The first face-to-face debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden didn’t need a packed auditorium to be rowdy and chaotic.
Unlike in previous years, when audience responses were a constant disruption, Tuesday’s 9 p.m. debate in Cleveland had no interruptions — at least from the non-participants. The capacity at Case Western Reserve University’s Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion was limited to 80 attendees, all of whom were tested for the coronavirus.
It was the debate’s two participants that disrupted the proceedings, which quickly got away from moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News as it devolved into name calling and personal attacks.
Trump and Biden spent the evening trading insults, often talking over each other and Wallace. By far, the main violator of typical debate decorum was Trump, who would not condemn white supremacy when pressed, suggested he would not accept the results of the election, and interrupted Biden so often that Wallace had to intercede more than once.
“I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak without interruptions," Wallace said. "I’m appealing to you sir to do that.”
“Well and [Biden] too,” Trump replied.
"Well, frankly you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has,” Wallace said.
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, with this person,” Biden said of the sitting president during one contentious exchange in which Trump had questioned foreign payments to Biden’s son, Hunter.
Trump told Biden at one point that “there’s nothing smart” about the former vice president, questioning Biden’s school record.
And at another point, Biden, in a moment of exasperation as Trump kept interrupting, said, “Will you shut up, man?”
Much of the debate felt disorienting, with so much cross talk that Wallace, at times, had to raise his voice to try to inject some order.
Trump spent much of the debate looking at Biden as he delivered his comments. Biden made a point during the debate to address his comments directly into the camera.
Here are the major moments:
Trump wouldn’t denounce white supremacy
During a segment on race and civil unrest, Wallace asked Trump to condemn the white supremacists and militia groups who have shown up at protests and fanned the flames.
Trump demurred and asked for the name of a group to condemn.
Biden threw out the Proud Boys, a male-only, far-right group that often incites political violence.
Said Trump: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Wallace then asked why Trump chose this moment, with the country torn apart by killings of Black people at the hands of police, to ban racial sensitivity training for federal workers and contractors.
“I ended it because it’s racist,” Trump said. “A lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were insane.”
To which Biden responded: “He’s the racist.”
Trump later challenged Biden to stand up for police and said Biden wouldn’t say the words “law and order.”
Biden said he supported law and order “with justice.”
‘I can’t go along with that’
The debate ended with questions about the election itself, with Wallace ending by asking whether the candidates would urge their supporters to stay calm after the election, particularly if it takes days or weeks for the outcome of the election to be decided as ballots continue to be counted.
Wallace also asked whether the candidates would refrain from declaring victory until the election had been independently certified.
Trump did not directly answer, saying he’s urging his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for what he said may be widespread voter fraud. (There has been no evidence of systemic voter fraud in American elections.)
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said, as Wallace attempted to get Trump to answer the question.
Biden, in response to an earlier question, had also brought up the need for poll watchers, saying they would help make sure people are able to vote in person if they want to do so.
Biden said he would support the outcome of the election and would not declare victory until the vote was certified.
Biden talks up Beau, Trump talks Hunter
Throughout the night, regardless of the topic, Trump would slip in digs at Hunter Biden, the vice president’s son, over his workings with Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Biden, visibly irritated, pushed back on the attacks on his family by comparing the military record of his other son, Beau Biden, against reports that Trump has called fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers."
”I don’t know Beau," Trump said of Biden’s deceased son. “I know Hunter.”
Trump then brought up Hunter Biden’s past cocaine use, which led to the younger Biden’s discharge from the Navy.
Biden looked directly into the camera, and said his son like many Americans had a drug problem.
“But he’s overcome it and I’m proud of him,” Biden said.
‘Elections have consequences’
The first question from Wallace to both candidates: Make your case on why Trump shouldn’t nominate a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg at this point in his term.
Trump, days after naming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the high court, said the reason was simple: “We won the election. Elections have consequences.”
Biden, meanwhile, countered that with the vacancy coming so close to the election, the American people should have a say. He argued that “tens of thousands of people have already voted” and waiting until after the election is “the only way the American people get to express their view.”
Trump shot back: “I’m not elected for three years. I’m elected for four years.”
Biden, then, refused to answer repeated questions from Wallace (and needling from Trump) over whether he would pack the court to offset the three Supreme Court justices that Trump has appointed during his first term.
Who is Trump debating?
Trump started sparring with Wallace only minutes into the debate.
In trying to ask the second question of the night, about the Affordable Care Act and what his plan would be to replace it, Trump repeatedly interrupted Wallace.
“Excuse me, I got rid of the individual mandate,” Trump said, raising a finger at Wallace as the moderator protested that he had not yet asked the question.
“I’m the moderator of this debate. I’d like you to let me ask this question,” Wallace said at one point as Trump kept talking over him.
After Wallace got his question out, Trump responded with, “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s okay, I’m not surprised.”
Mixed on masks
Masks have been shown to be an effective deterrent against the spread of the coronavirus.
However, Trump has sent mixed messages about the topic in the past, arguing that some people don’t like wearing them.
Tuesday night, when asked by Wallace whether he believes face masks to be effective, Trump pulled a mask out of his jacket.
“I think masks are okay. I mean I have a mask right here,” Trump said. “I put a mask on when I think I need it.”
And yet, seconds later, Trump chided Biden for seemingly wearing a mask too often.
“I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from you and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Wallace grilled both candidates on their approach to campaigning in the pandemic, first asking Trump why he was willing to hold large outdoor rallies amid a pandemic.
Because, Trump said, “people want to hear what I have to say."
”Are you not worried about the disease issues?" Wallace responded.
To which Trump said, “So far we’ve had no problem whatsoever.”
It’s true there haven’t been reports of Trump’s recent outdoor events causing local outbreaks, though it may be too soon to know.
However, Trump’s first rally after the start of the pandemic, an indoor event in Tulsa, was linked to a sharp rise in cases there. And businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain died weeks after he attended.
Trump’s personal finances made national headlines in the days leading up to the debate after a New York Times investigation reported that despite his considerable personal wealth, Trump paid just $750 in income taxes each in 2016 and 2017.
Breaking decades of precedent, Trump has declined for half a decade in presidential politics to release his tax returns.
On Tuesday, he repeated a talking point that he could release his tax returns as soon as an audit into his finances is finished. (There is nothing legally stopping him from releasing as an audit is ongoing.)
Trump seemed to say he would be fine if Congress decided to repeal the laws that allowed him to legally file such allegedly meager tax returns.
At another point, Trump said the Times' reporting was false, and that he had paid “millions” in income taxes those years.
“He does take advantage of the tax code,” Biden said. “That’s why I’m going to eliminate the Trump tax cuts.”
“Okay,” Trump said.
Moments later, he asked: “Why didn’t you do it over the last 45 years?”
Law and order
Trump tried to make a substantial part of the debate about law and order, arguing that he could keep the peace in American cities.
Biden, Trump argued, could not.
Part of that debate centered on which candidate had the support of law enforcement. When asked whether he backs the substantial police reforms proposed by some in the Black Lives Matter movement — some of which fall under the moniker of “defund the police” — Biden said he wants to give cops a chance to succeed.
For example, Biden said, mental health officials should respond to mental health crises, not police officers.
“What I support is, the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face,” Biden said. “And I am totally opposed to defunding the police officers.”
Trump shot back that Biden couldn’t name one law enforcement group that has endorsed him.
“Name one group that supports you,” Trump said. “Go ahead, do it. We have time.”
Biden did not name a group. However, earlier this month, Biden was endorsed by more than 190 law enforcement officials.
Trump and Biden also clashed over how to combat climate change on Tuesday.
When asked whether he believes that emissions from fossil fuels are contributing to climate change — the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they are — Trump said he did, in part.
But the current environmental issues facing the United States, such as the wildfires in the American West, have less to do with climate change than the management of the forests in those states, Trump argued.
Trump also said many of the ideas proposed by Biden — working to transition the country from fossil fuels like coal and oil to cleaner energy sources — were too expensive.
Biden, for his part, argued that climate change is already here, and it’s already expensive.
“We spend billions of dollars, billions of dollars on floods, hurricanes, rising seas,” Biden said. “We’re in real trouble.”
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