his unproven claim that efforts to expand voting my mail during the pandemic will lead to widespread fraud.

Biden said Trump's claims are all about "trying to dissuade people from voting because he’s trying to scare people into thinking it’s not going to be legitimate."

"He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election," the former vice president said.

Debate in Midwest

Tuesday's debate is the only presidential debate that will take place in the Midwest, a region that could decide the 2020 election. Ohio borders Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states that helped Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago.

He won Michigan by 10,704 votes his smallest margin of victory nationally.

The debate took place on the Health Education Campus, a joint effort of the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. The event featured additional safety protocols, including a smaller crowd, and a heavy police presence outside the venue.

"It brings a certain amount of focus and respect and attention, which the city deserves," Michael Bracy, 64, of Cleveland, said of hosting the debate. "It's an old girl. She went through a lot. She's on the mend. She's rising."

As Bracy spoke, a separate group of demonstrators with signs that said "Doctors for Biden" waved to passersby.

The next presidential debate will take place in Miami on Oct. 15. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris will occur Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.

Staff Writers Breana Noble and Kalea Hall contributed to this report.

cmauger@detroitnews.com